The Angolan Civil War: A Product of the Cold War

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            Angola is a country that is often associated with turmoil and strife. This is as a result of its history of violence. The country is however rich in mineral resources such as oil and diamond (Leech 2006 p108). The resources contained within Angola have played a major role in the conflict. Angola’s long time conflict was not only a product of internal factors but also as a result of the colonial legacy as well as interference by western powers in the country. This paper will analyze the political, social and economic changes that have taken place in Angola since the beginning of the 20th century.

The most momentous occasion in Angolan history was the independence declaration on 11 November 1975, by the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) liberation group. The first president was Agostinho Neto with Luanda as its capital city. The liberation struggle was not one that was marked by unity among the Africans. Three key groups battled for the control of post independence Angola. The National Front for the Liberation of Angola (FNLA) was one such group.  FNLA was led by Holden Roberto and the group received support militarily from Zaire currently known as the Democratic Republic of Congo. Jonas Savimbi, led another movement from the south, in collaboration with a South African invasion force. The movement was known as the Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA). Angolan as an independent state was a product of violence and turmoil. Various rivalries that were national, regional and global played out in the country. Angola for a long time was captive to this history.

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The genesis of the problems in Angola just like in many countries in Africa can be traced back to the period of state formation. The modern state of Angola was a combination of a diverse group of peoples each with its own distinct identity. The various ethnic nations that came to form Angola were molded together into a state and common destiny by the Portuguese rule. Portuguese traders, explorers and soldiers first came to Angola from 1480s. It was not until the Berlin Conference 1884-85 that Portugal acquired Angola as a colony. Initially there was resistance from local groups but the resistance had been snuffed out by 1917.

Colonial rule in Angola lasted for about a century. The colonial heritage left imprints on the state of the society in Angolan. To understand the Angolan society, one must first study the effects of colonialism. By enacting the Statute of the Portuguese Natives of the Provinces of Angola, Portuguese colonial government legalized discrimination and divisions in the Angolan society. The native population was classified as separate from a small group of the elites who were considered civilized and enjoyed rights and privileges equal to that of Portuguese citizens. The elite comprised of the assimilated people or the assimilados. The discrimination policy was eventually revoked in 1961 but the changes proved to have been only superficial. The society in Angola is characterized by deep social divisions between the various groups. There is also a conflict between urban and rural dwellers in Angola. Racism and racial mistrust was well manifested during the struggle for independence and also in the civil war that erupted in independent Angola. Lack of trust between competing groups in Angola has been a big factor in the political landscape of the country.

The main motive of Portugal as a colonial power in Angola was economic. Portugal was interested in acquiring the vast natural wealth in its colony. The extraction of wealth was done through taxation of the indigenous population, forced labour and the enforced cultivation of cash crops. Economic exploitation of Angola was later accelerated by the immigration of poor white peasants to the country from Portugal. This movement took place in the 1950s and 1960s. The new settlers created a colony of Portuguese community.

From 1932, political and economic development in Angola was synchronized with Portugal. The then Portuguese Prime Minister Salazar used the corporatist new state and the colonial charters to link the two economies. Marcelo Caetano succeeded Salazar in 1969. He attempted to protect Portuguese colonies from the independence struggle that was raging all over Africa. Angola was of particular of interest because it was the most precious colonial possession.  Therefore Instead of making preparations to hand over power to the indigenous people during the transition, Portugal sought to tighten its colonial grip on Angola. Portugal was a poor state in Europe and it was isolated politically. To continue its hold over its colonies, Portugal designated Angola as on of its overseas provinces. This was in an effort to escape accountability to the United Nations.

The economies of both Portugal and Angola were determined by global forces. Movements in the wider global economy held sway over the two economies. The world economic crisis of the 1930s had a big impact on which Portugal. The country was impoverished and a dictatorial regime emerged in Portugal. Portugal wanted to join the United Nations in the 1950s, but was not ready to give up its colonies. Upheavals occurred in Angola as a result of agricultural problems. Ovimbundu peasants from the poor southern highlands migrated to the northern region to work in prosperous coffee plantations. The native Bakongo people resented them while the colonialists treated them in an inhumane fashion.

   Rivalries of this kind that have been ongoing in the history of Angola have adversely affected the political process in the country. The FNLA liberation movement for instance was an expression of the members of the Bakongo elite who had sentiments for the old Kongo kingdom. The Mbundu community located in the hinterland of the capital Luanda formed the MPLA. Within its ranks were assimilados and mixed race urban dwellers. The third political force UNITA was a formation of the Ovimbundu people of the southern plains of Angola. The ethnic nature of these groups is largely as a result of political manipulation by the leadership. It does not display evidence of an authentic expression of popular opinion of the various peoples. The identification of these movements along ethnic line has become crystallized over time.

  Colonial domination and the occupation of Angola lasted for a relatively short time. The impacts have been great. Though aspects of pre-colonial life continued, major social changes have taken place. The most notable changes have occurred in respect to education, agriculture, urbanization, religion, and economic activities. Different sections to the Angolan society were affected in different ways. Classification of the There is a Angolan society as being modern and traditional depending on the influence of European values is a gross simplification of the  MPLA -UNITA divide. Both groups had to pay homage to their traditional base. The situation in Angola is one of an interesting mix of traditional experiences, the colonial effects and post independence attitudes. Traditional modes of operation are now being revamped to cope up with the modern changes. The country is presently is part and parcel of the globalization movement. Linkages to the global economy exist in every sector.

Political resistance against colonialism began in earnest in 1961. The triggering event was the heavy handed repression of a protest against colonial conditions in the northern regions. Approximately 250 to 1,000 White farmers and traders lost their lives. Black workers were killed in their thousands leading many to flee to neighboring countries. The refugees coalesced into a fighting force to challenge the colonial government.

The first independence movement was the Union of the Peoples of Angola (UPA), which later became FNLA. In the capital Luanda and other coastal cities political resistance had begun much earlier. Mixed race people in conjunction with other Angolans organized the Angolan League in the 1910s and the Let’s Discover Angola (Vamos Descobrir Angola) movement in the 1940s. Founders of these movements later on formed the MPLA.

Military and political confrontation was the major defining event in the 1960s in Angola. The struggle pitted the Portuguese colonial administration against the Angolan nationalists. Divisions in the nationalist movement started emerging in this period. This division would become the hallmark of Angolan political discourse in the years to come. The first protagonists were the rival groups FNLA and MPLA. UNITA later emerged in the mid 1960s to join in the struggle. The main bone of contention was the responsibility for an attack on 4 February 1961 on a prison in Luanda.  That date is officially taken to be the beginning of the liberation struggles.

The struggle against colonialism was carried out guerrilla tactics. With time the struggle expanded to all parts of Angola.  The nationalists operated from Kinshasa Conakry and Brazzaville. They also had bases in Lisbon and Paris.  FNLA obtained military and political assistance from African countries. Aid also came from the US and China. The FNLA formed a government in exile known as the Revolutionary Government of Angola in Exile (GRAE) in 1962. The organization of African Unity (OAU) at first recognized the government. It was to be official successor to the colonial government. Later on some African countries switched their support to the MPLA which was besieged with internal conflict and poor military record. The group however emerged as the main liberation movement by 1975.

Internal divisions plagued The FNLA as well. Jonas Savimbi quit government in exile 1964. He had served as the Foreign Affairs minister. He was displeased with the despotic leadership of the movement. Furthermore, Savimbi was not pleased with the heavy military involvement of the US in the group. He founded UNITA after a trip that took him to several communist countries.  Savimbi exploited the feelings of exclusion among the Ovimbundu. The Ovimbundu are the largest ethnic group Angola. He established a network of supporters abroad. The group also carried out guerilla operations in Angola.

  The disbandment of the colonial government in Angola was more as a result of internal pressure in Portugal than it was as a result of armed uprising. The liberation movements were not strong enough to trouble the Portuguese colonial government in Angola. The government in Portugal was toppled in April 1974. The new government immediately began to initiate the process of decolonization. Intense political and diplomatic activity in Portugal worked against a negotiated independence. As the Portuguese colonial government began to reduce its imperial grip, fighting broke out in many parts of Angola.

In Luanda, MPLA UNITA and FNLA troops carried out patrols to keep peace. An agreement was signed by the colonial administration and the three movements under intense international pressure in 1975. The peace deal proposed a transitional government, national elections, a constitution, and eventually independence. The peace deal broke down and the transitional government became ineffective. Fighting broke out. FNLA received military support from Zaire, China and the US.  MPLA acquired control of the capital with support from the Soviet Union and Cuban troops (Liebenow 1986 p 131). Angola became independent on November, 11 1975. A socialist one-party regime of the MPLA was formed. FNLA and UNITA were forced out of Luanda.

The Angolan society was modeled in the Marxist lines from 1975 up to the late 1980s. The state sector controlled by MPLA in time became very corrupt. Private business was restricted. The only exception was the activities of foreign oil companies.  Organized religion was censored. Even Catholic Church, which was predominant during the colonial era, was not spared. The civil society was non existent. The media was controlled by the government (Vines, Human Rights Watch 1999 p81). On 27 May 1977, a coup attempt by Nito Alves failed. This was a momentous occasion in the history of the socialist state of Angola. The coup attempt was symptomatic of the personal ambitions within the party. Furthermore it was evidence of the ideological battle within the ruling party. A certain faction was allied to bureaucracy as practiced in the USSR. The other group favored the Chinese approach which was seen as revolutionary. What happened as a result of the failed coup was that the regime became ever more authoritarian and repressive. The people of Angola began to live in perpetual fear of the State.  The coup was brutally suppressed and many of Nito’s supporters were detained. Sympathizers were also executed.

            UNITA had become the major opposition to the socialist MPLA government by the end of the 1970s.  FNLA leaders joined the Angolan government with blessing from President Mobutu of Zaire. The FNLA army broke up without being formally demobilized or disarmed. The disintegrated army was made up of thousands of foreign recruits. President Agostinho Neto passed away in 1979. His successor was and was José Eduardo dos Santos. Dos Santos was a Soviet trained petroleum engineer. During this period the superpower conflict in Vietnam came to a close.  Angola suddenly became the new frontier in the proxy wars between the two superpowers the USSR and the United States.

The superpowers were playing out geo-political rivalry in Angola (Shillington 2005 p89). There were no strategic interests at play in the conflict for either power.  Zaire and South Africa were the main channels of distribution of US support while Congo-Brazzaville played the same role for the USSR. The MPLA government also benefited from heavy civilian and military support from Cuba. The Cubans contributed to the growth in education and health in Angola. The US responded by offering support to UNITA (Barber, Blumenfeld, Hill, RIA 1982 p25)

Revenues from oil and Diamonds enabled the MPLA government to function independent of the people. This ended up diminishing accountability of the government to the people (World Bank 2007 p82). Grand corruption became entrenched in the country.  Income from Foreign sources helped the government in fighting the rebel group. The rulers of the country adopted flashy lifestyle that was not reflective of the economic situation in Angola. As the war progressed the agricultural hinterland became increasingly isolated from the coastal cities economically. The country became polarized with economic activity in the rural area almost grinding to a halt. UNITA occasionally took charge of certain regions of the country. These became inaccessible to the government as well as business people. Luanda and other cities, preferred to import food. The money to pay for imported consumer goods came from oil revenues. The rural areas were completely neglected. People adopted subsistence farming strategies. In due time massive rural-urban migration took place. Individuals opted to move to towns where there were better opportunities compared to the country side. The population of towns swelled leading to establishment of slums. Luanda for instance grew to a population of four million inhabitants.                                                                                                                                  In the mid-1980s the civil war in Angola was at its climax. The greatest irony of the time was the money that was paid by American oil companies which ended up paying Cuban troops who were protecting the government installations from attacks by the rebel group. The rebel group was in turn aided by South Africa and was being financed by the US. Despite such contradictions, the war in Angola was defined by the superpowers as being that between good guys and bad guys (Arbel, Edelist 2003 P104). The battle for the small but strategic town of Cuito Cuanavale in 1987-88 became a turning point in the war. The government troops defeated the joint UNITA and South African forces. The government of South Africa decided to try political alternatives to the Angolan crisis as opposed to military intervention. This initiative led to the signing of the Bicesse Accords in May 1991. The first ever elections were held in Angola in 1992. The ruling government won the election. Jonas Savimbi of UNITA rejected the results and went back to the struggle.                                                                                                                            The resulting war was the most destructive and brutal in the history of Angola. Towns were pillaged. Millions of people were displaced while others died of disease and hunger caused by the war. A peace agreement known as the Lusaka Protocol was signed in October 1994. The agreement failed to stop the fighting. Savimbi insisted on violent struggle even in the face of international sanctions. In December 1998, heavy fighting broke out. The government responded aggressively carrying out an offensive that led to the killing of Jonas Savimbi in February 2002. The ultimate defeat of UNITA occurred in after the signing of the Luena Memorandum in which UNITA declared that it was fully disarmed and it became democratic political party. The sanctions that were imposed on the party were lifted.                                                                                                                             Since then mainland Angola has enjoyed a period of relative peace. In the province of Cabinda however, the war still persists. The province produces more than half of Angola’s oil.  Attempts by the government to apply the scorched earth policy have failed. Many people in Cabinda want to gain independence from Angola.  The government of Angola has granted the region provincial autonomy. The vast wealth prevents the government of Angola from granting full independence to the province (Odd Arne Westad  2005 p 238) Peace and reconciliation in Angola is still incomplete. The psychological and physical scars of war are deeply embedded. The country has failed to democratize and is still haunted by its history.

            In the decade covered in this paper the history of Angola has been nothing short of tragic. Angola’s tragedy is regrettable. The country was reduced to a battlefield for the proxy wars of the superpowers.  The Soviet Union and the US played out their ideological conflicts in Angola. The wars that resulted from the ideological divisions led to the death of hundreds of thousands and displacement of millions of others. The western superpowers were not the only interested parties in the Angolan crisis. Cubans were among the first countries to intervene in Angola in a bid to defend the socialist regime that took the reigns of leadership after independence. Nigerians are said to have been involved in the crisis in Angola. Intelligence sources from the western world indicate that a battalion of Nigerian troops joined with the MPLA and the Cubans as they fought in the south of the country.

            The status of Angola in as an independent nation was hijacked right from the start and the political social and economic agenda of the nation has been oriented towards satisfying the needs of foreign powers. The people of Angola have suffered greatly in the process. With the relative peace prevailing in Angola at present there is a glimmer of hope that it may last.


World Bank ‘Angola: Oil, Broad-based Growth, and Equity’ World Bank Publications,             2007; 82

Leech, G. ‘Crude Interventions: The US, Oil and the New World (Dis)order’

            Zed Books, 2006; 108

Shillington, K., ‘Encyclopedia of African History’ CRC Press, 2005; 89

Barber, J. P., Blumenfeld J., Hill C. R., Royal Institute of International Affairs ‘The West         and South Africa’ Routledge, 1982; 25

Arbel, D., Edelist R., ‘Western Intelligence and the Collapse of the Soviet Union,          1980-   1990: Ten Years that Did Not Shake the World’ Routledge, 2003; 104

Liebenow J. G., ‘African Politics: Crises and Challenges’ Indiana University Press,         1986; 131

Westad, Odd Arne ‘The Global Cold War: Third World Interventions and the Making of          Our Times’ Cambridge University Press, 2005; 238

Vines A., Human Rights Watch ‘Angola Unravels: The Rise and fall of the Lusaka Peace          Process’ Human Rights Watch, 1999; 81


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