The Angolan War of Independence broke out in March of 1961, when revolts on coffee plantations against forced labor and inhumane working conditions left thousands dead. It became a multi-faction struggle for the control of Portugal’s overseas province of Angola among three nationalist movements and a separatist movement. The overthrow of Portugal’s Prime Minister, Marcello Caetano, on April 25, 1974 hailed a turning point for the former Portuguese colonies of Mozambique, Guinea Bissau, Cape Verde, São Tomé and Principe and Angola. The Armed Forces Movement (MFA) had overthrown the dictatorship in a mostly bloodless coup, thereby ending Portuguese colonial rule in Africa.
As a result, Angola got her official independence on Nov. 11, 1975 and, while the stage was set for transition, a combination of ethnic tensions and international pressures rendered Angola’s hard-won victory problematic. As with many post-colonial states, Angola was left with both economic and social difficulties which translated into a power struggle between the three predominant liberation movements namely: the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) led by Agostinho Neto, with a base among Kimbundu and the mixed-race intelligentsia of Luanda, and links to communist parties in Portugal and the East Bloc; the National Front for the Liberation of Angola (FNLA), led by Holden Roberto with an ethnic base in the Bakongo region of the north and links to the United States and the Mobutu regime in Kinshasa; and the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA), led by Jonas Malheiro Savimbi with an ethnic and regional base in the Ovimbundu heartland in the center of the country and links to the People’s Republic of China and apartheid South Africa.
Brief account of the Independence War
On March 15, 1961, the Union of Peoples of Angola (UPA), under the leadership of Holden Roberto, launched an incursion into northern Angola from its base in the Congo-Léopoldville (ex-Belgian Congo), leading 4000 to 5000 militants. His forces took farms, government outposts, and trading centers, killing and mutilating officials and civilians. It was the start of the Angolan War of Independence and of the wider Portuguese Overseas War. UPA militants stormed the Angolan districts of Zaire, Uíge, Cuanza Norte and Luanda, massacring the civilian population during their advance, killing 1,000 whites and 6,000 blacks. Besides the killing of people, the UPA militants destroyed the infrastructures they found on their way, including houses, farms, roads and bridges, creating a general chaos and panic. The terrified populations took refuge in the forests or fled to nearby regions.
In early April, the Massacre of Cólua happened. The village of Cólua, near Aldeia Viçosa, Uíge was attacked and its inhabitants were massacred by UPA. However and contrary to the expectations of the UPA, the majority of the white inhabitants that were able to survive the initial attacks did not flee, except for some women and children that were evacuated to Luanda. Instead, they entrenched themselves in several towns and villages of the region including Carmona, Negage, Sanza Pombo, Santa Cruz, Quimbele and Mucaba, resisting the assaults almost without the support of the few existent military forces.
In the first year of the war, about 20,000 to 30,000 Angolan civilians were killed by Portuguese forces and between 400,000 and 500,000 refugees went to Zaïre. UPA militants joined pro-independence refugees and continued to launch attacks from across the border in Zaire, creating more refugees and terror among local communities. A UPA patrol took 21 MPLA militants prisoner and then executed them on Oct. 9, 1961 in the Ferreira incident, sparking further violence between the two sides. The uprisings attracted worldwide attention and in mid-1961 the United Nations (UN) General Assembly appointed a subcommittee to investigate the situation in Angola which produced a report unfavorable to Portuguese rule.
In March 1962, Holden Roberto merged UPA with the Democratic Party of Angola (PDA) to form the National Liberation Front of Angola (FNLA). UNITA carried out its first attack on Dec. 25, 1966, preventing trains from passing through the Benguela railway at Teixeira de Sousa on the border with Zambia. UNITA derailed the railway twice in 1967, repeatedly causing damage to the Portuguese, and to the Republic of Congo and Zambia, both of which used the railway for transportation of their exports to Angolan ports.
On May 19, 1968, FNLA entered in Eastern Angola and carried out its first violent actions in the region against the local populations. Also, in October 1968, the Portuguese forces carried away Operation Vitória (Victory) against the MPLA, assaulting and destroying its main bases at Eastern Angola. Among others, the Mandume III base (headquarters of the MPLA’s III Military Region) is assaulted by the Portuguese Commandos, leading to the capture of important documents.
During the late 1960s the FNLA and MPLA fought each other as much as they did the Portuguese, with MPLA forces assisting the Portuguese in finding FNLA hideouts.
End of Independence War
On April 25, 1974, The MFA overthrew the Lisbon government in protest against the authoritarian political regime and the ongoing African colonial wars, especially the demanding conflict in Portuguese Guinea. The revolutionary Portuguese government removed the remaining elements of its colonial forces and agreed to a quick handover of power to the nationalist African movements. This put an immediate end to the independence war against Portugal, but opened the door for a bitter armed conflict among the independent forces and their respective allies.
The three party leaders met again in Mombasa, Kenya on Jan. 5, 1975 and agreed to stop fighting each other, further outlining constitutional negotiations with the Portuguese. They met for a third time, with Portuguese government officials, in Alvor, Portugal from January 10 to 15 and signed on January 15 what became known as the Alvor Agreement, the parties agreed to hold the first assembly elections in October 1975 granting Angola independence on Nov. 11, 1975 thereby, establishing a transitional government.
Origins Civil War
A prominent reason for the continuation of civil war after independence was a result of the reluctance of the dominant liberation movements to share power within a multi-ethnic society. Unlike former Portuguese colonies, the Angolan people fought their colonisers on three fronts. The MPLA called for a single united front of all anti-colonial Angolan forces, however its popular appeal was largely limited to the Mbundu – Angola’s second largest ethnic group – and the multiracial Mestiqos. The MPLA’s nationalist drive did not appeal to the Bakongo people, who rallied to militant right-wing FNLA leader, Holden Roberto’s, call for the reestablishment of the ancient Kingdom of Kongo in the north of Angola. FNLA supporters were largely rural and remained separated from colonial society, but suffered extensively from land dispossession under colonial authorities in the 1950s. The formation of UNITA in 1966 attracted the largest support base; the Ovimbundu ethnic group, although geographically fragmented, were largely integrated into colonial society, and used UNITA as a vehicle for opposing the ethnic groups supporting the FNLA and MPLA.
Hence, while a power-sharing arrangement was agreed upon after independence was secured, power struggles ensued almost immediately as the agreement collapsed. This was aggravated by the withdrawal of the Portuguese in 1975; refusing to impose peace or supervise elections, and failing to hand over power to any one party, the Portuguese armies exited Angola and left the country and its future to its own devices.
Brief account of the Civil War
The MPLA, in control of the capital city, declared itself the government of independent Angola and managed to win recognition from many African countries. UNITA and the FNLA set up a rival government in Huambo and called on South African forces to eject the MPLA from Luanda. Cuba poured in troops to defend the MPLA, pushed the internationally isolated South Africans out of Angola, and gained control of all the provincial capitals. The Cuban expeditionary force, which eventually numbered some 40,000 to 50,000 soldiers, remained in Angola to pacify the country and ward off South African attacks.
In 1977, the MPLA crushed an attempted coup by one of its leaders and, after a thorough purge, turned itself officially into a Marxist-Leninist party, adding Partido Trabalhista (Party of Labour) to their name (MPLA-PT). The transformation of the economy along communist lines was pursued, with disastrous results. The major exception was the oil industry, which, managed by foreign companies, grew rapidly enough to enable Angola to stave off economic and military collapse. President Neto died in 1979 and was succeeded by the former minister of planning, José Eduardo dos Santos.
The FNLA withered away in exile, but UNITA reorganized itself with foreign backing as an effective guerrilla force. Also, South Africa became a strong supporter in hopes that UNITA could counter the guerrilla campaigns of the South West Africa People’s Organization into Namibia, actions supported by the MPLA-PT. In 1985, UNITA began receiving military aid from the United States, and its campaigns became more effective. When the MPLA-PT launched several large campaigns against UNITA in 1987, using armour and aircraft, South African forces returned to the region, and a military stalemate resulted as fighting engulfed the country. But late in 1988, the South Africans promised to grant independence to Namibia and to cease supporting UNITA, while the Cubans agreed to withdraw their expeditionary force from Angola by mid-1991. The MPLA-PT’s initial response to the South African withdrawal was to try to capture the airfield at Mavinga, from which it would be able to launch an attack against UNITA’s headquarters. The failure of this costly campaign and the increasingly effective UNITA attacks on oil installations forced the MPLA-PT to adopt a more conciliatory posture.
In June 1989, a historic meeting between Santos and Savimbi during negotiations brokered by Zaire produced a cease-fire, although it did not last; but with communist regimes collapsing in Eastern Europe, the MPLA-PT lost its support and began negotiating more seriously. In mid-1990 the MPLA-PT abandoned the one-party state and produced a new constitution that included elections and participation by all, including UNITA. They also abandoned their strict Marxist-Leninist stance and dropped the words Partido Trabalhista (PT) from their name. Elections were held in 1992 under UN supervision; Dos Santos was elected president, and the MPLA gained a majority in the parliament, but UNITA made a strong showing, especially on the Bié Plateau. Charging election fraud, UNITA renewed civil war, while its delegates in Luanda were massacred in a popular uprising that many believe had government backing.
At the end of 1992, UNITA controlled approximately two-thirds of the country, including valuable diamond mines that were used to pay for the continuing costs of the war. Fighting raged throughout 1993 as the government gradually regained territory and won greater support abroad; both South Africa and the United States recognized the government of Angola in 1993, as did the United Kingdom by ending an arms embargo that had existed since 1975. Meanwhile, international pressure mounted on the two sides to reach a peaceful solution. Sanctions against UNITA were imposed by the UN in September 1993 after it disregarded a cease-fire it had accepted earlier, but it appeared that UNITA could continue the war for some time with its vast stockpile of weapons. Eventually, an agreement called the Lusaka Accord was signed by the government and UNITA on Nov. 20, 1994. The agreement allowed UNITA to be reintegrated into the government, provided fighting ceased on that date. Although minor fighting between the two groups continued, Dos Santos and Savimbi met several times over the next three years to resolve issues relating to the final form of the combined government.
End of Civil War
In August 1996 Savimbi finally agreed to accept the title of “leader of the opposition,” but his assassination on Feb. 22, 2002 eventually led to negotiations between UNITA and the MPLA, resulting in a peace agreement in April of 2002 and bringing to an end a 27-year civil war. The civil war spawned a disastrous humanitarian crisis in Angola, internally displacing 4.28 million people – one-third of Angola’s total population. Although, the country breathed a collective sigh of relief with the end of 27 years of civil war, the Angolan government was faced with the daunting challenge of rebuilding the country’s physical and social welfare infrastructure, much of which was completely destroyed.