Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Angola: MPLA, FNLA, UNITA, and the War of Liberation, 1961-1974

Portuguese troops on patrol in Angola

In many respects, Angolan history forms part of the history of southern Africa. While most states in the rest of Africa became independent, in many southern African countries a reverse trend was visible: white rule became more entrenched. South Africa’s apartheid system, Rhodesia’s settler government, and Portuguese investments to expand their administrative and military system in the colonies were all aimed to prevent African independence. To interpret Angola’s past in a southern African context, however, runs the risk of promoting reasoning from within a colonial framework. For the Angolan nationalist parties involved, relations within the central African context may have been just as important. Apart from contact with leaders from nations such as Tanzania, North African states, and other Portuguese-speaking colonies, the ties with independent Congo, Zaïre, and Zambia were crucial for the Angolan nationalist movements. These regional aspects can hardly be separated from the wider international scene. This was the age of the Cold War: the parties involved all had their own channels of support, such as China, the Soviet Union, or the United States. The complex linkages between local, regional, and international spheres set the stage for later developments after Angolan independence in 1975.

Many names from different epochs have been associated with the Angolan resistance against colonialism, such as Queen Njinga, who fought the Portuguese in the seventeenth century, Chief Mandume, who opposed colonial conquest at the beginning of the twentieth century, and the prophet António Mariano, who led Maria’s War in January 1961.

The Luanda rising of February 1961 is generally taken as the beginning of the Angolan war of liberation. It started with Africans making an abortive attempt to release political prisoners, whereupon white immigrants entered the Luandan slums and engaged in a killing spree that left an unknown number of mostly educated Africans dead. A movement called MPLA (Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola), which had been founded in 1956, was linked with the rising. Its leadership mostly consisted of Luandan assimilados, who, despite a Portuguese upbringing, were eager to explore their African background. Their poetry and protest, both with Marxist and négritude overtones, soon aroused the suspicion of the Portuguese police and many of them were detained, executed, or forced into exile. Some MPLA supporters were involved in the Luanda rising, but many MPLA leaders were in exile trying to create internal cohesion and to look for international support, neither of which proved an easy task.

Just a month after the Luanda rising, eruptions of violence occurred in the north of Angola, where immigrant plantation ownership led to the impoverishment of local entrepreneurs. Soon the coffee plantations became the scene of widespread murder and mutilation, with atrocities committed by all sides involved. Many people from the region fled to neighboring Zaïre, where some joined the FNLA (National Front for the Liberation of Angola). This movement was led largely by Baptists from the Angolan Kongo region, of whom Holden Roberto became the most prominent. The leadership stood close to the Kongo royalty, but concerns of local capitalist trade were equally important for its otherwise little-developed program. Soon relations between FNLA and MPLA became marked by fierce competition and fighting. While Holden Roberto managed to secure Zairian support and international recognition, the MPLA did not. In addition, the factions in the MPLA leadership faced sharp opposition from Viriato da Cruz and others against Agostinho Neto, the MPLA president. Internal strife was, however, not confined to the MPLA: in 1964 Jonas Savimbi left the Angolan government, which had been created in Kinshasa by Holden Roberto. Two years later he formed his own movement: the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA).

Zambian independence changed the scene. After 1966 both UNITA and MPLA started guerrilla activities in the sparsely populated plains of eastern Angola neighboring Zambia. Portuguese retaliation was harsh, the border between Zambia and Angola was cleared, most of the inhabitants were herded into wired camps, and helicopters dropped bombs on both guerrillas and any remaining villagers. Cooperating with South African forces, the Portuguese managed to hold the towns, while the guerrilla movements held the countryside. With few strategic targets to be conquered or lost, the war became what Basil Davidson has called “a war for people” (1972). Using methods ranging from ideological explanation and material attraction to threat and abduction, the fighting parties tried to control as many civilians as they could.

The MPLA and UNITA never managed to face the Portuguese forces with a common front. To the contrary, the Portuguese were able to employ their mutual animosity to check guerrilla activities. None of the parties tolerated the presence of another group in its vicinity, and there is proof that during the final years of the war UNITA cooperated with the Portuguese to oust its rival. Furthermore, internal tensions mounted. In the MPLA the strained relations between learned political leaders from Luanda and local army leaders with little education proved too difficult a problem to overcome. A second internal crisis ensued: in 1973 both the “Active Revolt” and the “Eastern Revolt” nearly caused a split. The latter movement was led by chief commander of the eastern forces, Daniel Chipenda, who later assembled his followers, broke away from MPLA, and formed a southern branch of the FNLA.

In the meantime, the northern branch of the FNLA continued to gather support from African coffee planters who wished to safeguard their interests against white plantation holders. Increasing reliance on Western support and the capitalist ethos of FNLA diminished its revolutionary outlook. This did not prevent guerrilla actions, and in the northern region the FNLA was rather successful in this respect. With its regional base and interests, however, the FNLA only managed to expand to other areas on a limited scale. Furthermore competition with groups ready to negotiate with the Portuguese, a mutiny against the leadership suppressed with the aid of the Zairian government, and rivalry with MPLA did much to damage the party. Only with Zairian support the FNLA was able to remain a political and military force worth mentioning. In the oil-rich Cabinda enclave FNLA and MPLA interests clashed with FLEC (Cabindan Liberation Front), which sought Cabindan independence, both from Portugal and Angola. In this region fighting diminished.

In the east and south the war initiative shifted from this fighting party to that. On the whole the war slowly expanded and at times reached eastern Malange and the central highlands. Especially for UNITA, whose leadership mainly originated from the central highlands this was an important development. UNITA had started out with limited Chinese support, but on the whole had a far less developed structure outside Angola than FNLA and MPLA. Its leadership, in contrast to the other nationalist groups, largely operated from within Angola, especially after Savimbi had been expelled from Zambia in 1967. Due to its external contacts, MPLA troops were on the whole somewhat better armed and better trained than UNITA soldiers. Yet, they also suffered from a lack of supplies and their fragmented leadership was unable to provide the necessary coordination.

Attempts to unite the Angolan nationalist movements, sometimes initiated by the leaders of the movements themselves, sometimes led by African heads of state or the OAU, never succeeded: the Angolan liberation movement remained hopelessly divided. Yet despite the cleavages in the nationalist movement and Portuguese efforts to build up a decisive war machinery, the Portuguese forces were unable to wipe out the nationalist groups. Portugal spent nearly half of its annual budget on the war in the colonies, in 1969 alone it sent some 150,000 troops to Africa and lost an average of 100 soldiers and more than 200 civilians annually in Angola. When war-worn Portuguese soldiers and their commanders staged a coup in Lisbon in 1974, a new epoch in Angolan history started. The first war of liberation had come to an end; soon another would be fought. Hitherto the period between 1961 and 1974 has been studied largely in terms of the discussions on nationalism and liberation. This valid approach may be widened by detailing other aspects of the war, such as the interactions between local, regional, and international support networks, witchcraft accusations, magic and political power, the relations with the churches, mobility, containment and concepts of space, questions of morality, agency and gender. Although the available sources may not provide answers to all questions, many questions still remain to be asked.

Further Reading Barnett, Don, and Roy Harvey. The Revolution in Angola: MPLA, Life Histories and Documents. Indianapolis, IN,: Bobbs-Merrill, 1972. Birmingham, David. Frontline Nationalism in Angola and Mozambique. London: James Currey, and Trenton NJ: Africa World Press, 1992. Davidson, Basil. In the Eye of the Storm. Angola’s People. London: Longman, 1972. Henderson, Lawrence W. Angola. Five Centuries of Conflict. Ithaca, NY, London: Cornell University Press, 1979. Marcum, John A. The Angolan Revolution: Vol. 1: The Anatomy of an Explosion (1950–1962), Cambridge, MA, London: MIT Press, 1969. Marcum, John A. The Angolan Revolution. Vol. 2: Exile Politics and Guerrilla Warfare (1962–1976), Cambridge, MA, London: MIT Press, 1978.

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