Angola: 27 Years of Civil War

By: Kunal Dadlani


In the Angolan Civil War, two major parties, the MPLA, and UNITA were engaged in a dangerous conflict. Beginning in 1975, the war finally ended when Jonas Savimbi, the leader of UNITA, was assassinated in February 2002, and with the Luena Memorandum on April 4, 2002 (Meijer and Birmingham 2004, 15). The war can be split into several phases, some of which were more deadly than others, but the total cost of the Angolan conflict is “immeasurable” (Rocha 2009, 16).

This research paper will explain why and how the country devolved in civil war shortly after independence, the responsibility of different actors, before finally concluding about how this conflict affected and continues to affect Angolans socially and politically.

Independence to Civil War

By its modern borders, Angola had been formalized as a Portuguese colony at the Berlin Conference in 1884-85 (Meijer and Birmingham 2004, 11). A military coup in Portugal on April 25, 1974, signalled the end of Portuguese colonial rule in Africa (James 2011, 41). The Alvor Agreement stipulated those elections would be organized before independence around October 31, with independence set for November 11, 1975 (James 2011, 55). The agreement promised a tripartite government between the three fundamental independence movements – the National Liberation Front of Angola (FNLA), the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) and the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) (Davidson 1977, 142). Notably, in the ensuing Civil War, the FNLA was not a significant factor.

The Portuguese suspended the Alvor Agreement after the MPLA had driven the FNLA and UNITA out of Luanda in late August. By then, it was clear that the Portuguese would abandon Angola on Independence Day (James 2011, 58). On November 11, the MPLA declared the creation People’s Republic of Angola in the capital city of Luanda, while UNITA & FNLA declared the Democratic People’s Republic of Angola in Huambo (64).

Angola and the Cold War

The Cold War had a profound effect on Angola. Both key actors, UNITA and the MPLA, were backed by their global superpower.

W. Martin James III (2011) argues that the Alvor Agreement was purposefully sabotaged by the MPLA, with support from Cuba and the USSR, as they were aware that they would lose any election (253). The MPLA became a Marxist-Leninist party in 1977, so gained the support of the communist world (194). UNITA argued that the MPLA was a new colonial power, as they only had strength because of the USSR and Cuba (James 2011, 103).

Comparatively, Victoria Brittain (1998) argues that UNITA’s popularity was immense because of Jonas Savimbi’s, the leader of UNITA’s, significant anti-communism (10-11). The US, South Africa, and the Democratic People’s Republic of Congo (then known as Zaire) actively supported UNITA as they attempted to take Luanda militarily before the November 11 deadline (2-3). However, Between 1975 and 1983, MPLA was recognized as the legal government of Angola by every powerful nation except the US – UNITA was recognized by none (James 2011, 189).

A turning point was when the US recognized the MPLA regime in 1993 (Vidal 2008, 141). In 1991, the MPLA made a key concession, with the Bicesse Agreement, by agreeing to multiparty politics for UNITA accepting a ceasefire (Brittain 1998, 43). UNITA decided to undo the 1991 electoral results, which declared a resounding MPLA victory by force; therefore, the US-led international community switched its support from the rebels to the MPLA (Messiant 2008, 101).

The Claims to Power

The Statute of the Portuguese Natives of the Provinces of Angola, Mozambique, and Guinea created by the Portuguese separated the indigenous African population from a tiny elite of civilized assimiladoes. The assimiladoes enjoyed some of the rights of Portuguese citizens, so this policy had a profound and lasting impact, helping to create the divisions and mistrust between the independence movements (Meijer and Birmingham 2004, 11).

The MPLA supporters were those who descended from mestizos and assimiladoes. UNITA embodied the economic aspirations of Ovimbundu (Meijer and Birmingham 2004, 12). The ethnic identification of these movements has largely emerged about because of conscious political manoeuvring by each group (12). UNITA appealed to their supporters by pointing out that the MPLA was a minority party that was not a black Angolan political party but dominated by mestizos and assimiladoes who keep black Angola subjugated (James 2011, 102). To avoid accusations that they were not African at all, the mestizos, whites and assimiladoes who formed the MPLA needed a class-based ideology (Newitt 2008, 74).

UNITA claimed to stand “for those who had not only been unjustly excluded from power at independence” (Ball and Gastrow 2019, 13). Furthermore, most of the leadership for the MPLA spoke Portuguese, so Savimbi believed that people would support a leader who spoke their language (James 2011, 104). UNITA respected ethnic customs and traditions, while the MPLA suppressed them. Yet many commentators have pointed out that the leadership of all the nationalist movements came from a group of Angolans classified as assimilados – those who had displayed a stipulated level of education, Portuguese culture, and economic independence (Newitt 2008, 53).

Modern Angola

In March 1991, the MPLA abandoned Marxist-Leninism and adopted democratic socialism/social democracy (Brittain 1998, 43). In October 2002, UNITA declared itself a fully disarmed and democratic political party (Meijer and Birmingham 2004, 15). There are approximately 200 registered political parties, but they have very little social, economic or ideological difference between themselves. The reason for this is that 27 years of civil war has increased the levels of mistrust among the population, making it extremely difficult for people to collaborate and co-operate with each other (Rocha 2009, 12). As a result, UNITA and the MPLA remain the two most prominent political actors, yet the MPLA is still the dominant party and has never been adequately unseated. The opposition party has been sufficiently weakened through decades of guerilla warfare and government propaganda that they do not hold any power capable of challenging the MPLA.

Additionally, the problems that led to the division between the three independence movements remain. Angola as a sovereign territory is a reality, but the modern Angolan nation still discriminates based on ethnicity, creed, class, religious or political affiliation (Rocha 2009, 2). People were killed, not for political reasons, but because they belonged to the wrong category. These social inequalities remain in modern Angola, as the civil war introduced a culture of each one for himself and the notion of survival of the fittest. Notably, while the civil war has further entrenched these inequalities, Portuguese colonial policy undeniably encouraged and deepened ethnic tensions and rivalries (3).

The consequences of the civil war are, apart from the direct war damage and neglect of infrastructure, some poor public policies and distorted economic programmes (Rocha 2009, 1). Today Angolans ranked as one of the lowest in world ratings in terms of human development, as less than 40% of the population has access to clean water and sanitation, while 70% do not have adequate social services (2). The generation born in 1975 has known nothing but war for 27 years, while almost one million people died, and hundreds of thousands have been physically and psychologically maimed (4-5). Four million people have been displaced, and 27 years of war have meant that almost every single Angola victim of disrupted family life (2). 

Furthermore, while Angola has not had a level of violence seen in 2002, there is still violence in a specific region of Angola – Cabinda. Cabinda is an area in Angola separated from Angola by a 25km strip of DRC territory (Sadiqali 1976, 30). Several campaigns arguing for the independence of Cabinda were founded in the early 1960s (Warner 1989, 33). Since 2002, many Cabindans still support demands for independence. Towards the end of 2003, the Angolan government signalled that it was prepared to talk peace or even consider a referendum – however, the conflict remains unresolved (Meijer and Birmingham 2004, 15).

So, while peace is welcoming, there are still many social and economic obstacles that Angola still faces to search for a better life. Angola needs to develop; otherwise, there will be further social upheaval (Rocha 2009, 16). 

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