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It just wouldn't be a history lesson if it weren't full of intrigue, conspiracy theory fuel and one-sided perspective. Here follows a brief chronicle of the build-up to the Angolan Civil War, as told to you by an apartheid struggle history buff who has a particularly interesting book written by two apartheid exiles in the mid-1970s.

Western Influence

US Oil Company (surprise, surprise) Gulf Oil was real cosy with the Portuguese rulers of Angola. By all accounts, the Portuguese made Rhodes look benevolent, and the people of Angola were beginning to get a little tired of it by the 1970's.

European farmers (and in this case, they really were "European", because Portuguese policy in its colonies was to treat the locals like pond scum unless they pledged allegiance to the Portuguese dictator Antonio Salazar and became fully-fledged Portuguese citizens) occupied 60% of the arable land. They made up between 5 and 10% of the population.

The Portuguese and South Africans went halvies on the Cunene River scheme, a project that involved construction of 27 dams and hydroelectric plants on the Cunene River. The Cunene forms the border between Angola and Namibia. Presumably, the apartheid government's plan was to use the hydroelectric power to power the mines in Namibia, which they were planning, on mining empty before granting Namibia independence.

In the early 1960's, MPLA (Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola) guerrillas (freedom fighters) occupied ninety percent of the Cabinda Enclave. In 1966, the Gulf Oil Company discovered oil there and the Portuguese sent in the army. People were driven into aldeamentos, "strategic camps"* (anybody hear "concentration camps"?) and hundreds were killed. The Portuguese referred to this as a "Pacification Program".

Gulf and the Portuguese government (dictatorship) contracted to give Gulf the exclusive right to the oil, while the government protected Gulf's costs. In other words, the Portuguese government guaranteed unfair wages, no competition and free and easy access to the oil for Gulf. In exchange, the Portuguese government received almost $100 million in 1974 in taxes. Effectively, the blood and sweat of the Angolans was funding the Portuguese in Europe.

In case you still think that Gulf Oil is just a good old capitalist company, think again! They were discovered to have made an illegal contribution to Nixon's re-election campaign.

If Gulf was paying almost $100 million a year in taxes to the Portuguese, imagine how much it was taking back to the US of A. Meanwhile, the South African diamond monopoly, De Beers, had the lion's share of the Angolan diamond industry. Iron ore production was mainly subsidised by West German companies.

February 1974, MPLA condemned the activities of the oil companies and warned them that they would be expelled and their assets nationalised when Angola achieved independence.


By many accounts, the oppression by the Portuguese government in Angola and Mozambique was worse than that of the South African apartheid government, and I can assure you that the apartheid government were monsters up in Hitler's league.

In 1956, the Party of the United Struggle of Angolan Africans (PLUA) joined the Movement for the Independence of Angola (MIA) to form MPLA. MPLA was led by Dr. Agostinho Neto. In 1958, the Movement for National Independence of Angola (MINA) joined the bandwagon, but the name didn't change.

In 1961, MPLA tried to join forces with the Union of the Populations of Angola (UPA), but, ironically, they wouldn't have any of it. Instead, in 1962, UPA teamed up with the Democratic Party of Angola (PDA) instead to form the National Front for the Liberation of Angola (FNLA), led by Holden Roberto.

Roberto established the Revolutionary Government of Angola in Exile (GRAE) in Kinshasa, in the (present-day) Democratic Republic of the Congo.

In 1963, a split developed within MPLA, and the divide between MPLA and the GRAE deepened. The following year, FNLA also had trouble within the ranks, leading to Jonas Savimbi's desertion of FNLA and his creation of the National Union for Total Independence of Angola (UNITA).

There were now three liberation movements in Angola, they all hated each other, and they were soon to get guns. Of course they hated the Portuguese even more. In 1974 Portuguese prime minister Caetano's regime was overthrown in a coup d'etat by the Armed Forces Movement in Portugal. The movement had been inspired by the people's revulsion at the way the colonies in Africa had descended into civil war, with Portugal spending a quarter of its total budget on the military in Angola alone. (They were simultaneously fighting in Mozambique.)

The Armed Forces Movement in Portugal's main goal was to establish democracy in Portugal and to give the African colonies their independence. Six months after the coup, Portugal signed cease-fire agreements with FNLA and MPLA. There was a brief (euphoric?) moment of common ground between Neto, Roberto and Savimbi on how to handle talks with the Portuguese government.

In January 1975, an interim government was established that included representatives from all three liberation movements. The interim government was to rule until independence. Elections would take place prior to independence. Angola's first president would be chosen from Neto, Roberto and Savimbi.

The party ended when MPLA decided that FNLA and UNITA were not liberation movements.

On November 11, 1975, the Portuguese left. Just after midnight, MPLA proclaimed Angola a People's Republic with Agostinho Neto president and Luanda the capital. At the same time, FNLA and UNITA announced a 24-member "national revolutionary council" and Nova Lisboa the capital.

By the time of writing, MPLA's government had been recognised by 46 countries - 26 of them African - and also by the Organisation of African Unity. FNLA and UNITA's government was not recognised by any country (not even Israel, who were happy to recognise the sovereignty of the Transkei!)

Why MPLA didn't get to govern

The real divide between MPLA and UNITA/FNLA was ideological: MPLA was communist. This did not sit well with UNITA/FNLA, and it especially did not sit well with Washington, DC. The New York Times of December 16, 1975 claimed that it was only the US government's "assistance" to UNITA and FNLA that stopped MPLA from taking the whole country.

The US was worried about two things in 1975: the communist leanings of MPLA, and the falling of the minerals of Angola and Gulf Oil's investment into communist hands. MPLA had already told Gulf Oil what its fate would be should they get control of the country. In June of 1975, Ford's goverment decided to send $70 million Angola's way, on condition that it would be used to keep the smelly commies away from the oil.

The Soviets are believed to have supported MPLA since they first began to grumble about the Portuguese.

The US shipped weapons, but don't appear to have deployed their troops. Hundreds of Americans fought as mercenaries, however, and US spotter planes flew missions over Angola from Zaire (now DRC).

The South Africans invaded Angola in October 1975, with orders to support the (US) mercenaries in combat. On December 17, 1975, South African reservists (who were also conscripted) were deployed.

The apartheid goverment claimed that it invaded Angola because it had a right to protect Africa from communist domination. It claimed it had been requested to intervene by the Zaire and Zambian governments. This claim is somewhat dubious, given that the ANC leadership were at the time holed up in Lusaka, the capital of Zambia. The US government held the same line.

There is no record of Cuba's involvement at the time of writing the book.

Alright, I'm fascinated. What happened next?

Well what happened next is somewhat beyond the scope of -uh- my sources. In brief, ANC cadres got in on the action, which is what South Africa was really doing there. Until the USSR fell and Nelson Mandela started peace talks with PW Botha, coincidentally symultaneously, MPLA, the ANC and Cuba were taking pot shots at UNITA and South Africa, and everybody and their uncle were laying landmines.

When the broke Cubans and the horsetrading South Africans withdrew, MPLA and UNITA lost their funding and ended up brokering a peace of sorts in 1991. It lasted long enough for elections in 1992, but when Savimbi won 40% of the popular vote to Santos's 49%, he cried "No fair!" Another peace was brokered in 1994, lasting about a year. They put together a National Unity Government in 1997 but Savimbi said MPLA wasn't holding up its end of the bargain and started shooting again at the end of 1998. Savimbi was killed in battle on February 22, 2002 and the country has been peaceful, though not yet fully democratic, since April of that year.

Source(s): Torment to Triumph in Southern Africa by Louise Stack and Don Morton, Freedom Press, New York, 1976. Wikipedia was very obliging with info for the last two paragraphs.

*Albert Herring informs me that aldeamento literally translates to "division into villages" and as our resident Euro translator he's probably right. It just doesn't fit in well with my concentration camp quip.

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