Angolan War of Independence 1961-1974

[ 1961 - 1974 ]

The several nationalist organizations set up training camps and attracted external military aid. In the summer of 1961, for example, the UPA*, which had strong support among the Bakongo and some rural Mbundu, formed a force of about 5,000 untrained and poorly armed troops. Subsequently, groups of Angolans went to Morocco and Tunisia to train with Algerian forces, then fighting for their own nation's independence. After winning its independence in 1962, Algeria supplied the UPA rebels with arms and ammunition.

In March 1962, the UPA joined with another small Kongo nationalist group, the PDA* to form the FNLA*. The FNLA immediately proclaimed a revolutionary government of Angola in exile. By 1963, with training and arms from Algeria, bases in Congo (called Zaire from 1971 to 1997), and funds from the Organization of African Unity (OAU), the FNLA military and political organization was becoming formidable. The FNLA also obtained aid from the United States and China. Still, it made no significant territorial gains. 

The president of the FNLA, Holden Roberto, declared his organization to be the sole authority in charge of anti-Portuguese military operations inside Angola. Consequently, he repeatedly refused to merge his organization with any other budding nationalist movement, preferring to build the FNLA into an all-Angolan mass movement over which he would preside.

The MPLA* was founded in the 1950s with the help of the clandestine Portuguese Communist Party. The MPLA had suffered a great deal from Portuguese reprisals, with many of its militant leaders dead or in prison. The rebuilding of the MPLA was substantially aided in 1962 by the arrival of Agostinho Neto, an assimilated Mbundu physician who had spent several years in jail for expressing his political views and had recently escaped from detention in Portugal. It was popular in Luanda and among some rural Mbundu, and it drew foreign support from the Soviet Union. Initially based in Kinshasa, as was the FNLA, in 1963 the MPLA shifted its headquarters to Brazzaville (in present-day Congo) because of the FNLA leader's close ties to Zairian president Mobutu Sese Seko. From Brazzaville, the MPLA launched small guerrilla operations in Cabinda, but the movement was militarily far weaker than the FNLA. Moreover, it lacked an operations base from which it could reach the densely populated north and center of Angola. The MPLA moved its headquarters to Zambia in 1965. Neto attempted to bring together the MPLA and Roberto's FNLA, but his efforts were thwarted by Roberto's insistence that his organization represented all Angolans.

The armed struggle continued, but the anti-colonial guerrillas were seriously weakened by dissension. As it dragged on into 1964 and 1965, the conflict became stalemated. Hampered by insufficient financial assistance, the insurgents were unable to maintain offensive operations against a fully equipped Portuguese military force that had increased to a strength of more than 40,000. The FNLA settled into a mountain stronghold straddling the border of Uíge and Zaire provinces and continued to carry on guerrilla activities. The insurgents found it increasingly difficult to sustain the cohesion they had achieved between 1961 and 1962. From 1963 to 1965, differences in leadership, programs, and following between the FNLA and the MPLA led to open hostilities that seriously weakened each group's strength and effectiveness.

The MPLA and FNLA faced a third competitor beginning in 1966 with the emergence of UNITA*, with a predominantly Ovimbundu leadership and with some support from the Chokwe and Ovambo. UNITA first came to international attention when, in December 1966, a group of its guerrillas attacked the town of Teixeira de Sousa (renamed Luau), succeeding in interrupting the Benguela Railway and stopping Zambian and Zairian copper shipments for a week. The new organization was formed by Jonas Savimbi, the former foreign minister and main representative of the Ovimbundu within the FNLA, whose disagreements with Roberto over policy issues led to Savimbi's resignation in July 1964. Savimbi had traveled to China in 1965, where he and several of his followers received four months of military training and became disciples of Maoism. Perhaps the strongest impact of Maoism on UNITA has been Savimbi's insistence on self-sufficiency and maintenance of the organization's leadership within Angolan borders. Upon his return to Angola in 1966, Savimbi turned down an invitation from the MPLA to join its organization as a rank-and-file member and moved UNITA into the bush, where the organization began its guerrilla war with a small amount of Chinese military aid transported via Tanzania and Zambia. UNITA enjoyed little foreign backing (although China provided some aid) and lacked a secure foreign base, since Zambia leaned toward the MPLA.

Although UNITA lacked educated cadres and arms, it attracted the largest following of the three movements from the Ovimbundu, who comprised 31 percent of the population. And, unlike the MPLA and FNLA, UNITA enjoyed the benefits of a unified and unchallenged leadership directed by Savimbi. Moreover, in contrast to the mestiço-dominated, urban-based MPLA, Savimbi presented UNITA as the representative of black peasants. UNITA's constitution proclaimed that the movement would strive for a government proportionally representative of all ethnic groups, clans, and classes. 

In the early 1970s, UNITA began infiltrating the major population centers, slowly expanding its area of influence westward beyond Bié. There, however, it collided with the eastward thrust of the MPLA, which was sending Soviet-trained political cadres to work among the Ovimbundu and specifically with the Chokwe, Lwena, Luchazi, and Lunda, exploiting potential ethnic antagonisms.

Meanwhile, the Portuguese deployed large numbers of troops, set up strategic hamlets (forced settlements of rural Angolans), and, by encouraging Portuguese peasants to immigrate to Angola, raised the white population to about 330,000 by 1974. At the same time, they tried to "win hearts and minds" by abolishing forced cultivation, forced labor, and the stringent tests to gain "assimilated" status. They also stepped up the provision of education, health, and social welfare services and protected peasants from land alienation. The economy entered into a period of sustained boom, marked by rapid industrialization and the growth of oil production, and urban workers and many rural producers enjoyed rising standards of living. In addition, the divisions between and within the FNLA, MPLA and UNITA movements, which at times degenerated into armed conflict, allowed the Portuguese to gain the upper hand by the early 1970s. When a military coup in Portugal overthrew that country's dictatorship in April 1974, all three guerrilla movements had been almost entirely expelled from Angolan soil.

Nonetheless, by the end of July 1974, General António de Spínola bowed to pressure from officers who favored independence for the Portuguese territories in Africa. He appointed Admiral Rosa Coutinho as head of a military council formed to oversee Angola's independence. Also during this time, UNITA and the MPLA signed cease-fire agreements with Portugal; the FNLA initially moved military units into northern Angola, but later it too signed a cease-fire. The liberation movements set up offices in the major population centers of the country, eager to mobilize support and gain political control.

The three liberation movements proved unable to constitute a united front after the Portuguese coup. The FNLA's internal support had dwindled to a few Bakongo groups, but it had strong links with the Zairean regime and was well armed; it thus made a bid to seize Luanda by force. The MPLA, with growing backing from the Portuguese Communist Party, Cuba, and the Soviet Union, defeated this onslaught and then turned on UNITA, chasing its representatives out of Luanda. UNITA was militarily the weakest movement, but it had the greatest potential electoral support, given the predominance of the Ovimbundu within the population, and it thus held out most strongly for elections. On the eve of independence, UNITA controlled many of the rich, food-producing central and southern provinces and was therefore able to regulate the flow of food to the rest of the country. At the time, it claimed the allegiance of about 40 percent of the population. But the Portuguese army was tired of war and refused to impose peace and supervise elections. The Portuguese therefore withdrew from Angola in November 1975 without formally handing power to any movement, and nearly all the white settlers fled the country. The Angolan war of independence resulted in an estimated 9000 Portuguese casualties and some 30,000 insurgent deaths.

*Glossary of Acronyms 

FNLA -- National Front for the Liberation of Angola (Frente Nacional de Libertação de Angola)

MPLA -- Popular Liberation Movement of Angola (Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola)

UNITA -- National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (União Nacional para a Independência Total de Angola)

UPA -- Union of Angolan Peoples (Unão das Populações de Angola)

PDA -- Democratic Party of Angola (Partido Democrático de Angola)

Related Conflicts

No Releted Conflicts