Few parts of the world would appear as sheltered from Cold War politics as southernmost Africa, yet as Angola fought its way to independence from colonial Portugal, it soon became a focal point in the international battle for power and influence. The US, South Africa and Cuba appeared as key players, backing various rebel groups, fueling the conflict and spreading death and destruction. Since 1975, as many as 1 million people have been killed and Angola remains a flashpoint for continued civil war. Despite gaining UN recognition, demonstrating popular support and prevailing in UN-monitored elections, the leftist MPLA has faced constant US interference and efforts to destabilize the government, resulting from MPLA relations with Cuba.
Prior to the colonial period, Angola was ruled by two highly centralized native kingdoms, the Bantu in the North and the Mbundu in the south. The Portuguese arrived in 1483, established colonies and developed a lucrative slave trade. When the native people’s resisted, the Portuguese clamped down killing, capturing and exporting the natives, whose population declined dramatically until the mid-18th century. The Berlin Conference of 1884 officially allocated African regions to colonial European states, Portuguese settlement accelerated, as did the military campaign to subdue the kingdoms. Colonial exploitation continued until the mid-20th century.
Although Britain and France had been abandoning their colonial empires, the Portuguese resisted attempts for peaceful de-colonization. In 1956, the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) emerged as a coalition of nationalist rebel groups, fighting for independence and against racial and imperialist exploitation. By the time the Portuguese government was overthrown in April 1974, three major rebel factions had developed, the MPLA, the National Front for the Liberation of Angola (FNLA), and the Union for the Total Independence of Angola, UNITA.
Under the Alvor Accords, these groups laid plans for a transitional government that never materialized. Each rebel group attracted external support. The socialist ideology of the MPLA led the US and Zaire to support the FNLA, whose strength was in northern Angola. South Africa backed UNITA, whose strength was in the south, bordering on Namibia, which was annexed by South Africa in contravention of United Nations agreements. Meanwhile, socialist nations were sympathetic to the MPLA, which had the greatest popular support. Angola was attacked from the north by Zaire and FNLA, from the south by UNITA and South Africa, with the MPLA caught in the middle.
However, the MPLA held the capital of Luanda and declared independence on November 11, 1975, followed by widespread celebration and official recognition by the UN in 1976. Jose Eduardo dos Santos became president. Cuba sent 15,000 troops to help the MPLA repel South African forces. In its attempts to rebuild the colonial economic infrastructure, decimated by the war, the MPLA pronounced its Marxist outlook, ensuring it would further attract Washington’s negative attention, while undertaking this daunting task. In 1981, South Africa, with armor and air support again invaded the South, this time in pursuit of SWAPO guerrilla forces active in Namibia, with bases in Angola. This aggression also served to help the UNITA rebels secure territory. Supporting the legitimate Angolan government, Cuba responded with additional forces, blocking the South African and UNITA advances. The warfare continued until 1989, when Angola, Cuba and South Africa concluded a Tripartite Agreement. This pact granted independence for Namibia, and called for the withdrawal of Cuban and South African forces.
UNITA, under Jonas Savimbi, agreed halt the rebel campaign in 1991 and the MPLA agreed to hold multi-party elections. While the MPLA initiated a series of progressive reforms, the US continued attempts to destabilize the leftist government by maintaining an economic embargo, supporting UNITA and withholding diplomatic recognition until after open elections were held. In the 1992 UN-monitored elections, dos Santos and the MPLA defeated UNITA and, the rejected Savimbi, ignoring the election results, resumed the guerrilla war.
In 1994, a UN peacekeeping force arrived and another peace deal was struck, this time, allowing Savimbi to be the vice president, decommissioning UNITA forces and allowing UNITA rebels to join the Angolan army. Despite the concessions to UNITA, divisions remained and trouble festered. Facing prospects of renewed fighting, the UN withdrew in 1997 and Savimbi refused participation in further negotiations.
Beyond the terrible loss of lives, one of the most regrettable aspects of the Angolan war has been the failure to recognize and implement many of the valuable reforms and compromise solutions developed during the various negotiations. Despite the failures in Angola, the conditions of the peace agreements could serve as a viable model for conflict resolution in other situations.