Civil War In Angola And The Involvement

Of The International Community In It. Essay, Research Paper


The civil war in Angola which has raged for over three decades has been labelled as the “longest and most miserable in Africa.” (Goldman, 1999 : 1) The involvement and consequences for the international community have and continue to be vast . This essay will concern itself with the history of the civil war which has ravaged the potentially, richest country in Africa. Following this a critical synopsis of the current situation, investigating the standpoints of both internal belligerents, as well as the views of international actors is delivered. In conclusion a prediction of the fate of Angola in the coming six months is offered.

The civil war in Angola began in 1961. Despite extensive through more than thirty years, it remains one of the most misunderstood of the post-colonial conflicts in Africa. The war has been labelled anti-imperial, revolutionary, a proxy cold war, and a war between elites over natural resources. however the true roots of this climacteric lie in ethnic tensions steeped in history. (Goldman, 1999 :1) In 1956 the Movimento libertacao de Angola /Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) was founded as a liberation movement to end three centuries of Portuguese colonialism, and in 1961 the armed struggle began. In 1962 a United States backed Frente Nacional para leibertacao de Angola /National Front for the Liberation of Angola (FNLA) was founded with similar objectives and the anti-colonial war proceeded.

Then in 1966 the charismatic Jonas Savimbi emerged on the stage of the liberation war. He criticised the MPLA for being dominated by the “mixed race intellectuals from the coastal cities” (Goldman, 1999 :2) and FNLA by Northerners. In response he launched the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) to take up arms against the Portuguese as well as the two established liberation movements – the anti-colonial war had become a civil war. Savimbi hailed UNITA as the ” real Africans’, sons of the soil, living in the bush, fighting against a wealthy cosmopolitan, better -educated, urban elite” (Goldman, 1999 : 2). UNITA draws its support base from the Ovimbundu people. The Ovimbundu were recognised by the Portuguese as hard workers and were used as coffee pickers in the colonial era. They bear a deep-seeded resentment of the ‘mesticos’ (light skinned people) who make up the majority of the urban coastal population. It is this fixation with tensions based on class, racial and ethnic differences which ahs characterised the war. Ovimbundu UNITA supporters, mostly living in the central highlands are pitted against the mixed-race people from the coast and the Kimbundu peoples of the North. The military logic used in the war has perpetuated the situation, in that UNITA’s guerrillas are active in the countryside while the better-armed MPLA holds to the cities located on the coast. The location of diamonds in the north-east and crude oil in offshore waters provides both a device to prolong a war for the respective minority elites, as well as creating further class based cleavages within the populace.

As independence approached in 1975, each side employed the support of Cold War participants. Cuba helped MPLA to take Luanda, South Africa sided with UNITA, and the USA supported the increasingly negligible FNLA efforts in the North, Widespread criticism of external involvement arose, but Goldman purports that:

” in reality it was more a case of the puppets pulling the strings of the puppet masters in a ruthless bid to seize the initiative.” (Goldman, 1999 :2)

A 1974 peace agreement was reached and in 1975 independence was gained. The supposed goal of the liberation movement is attained, however, in 1977 and alleged coup fails and the embroilment recommences. From this point on the war follows a horribly predictive cycle. In 1989 the Gbadolite peace accords, brokered by the Zairean President Mobutu Sese Seko are signed, but collapse soon after. In 1991 Portugal intervenes and brokers the Bicesse peace accords . The very next year UNITA rejects the results of the multi-party elections won by MPLA and once again the war ensues. In 1994 the UN brokers the Lusaka peace accords. But in 1998 the cease-fire collapses and Angola is once again at civil war. Nearly four decades after the inception of this war Angola lies crippled, the current generation know nothing but poverty, strife and conflict.

Let us more closely analyse the current situation in Angola. First within the context of the issues involved and the opposing parties viewpoints. And secondly, within the framework of the international situation. To begin a critical discourse on the current situation a useful point of departure is the breakdown, in 1998, of the cease-fire agreed upon at the 1994 Lusaka peace accords. UNITA failed to adhere to its commitments under the peace plan. Its army was not demobilised nor were its weapons turned in. Fighting once again commenced with attacks on “villages, aid agency compounds, government facilities and the UN”. (Herbert, 1998 : 11) “There are no angels in Angola” (Herbert, 1998 : 11) however, and the government responded to UNITA’s initial recapture of sixty towns with attacks by armed bands and police on UNITA held villages. Soon fully fledged civil war once again raged in Angola. UNITA seeks to control the critical “diamond rich Lunde Norte and Lunde Sul regions” (Herbert, 1998 : 11) in the North East, which through diamond sales fund UNITA’s struggle. This also further reiterates UNITA’s presupposition to remove the wealth from the hands of a minority elite and to have it controlled by the true ’sons of the soil’. Influence by the UN is negated, in that the neutrality of the organisation is compromised through open association with MPLA and thereby the compromising of its credibility with UNITA.

In April 2000 the military situation teetered in a precarious balance.

“Reports indicate[d] that despite military clashes in several regions of the country, government forces have continued to be effective in further reducing the conventional war capability of UNITA and forcing it to resort to guerrilla attacks.” (Annan, 2000 :1)

Yet UNITA has replied with devastating guerrilla attacks on “the provinces of Uige, Kwanza-Norte, Kwanza-Sul, Malage, Huambo, Bie and Huila” (Annan, 2000 :1) and indirectly through the loss of life arising from:

” the continuous influx of internally displaced persons who are fleeing the countryside where fighting, road ambushes and mine accidents are common occurrences” (Annan, 2000 :1)

Indeed no resolution of the conflict is imminent. UNITA reports that:

” the massive re-armament of MPLA by Russia Portugal and Brazil; the supply of mercenaries from Israel, Russia, Ukraine, Portugal and Brazil, and the exchange of military information with some NATO countries [along with the use of] lethal land and aerial war materials [including] napalm, phosphorous, cluster chemicals and air-fuel explosives [has resulted] in the massacre of thousands of the civilian population and the destruction of infrastructure and agricultural fields [as well as] .the withdrawal of [UNITA] forces from strategic positions [with] the immediate objective of preserving [their] forces.” (UNITA External Mission 1991 :1)

Nonetheless UNITA reassure their supporters that they “have lost neither men nor materials” (UNITA External Mission 1991 :1) and that while they may be witness to the:

“premeditated genocide perpetuated by Eduardo dos Santos [their] will and determination are undiminished [and they have] begun a new phase in [their] struggle.” (UNITA External Mission 1991 :1)

It is evident that UNITA feel themselves to be representative of the ’sons of the soil’. For them the war is fought primarily according to ethnic, racial and class differences. They speak of “genocide” and later in the same statement assert that they will “not be drawn into a war situation which only serves to please the oil interests of some NATO countries.” UNITA feel that the land is theirs by birthright and they should be in control of it. Simply becoming a normal political party is not enough, they must rule in order to bring about the return of Angola to its true ’sons’. Angola’s wealth in the hands of others is, for them, an unbearable thought. Because the diamond and oil regions geographically fall into Kimbundu and ‘mesticos’ (and hence mainly MPLA) areas respectively, the war for UNITA has become one drawn on the cleavages of ethnicity and class. In which they, the simple, children of the earth, defend their birthright from the hands of impostors to the throne. The lines across which the UNITA battle is drawn are clear. What then of the MPLA government?

President dos Santos in his address on Angolan Independence day in 1999 proffered that “military victories over UNITA rebels in conjunction with the newly established socio-economic measures have revived hope for the future.” (Angolan Mission Observer, 1999 :1) dos Santos, in the same address, argues that peace negotiations with Savimbi have failed in the past and thus he defends a military campaign to ensure peace. He also offers a reconciliatory appeal to UNITA to lay down their weapons. “All those who [decide] to lay down their arms will be well received, rehabilitated into society, and should they wish it , will be able to resume party political activity.” (Angolan Mission Observer, 1999 :1) Indeed, he appeals to Angolans to support the government in its efforts for a lasting peace. Further on dos Santos announces government plans to revise electoral issues, security and social assistance. He also mentions his strategy for economic reform including assistance from the international community. (Angolan Mission Observer, 1999 :1) It is clear that MPLA consider their legitimacy enshrined through the electoral process. While UNITA alienates the international community, the government seems to be trying to integrate the country into the global arena. MPLA has defined reconciliation and rebuilding plans in place. It would seem that for tem the war is moving away from merely ethnically defined issues. Military defeat of Savimbi is their only logical course for a lasting peace. For MPLA the fight is necessary only to attain the longer term goal of peace and reconciliation. But as already discussed such a kind of democratic rule will not be tolerated by UNITA. It appears that the belligerents are in irreconcilable opposition.

What are the consequences of the civil war in Angola for the international community? International reaction to the Angolan crises seems to revolve around three main issues, namely, the consequences for Africa, the UN’s failure in the situation, and the problem of refugees. Each of these will be dealt with critically. The repercussions for the African continent are powerful indeed. It seems the entire central African region is in upheaval. The Angolan issue along with the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda questions create a notoriously bleak perception of the entire continent as a violent and unstable area. The perpetuation of this image can only lead to crisis throughout the continent. (Argus, 1998 :9) Indeed business aspirations within the continent and from abroad are continually frustrated. Not least of these, the trade in the powerful commodities of diamonds and oil which are manipulated by UNITA and MPLA respectively. Such skulduggery further prevents Africa from reaching its potential. (Carter, 1999 :19) It is evident that the war ” in Angola [has] disrupted the journey of Africa out of a period of despair.” (The Star, 1999 :8)

The UN has been internationally criticised for ‘failing’ Angola. The UN’s slow response to the call for a mandate to disarm UNITA as far back as the early ’90s, has been blamed for the extension of the conflict. Sanctions were not employed until they were effectively useless and the U.S. has interfered on several occasions when a decisive victory over Savimbi seemed imminent. It is the mammoth power held by the U.S.A. which is most ardently criticised. Allegations of an hidden USA. agenda in Africa abound. Nonetheless the UN is most misguided in its assumption that a quick and easy peaceful solution in Angola may be reached. (Gordon, 1999 :10) Indeed Kofi Annan’s (UN Secretary General) recommendation to the UN to end operations in Angola arose from the very initial misadministration of the conflict. Due to UN mistakes more starvation, refugee issues and repatriation problems must be endured. (Landsberg, 1999 :8) In its defence the UN cites threats to its personnel, in particular the downing of UN planes, and the incapacitation of the peace process at the hands of UNITA as ample cause for its retreat. (McGreal, 1999 :1) That an organisation such the UN may be affected and even harmed by the civil war in Angola serves as confirmation of the intensity of he conflict, which, in turn, heralds great ramifications within the global arena.

Lastly the issue of refugees is of great concern within the international community. Hundreds upon hundreds of refugees from Angola stream into Zambia and Namibia literally daily. Over 20000 refugees fled into Zambia between October 1999 and January this year, while as many as 2 million are reported to be internally displaced. This in a population of but 11 million! (Grieves, 2000 :1 and Suleseki, 2000 :1) The resulting ‘domino effect’ has repercussions as far south as South Africa. (Phahlane, 1998 :2) The question of refugees is most pertinent within the international system. Displaced persons have had their basic human rights violated. And they infringe upon the economic, social and political abilities of other sovereign states. The embroilment in Angola resultantly has widespread consequences throughout Africa and hence the international system.

In conclusion, what is the prognosis for Angola in the coming six months? UNITA and MPLA are at loggerheads and the wall which divides them seems insurmountable. The Southern African Development Community (SADC) purports that the OAU should officiate resolution of the problem. (Herbert, 1998 :1) But, as we have already explored, the UN was unable to effectively resolve the issue. How then will the OAU with its unimpressive track record hope to contain such a mammoth embroilment? Perhaps a path to peace lies within Angola itself. By moving away from the concrete definition of the conflict according to the belligerents’ interests in oil and diamonds or ethnic issues; and toward a compromise between the two which enshrines the needs of each. A solution similar to that which worked within the South African context. (Singh, 1999 :45) This solution, too, seems unlikely; when one considers that UNITA believe that the wealth of the country is theirs by right. Therefore for them leadership and ownership of Angola is a foremost need if they are to lay down their weapons. Similarly MPLA while reconciliatory, will not want their democratically won legitimacy undermined. It must be deduced then that, for at least the next six months, Angola will continue to find itself in the grip of a miserable civil war. Thousands will die in fighting, and through hunger and landmines. Many will flee to foreign countries and survive there, in the most basic of conditions. The international community will view Africa as an evermore unstable and dangerous continent, and hence economic development will suffer throughout. The UN will complete its withdrawal while a country with immense potential continues to be torn apart. Angola, a nation on its knees, will surely continue its sad decline, while the cause of liberation and freedom is sullied by belligerents who turn a populace against itself.


Angolan Mission Observer. 1999. President dos Santos Addresses the Nation for Independence Day.

Anna K. 2000. Military Situation.

Cape Argus Editorial. 4 August 1998. Central African Meltdown? Cape Argus : South Africa

Carter C. 25 July 1999. Angola still showing the dark and dangerous side of Africa. City Press : South Africa.

Goldman A. 1999. Angola: The roots of conflict. /newsid_ /

Gordon C. 25 January 1999. How the UN failed Angola. Mail & Guardian.

Grieves K. 2000. Angolan strife spurs wave of refugee flight.

Herbert R. 2 August 1998. Africa passes buck as Angola slides into war. The Sunday Independent : South Africa.

Landsberg C. 22 January 1999. Angola out in the cold. Sowetan : South Africa.

McGreal C. 1999. To quit or not? UN ponders its Angola role.

Phahlane C. 29 July 1998. SA faces refugee flood from Angola. Cape Argus : South Africa

Saluseki B. 2000. More Angolans Continue To Cross Into Zambia.

Singh A. 12 March 1999. Redefine the Problem. Financial Mail.

The Star Editorial. 8 January 1999. Working for African Peace. The Star : South Africa

UNITA External Mission. 1999. 1999 – Year of Generalised Popular Resistance.


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