Angola: First civil war (1975-1992)

Updated October 2005

The agreement between the Angolan parties, the MPLA, FNLA and UNITA and Portugal to establish a joint transitional government in January 1995 came to naught. The civil war that had begun before independence raged on. Even before the Portuguese flag was furled the joint party patrols that were meant to keep the peace were fighting one another in the capital and the provinces when Angola became independent on November 11, 1975 (Meijer & Birmingham 2004, Accord 2004).

Each side in the conflict had its Cold War foreign backers, the MPLA received aid from the USSR, Cuba and the People's Republic of Congo, the FNLA from the USA, China and Zaïre and UNITA from the USA and South Africa. The MPLA was able to expel the others from the capital and, defeating an FNLA assault on Luanda, went on the offensive. They proclaimed a socialist one-party state with Agostinho Neto as president and received widespread international recognition. Early military gains were reversed in October, when South African troops from Namibia (then South West Africa) invaded from the south in support of UNITA. Only a massive influx of Cuban troops prevented the fall of Luanda to them (Meijer & Birmingham 2004).

The withdrawal of the Portuguese government sparked a panicked exodus of white settlers, by the end of 1975 less than 10% remained. The exodus of the settlers was accompanied by widespread destruction of infrastructure, and the economy was bereft of skilled labour. This, combined with the debilitating effects of the civil war, brought the economy to a rapid halt. The MPLA government responded to the crisis by nationalising Portuguese firms, but not foreign oil companies (Library of Congress 1989p, History World undated, Meijer & Birmingham 2004).

The MPLA changed its name to the MPLA-Workers' Party (MPLA-PT) and began an internal reorganisation to transform itself from a mass party into van-guard party on the Soviet model. Members were expelled and a centralised, highly disciplined, tightly organised and minutely supervised Marxist-Leninist party was created (Angolan Embassy 1996a). The Catholic Church, which had been favoured by the Portuguese colonial regime, was suppressed. All trade unions, youth organisations, media and other civil society structures were placed under state control. The state was so thoroughly penetrated by and subordinated to the party that no practical distinction between the two existed (Meijer & Birmingham 2004).

With Cuban assistance a military counter-offensive was launched in January 1976, driving back the South African-UNITA forces, capturing Huambo, and forcing the FNLA back into Zaïre. By March the South Africans, lacking promised US support due to an Act of Congress, had withdrawn. The capture of the major urban centres did not bring the war to the end, for both UNITA and the FNLA withdrew to the bush from where they conducted guerrilla campaigns against the MPLA (Accord 2004).

UNITA found itself in a relatively strong position. With South African support it was able to establish a secure base in the remote south-east of the country under the cover of the South African Air Force. With South African arms and materiel, and periodic direct South African intervention, it was able to reorganize and began to harry the MPLA supply lines (Angolan Embassy 1996b). Its diplomatic offensive in the West bore fruit, particularly in Reagan's America, and it was increasingly viewed as an anti-communist alternative to the MPLA. By the late 1970's the FNLA, driven from the urban areas by the MPLA and progressively losing the support of traditional allies such as the USA and Zaïre, slowly disintegrated as a military force; its members were reabsorbed into the MPLA controlled society (Meijer & Birmingham 2004).

The MPLA's ability to function as an effective government was underpinned financially by revenue from diamond and oil exports and aid from the USSR. Technical, military, healthcare and educational expertise was provided by Cuba (Meijer & Birmingham 2004). Due to the military operations of UNITA control by the government of areas outside the cities was slight. The economic linkages between the interior and the coastal cities disintegrated. The cities were dependent on imported goods paid for by oil earnings while the rural areas reverted to subsistence agriculture to survive. The poverty in the rural areas forced a migration to the cities where there was no infrastructure and no jobs to provide for them (Meijer & Birmingham 2004).

By the death of Neto in 1979 the situation was something of a stalemate; UNITA was not able to dislodge its rival from the cities, nor was the MPLA able to decisively crush UNITA. José Dos Santos, who succeeded him, was able to obtain greater military, especially air support, from the Cubans. This made the South African military occupation of Southern Angola undertaken in 1981 ever more precarious. In 1984 secret talks between South Africa and the MPLA, begun in December 1982, came to fruition in the Lusaka accord. This provided for a withdrawal of South African troops from the south and of SWAPO troops from the southern border area (Accord 2004).

South Africa did not cease its support for UNITA and UNITA was further bolstered in 1986 when the USA began to provide it with military support. As a result UNITA was able to expand its military and operate throughout the rural areas of Angola (Angolan Embassy 1996a). By 1987 South Africa had returned to the fray and invaded southern Angola again. Failing to take Cuito Cuanavale after a long siege, the South Africans come to realise that no military solution to its security problems could be found. A series of accords brokered by the USA, USSR and Portugal, led to a withdrawal of South African and Cuban troops from Angola. This paved the way for the process of Namibian independence from South Africa to begin in 1989 (Meijer & Birmingham 2004, Accord 2004, History World undated).

The collapse of socialism in Eastern Europe, and the reduction in financial support due to the economic difficulties that the USSR was experiencing, undermined both the MPLA's commitment to socialism and its ability to successfully prosecute the war against UNITA. In 1990 UNITA recognised the legitimacy of the MPLA government as a transitional one, the MPLA formally renounced Marxist-Leninism in favour of Social Democracy, and in 1991 the two parties were able to arrive at a settlement (for more details see The Bicesse Accords). A new constitution was agreed on, the merger on the two forces into a single national army was blueprinted and multi-party elections were scheduled (Accord 2004, Angolan Embassy 1996g, History World undated).

The MPLA controlled National People's Assembly passed a range of legislation even before the agreement with UNITA; a variety of laws enshrined basic freedoms such as the right to strike, the freedom and independence of the media and freedom of association. Thus plurality of political parties was legalized and civil society structures, including the Catholic Church and the trade unions were permitted to operate free from state control. A mixed economy was introduced and private property and foreign investment was protected by law (Accord 2004).

The process of maintaining the peace and integrating the various forces was conducted by a Joint Political-Military Commission (CCPM) which was composed of members from the MPLA, UNITA, USA, USSR and Portugal. This was backed by a UN observer mission, UN Angola Verification Mission II (UNAVEM II), which included civilian, soldiers and police officers. Despite these measures the accord was not properly implemented; UNITA failed to handover control of some regions to the government and was suspected of holding back reserves of weapons and troops. By the date of the elections the integration of the various troops into a single armed force had not taken place except at the top levels, nor had the troops been disarmed (Accord 2004).


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ANGOLAN EMBASSY 1996a, "The MPLA takes over" IN Virtual Historical Tour of Angola, Washington DC, [www] (offline 10 Mar 2010).

ANGOLAN EMBASSY 1996b, "The War with UNITA" IN Virtual Historical Tour of Angola, Washington DC, [www] (offline 10 Mar 2010).

HISTORY WORLD UNDATED, "History of Angola", [www] [opens new window] (accessed 10 Mar 2010).

LIBRARY OF CONGRESS 1989p, "Administration and Development" IN Country Study: Angola [www] [opens new window] (accessed 10 Mar 2010).

MEIJER, G & BIRMINGHAM, D 2004, "Angola from past to present" Accord 15 [www] [opens new window] (accessed 10 Mar 2010).