The Angolan Civil War

(Originally published 9 March, 2014)

“Even if there is an ocean of evil around us, green and fertile islets will poke above the water. They can be seen, they are on the horizon. Even the worst situation in which we can find ourselves breaks into elements that include something to grab hold of, like the branch of a bush that grows on the bank, to avoid being sucked to the bottom of the whirlpool. That chink, that island, that branch sustains us on the surface of existence”

Another Day of Life‘, Ryszard Kapuscinski

In this recent month the West and the Russian Federation have been drawn into a diplomatic wrestling match which could determine the future of Ukraine. Ultimately the look at Angola is a case in which these two sides became dangerously confrontational in this proxy war and thousands upon thousands of lives were lost. This is hopefully not what will unfold in Ukraine, but the most likely worst case scenario as realistically confrontation between the West and Russia is very unlikely to occur. The independencevof Angola from Portugal coincided with the outbreak of the Angolan Civil War which lasted twenty seven years until stability was restored in 2002 following the death of Jonas Savimbi. 500,000 plus dead, thousands injured, millions displaced; this war has a unique place in the Cold War, a pawn in the conflict between the U.S.A and the Soviet Union.

Originally Ambundu, Ovimbundu, and Bakongo peoples (ethnic tribes in Angola) had been at war with the ethnic Potuguese-Angolan population since 1961, however in the wake of a leftist coup in Lisbon, independence was granted to Angola. The resulting fear of a backlash against the ethnic Portuguese prompted a mass exodus of the country. 500,000 people fled, Ryszard Kapuscinski describing the chaos in his remarkable book ‘Another Day of Life’. “A city on water” returned whence it came and left a power vacuum in its wake, nothing by which the population could gradually become accustomed to independent rule as the Portuguese colonists possessed the majority of the skilled workforce, much like the Belgians in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The agricultural, economic, and administrative foundations that held up Angola collapsed.

The country spilt into segments and anarchy. The war against Portuguese colonialism degenerated into a conflict between three parties; MPLA (the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola) on one side and UNITA (National Union for the Total Independence of Angola) and FNLA (National Front for the Liberation of Angola) on the other, though ultimately the latter did not take part in much of the civil war. The MPLA was led firstly by Agostinho Neto (who died of cancer in 1979) and secondly by Jose Eduardo dos Santos, the party was Cuban-funded, and received military backing by Castro during the war, and billions of dollars worth of support from the Soviet Union. UNITA, led by Jonas Savimbi, was funded by the Western powers and supported on the ground by South Africa (linked closely to the South African Bush War’s) for a number of years. Both South Africa (casualties 2,300 men) and Cuba (casualties 6,000 – 10,000 men) became entangled in the civil war. In response to the South African intervention, Cuba sent 18,000 soldiers as part of a large-scale military intervention nicknamed Operation Carlota in support of the MPLA after the Portuguese evacuated Angola. Cuba had initially provided the MPLA with 230 military advisers prior to the South African intervention. The Cuban intervention proved decisive in repelling the South African-UNITA advance.

What became intervention in 1970s by foreign troops escalated in the 1980s, the war intensifying and drawing increased involvement by the U.S., Russia, and other eastern blocs both sides determined to keep their party afloat in the escalating conflict. The 1980s was the most costly decade of the war for all sides and saw the most ferocious fighting. By the 1989 both sides were exhausted and drew up a ceasefire and a peace deal led to elections. But Unita rejected the outcome and resumed the war, in which hundreds of thousands more were killed. Another peace accord was signed in 1994 and the UN sent in peacekeepers. But the fighting steadily worsened again and in 1999 the peacekeepers withdrew, war continuing until the final onslaught against Savimbi in northern Angola and his death leaving Unita pledging for peace in 2002.

Hand to hand combat, attrition, child soldiers, ‘ideologically’ based, several parties, ethnic conflict, fuelled by diamonds and oil, environmental degradation, and a drawn-out proxy war; this conflict possessed all the ingredients to be labelled Africa’s Vietnam until it fizzled out in 2002.  For those familiar with Call of Duty Black Ops II, the Angolan Civil War in popular culture, is featured in the first campaign mission, “Pyrrhic Victory,” and the staggering brutality put on show in this particular mission illustrates the horrors of this war. At various stages, the violence has been characterised as anti-imperial and revolutionary, a Cold War proxy, or a brutal competition between rival elites for a wealth of natural resources, or often linked to ‘traditional’ ethnic rivalries stretching back years before colonialism.

Charismatic leaders like Jonas Savimbi came to encapsulate the confusion and inherent contradictions that defined the war. The leader of Unita. He was a remarkable man, equal in both utmost cruelty and military genius, an enigma, a combination of ideological leadership, the excesses of warlordism, a strategist and guerrilla fighter forged by Maoist China and above all an a-typical African rebel forged in Africa’s volatile political jungle. He was hailed in the Western sphere as a resolute hero of Western ideals in the face of Communist tyranny, the reality was that he was both intolerant of dissidents, used child soldiers to boost his cause, and ruthless in his quest to attain total power in Angola.

The conflict was moderately comparable to the Democratic Republic of Congo’s, however the latter was dominated ethnic hatred in the wake of the Rwandan genocide. Nevertheless the country was a haven for minerals and various other resources which lay beneath and funded much of the ongoing bloodshed. Angola is an oil-rich country, and is third largest producer of diamonds in Africa and has only explored 40% of the diamond-rich territory within the country, However foreign investment has been difficult to attract due to immense  corruption, human rights violations, and diamond smuggling. Its capacity to produce both oil, gas, and create an effective diamond industry underline the potential Angola has, but during the Angolan Civil War this potential economic goldmine forged war. The economic stakes as well as the ideologies of Marxism and Capitalism underlined motives of conflict. The former eventually trumped the ideological nature of the battle for Angola as realistically leaders of both movements came to be extraordinary rich while the majority suffered in abject poverty during the turmoil.

The costs of the war were staggering, one of the world’s fiercest in modern times, and one of the most costly in African history. The casualties are difficult to estimate, but over 15,000 casualties were sustained by foreign interventionist on both sides of the conflict South Africa, Cuba, and the Soviet Union sustaining losses. Over 5 million people were displaced by the conflict, and displacement remained a constant as the war lulled between light conflict to full-out war whilst the human rights violation were in equal measure unnerving as both sides utilised thousands of children as a weapon against one another either as cannon fodder, human shields, or bush-wives. One second’s hesitancy at looking at a child with a weapon was sometimes the difference between a man living or dying, a shocking moral dilemma in war.The expenditure to fund both the conflict and humanitarian aid was similarly colossal and the economy of Angola already depressed by the Portuguese exodus in October 1975 was all-but destroyed by the ceasefire in 1989. Over 500,000 Angolan corpses lay beneath the newly formed ‘multi-party’ government. It was a catastrophic victory.

Angola today is still recovering from the trauma of civil war, the very foundations of the country shattered economically, socially and politically. The country, however does have one of the most rapidly expanding economies in the world, but the government like most archetypal African governments’ is pervaded by corruption under Dos Santos as well as allegations of undermining political opposition and opposing criticism by media and journalism. These problems will have to be addressed if the country can pave its way to a true and lasting peace and establish fully-fledged economic stability and power in Africa, the potential of which like it’s neighbour the Congo is astronomical.

Angola’s Civil War represented many things. It represented the inherent contradictions in African politics and the utter incompetence of ending colonialism in Africa. It lacked tact and long-term planning, comparable to how one of my co-workers in Uganda described colonialism. He accepted that colonialism was a ruthless way to govern foreign societies, that European powers had, and have still, much to answer for in their rule. However he said their gravest mistake was that they left Uganda, the likes of Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo with no insight into the fundamental basics of administrative, fiscal, and economic rule. It was as he described ‘a mother abandoning its young child before it had the ability to grow up, learn, and prosper’.  

The Angolan Civil War optimised the cruelty of African warfare and the waste of harnessing potential and huge economic resources, and how international interference in a civil war can prolong it. It also highlighted the costs of foreign intervention, Angola being labelled ‘Cuba’s Vietnam’ and the costs of the Cold War to individual nations across the globe caught between the U.S and Soviet juggernauts. Lessons must be drawn from using a country as a strategic pawn by global power players, the costs for the country itself, its civilians, and future being both devastating and crippling.

Matthew Williams