Government and Politics - BACKGROUND

Angola Table of Contents

Political units in southwestern Africa evolved into complex structures long before the arrival of the first Portuguese traveler, Diogo C o, in 1483. The Bantu-speaking and Khoisan- speaking hunters the Portuguese encountered were descendants of those who had peopled most of the region for centuries. Pastoral and agricultural villages and kingdoms had also arisen in the northern and central plateaus. One of the largest of these, the Kongo Kingdom, provided the earliest resistance to Portuguese domination. The Bakongo (people of Kongo) and their southern neighbors, the Mbundu, used the advantage of their large population and centralized organization to exploit their weaker neighbors for the European slave trade.

To facilitate nineteenth-century policies emphasizing the extraction of mineral and agricultural resources, colonial officials reorganized villages and designed transportation routes to expedite marketing these resources. Colonial policy also encouraged interracial marriage but discouraged education among Africans, and the resulting racially and culturally stratified population included people of mixed ancestry (mestiços), educated Angolans (assimilados who identified with Portuguese cultural values, and the majority of the African population that remained uneducated and unassimilated indígenas. Opportunities for economic advancement were apportioned according to racial stereotypes, and even in the 1960s schools were admitting barely more than 2 percent of the school-age African population each year.

Portugal resisted demands for political independence long after other European colonial powers had relinquished direct control of their African possessions. After unsuccessfully seeking support from the United Nations (UN) in 1959, educated Luandans organized a number of resistance groups based on ethnic and regional loyalties. By the mid-1970s, four independence movements vied with one another for leadership of the emerging nation.

The MPLA, established by mestiços and educated workers in Luanda, drew its support from urban areas and the Mbundu population that surrounded the capital city. The Union of Peoples of Northern Angola (União das Populações do Norte de Angola -- UPNA) was founded to defend Bakongo interests. The UPNA soon dropped its northern emphasis and became the Union of Angolan Peoples (União das Populações de Angola -- UPA) in an attempt to broaden its ethnic constituency, although it rebuffed consolidation attempts by other associations. The UPA, in turn, formed the National Front for the Liberation of Angola (Frente Nacional de Libertação de Angola -- FNLA) in 1962, when it merged with other northern dissident groups.

A variety of interpretations of Marxist philosophy emerged during the 1950s and 1960s, a period when Western nations refused to pressure Portugal (a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization--NATO) to upgrade political life in its colonies. The Portuguese Communist Party (Partido Comunista Português--PCP) helped organize African students in Lisbon and encouraged them to press for independence. A campaign of arrests and forced exile crushed most Angolan nationalist leadership, but in Portugal underground antifascist groups were gaining strength, and Angolan liberation movements flourished. The MPLA established its headquarters in Léopoldville, Belgian Congo (present-day Kinshasa, Zaire), and in 1962, after a period of exile and imprisonment, Agostinho Neto became head of the MPLA.

Neto, a physician, poet, and philosopher, strengthened the MPLA's left-wing reputation with his rhetorical blend of socialist ideology and humanist values. He also led the group in protests against enforced cotton cultivation, discriminatory labor policies, and colonial rule in general. MPLA and UPA leaders agreed to cooperate, but long-standing animosities led members of these two groups to sabotage each other's efforts. Within the MPLA, leadership factions opposed each other on ideological grounds and policy issues, but with guidance from the Soviet Union they resolved most of their disputes by concentrating power in their high command. Soviet military assistance also increased in response to the growing commitment to building a socialist state.

In April 1974, the Portuguese army overthrew the regime in Lisbon, and its successor began dismantling Portugal's colonial empire. In November 1974, Lisbon agreed to grant independence. However, after centuries of colonial neglect, Angola's African population was poorly prepared for self-government: there were few educated or trained leaders and almost none with national experience. Angola's liberation armies contested control of the new nation, and the coalition established by the Alvor Agreement in January 1975 quickly disintegrated.

Events in Angola in 1975 were catastrophic. Major factors that contributed to the violence that dogged Angola's political development for over a decade were the incursions into northern Angola by the United States-backed and Zairian-backed FNLA; an influx of Cuban advisers and, later, troops providing the MPLA with training and combat support; South African incursions in the south; UNITA attacks in the east and south, some with direct troop support from Pretoria; and dramatic increases in Soviet matériel and other assistance to the MPLA. Accounts of the sequence of these critical events differed over the next decade and a half, but most observers agreed that by the end of 1975 Angola was effectively embroiled in a civil war and that growing Soviet, Cuban, South African, and United States involvement in that war made peace difficult to achieve.

International recognition came slowly to the MPLA, which controlled only the northern third of the nation by December 1975. A small number of former Portuguese states and Soviet allies recognized the regime, and Nigeria led the Organization of African Unity (OAU) in granting recognition. The FNLA and UNITA attempted unsuccessfully to establish a rival government in the Angolan town of Huambo, but no one outside Angola recognized their regime. By the end of 1976, Angola was a member of the UN and was recognized by most other African states, but its domestic legitimacy remained in question.

MPLA leader Neto had avoided ideological labels during the struggle for independence, although the MPLA never concealed the Marxist bias of some of its members. Neto viewed Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy as a means of unifying and organizing Angola's diverse society and of establishing agricultural growth as the basis for economic development. He also hoped to avoid disenfranchising urban workers or encouraging the growth of a rural bourgeoisie, while maintaining crucial military support from the Soviet Union and Cuba.

One of the MPLA's many slogans, "people's power" (poder popular), had won broad support for the group before independence, especially in Luanda, where neighborhood self-help groups were formed to defend residents of poor and working-class neighborhoods against armed banditry. This movement was quickly curtailed by the police, but people's power remained a popular symbol of the demand for political participation. After independence, despite constitutional guarantees of people's power, the slogan became a symbol of unrealized expectations. President Neto, despite his democratic ideals, quickly developed an autocratic governing style. He introduced austerity measures and productivity campaigns and countered the resulting popular discontent with an array of security and intelligence operations.

Industrial workers, who were among the first to organize for people's power, found their newly formed unions absorbed into the MPLA-controlled National Union of Angolan Workers (União Nacional dos Trabalhadores Angolanos--UNTA), and the party began to absorb other popular organizations into the party structure. Students, laborers, and peasant farmers agitated against what they perceived as a mestiço-dominated political elite, and this resentment, even within the ranks of the MPLA itself, culminated in an abortive coup attempt led by the former minister of interior, Nito Alves, in May 1977.

In the aftermath of the 1977 Nitista coup attempt, the MPLA redefined the rules for party membership. After the First Party Congress in December 1977 affirmed the Central Committee's decision to proclaim its allegiance to Marxist-Leninist ideals, the MPLA officially became a "workers' party" and added "-PT" (for "Partido de Trabalho") to its acronym. In 1978 its leaders began a purge of party cadres, announcing a "rectification campaign" to correct policies that had allowed the Nitista factions and other "demagogic" tendencies to develop. The MPLA-PT reduced its numbers from more than 100,000 to about 31,000, dropping members the party perceived as lacking dedication to the socialist revolution. Most of those purged were farmers or educated mestiços, especially those whose attitudes were considered "petit bourgeois." Urban workers, in contrast to rural peasants, were admitted to the MPLA-PT in fairly large numbers.

By the end of the 1970s, the ruling party was smaller, more unified, and more powerful, but it had lost standing in rural areas, and its strongest support still came from those it was attempting to purge--educated mestiços and assimilados. Progress was hampered by losses in membership, trade, and resources resulting from emigration and nearly two decades of warfare. The MPLA-PT attempted to impose austerity measures to cope with these losses, but in the bitter atmosphere engendered by the purges of the late 1970s, these policies further damaged MPLA-PT legitimacy. Pursuing the socialist revolution was not particularly important in non-Mbundu rural areas, in part because of the persistent impression that mestiços dominated the governing elite. National politicians claimed economic privilege and allowed corruption to flourish in state institutions, adding to the challenges faced by dos Santos, who became MPLA-PT leader in 1979.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress