Angola Historical Setting
Source: The Library of Congress Country Studies
A village near Pungo Andongo, formerly Pungua -Ndondong, the capital of the Ndongo Kingdom in the sixteenth century
Figure 2. Major Angolan Kingdoms, 1200-1900
IN NOVEMBER 1975, after nearly five centuries as a Portuguese colony, Angola became an independent state. By late 1988, however, despite fertile land, large deposits of oil and gas, and great mineral wealth, Angola had achieved neither prosperity nor peace-- the national economy was stagnating and warfare was ravaging the countryside. True independence also remained unrealized as foreign powers continued to determine Angola's future.
But unattained potential and instability were hardships well known to the Angolan people. They had suffered the outrage of slavery and the indignity of forced labor and had experienced years of turmoil going back to the early days of the indigenous kingdoms.
The ancestors of most present-day Angolans found their way to the region long before the first Portuguese arrived in the late fifteenth century. The development of indigenous states, such as the Kongo Kingdom, was well under way before then. The primary objective of the first Portuguese settlers in Angola, and the motive behind most of their explorations, was the establishment of a slave trade. Although several early Portuguese explorers recognized the economic and strategic advantages of establishing friendly relations with the leaders of the kingdoms in the Angolan interior, by the middle of the sixteenth century the slave trade had engendered an enmity between the Portuguese and the Africans that persisted until independence.
Most of the Portuguese who settled in Angola through the nineteenth century were exiled criminals, called degredados (see Glossary), who were actively involved in the slave trade and spread disorder and corruption throughout the colony. Because of the unscrupulous behavior of the degredados, most Angolan Africans soon came to despise and distrust their Portuguese colonizers. Those Portuguese who settled in Angola in the early twentieth century were peasants who had fled the poverty of their homeland and who tended to establish themselves in Angolan towns in search of a means of livelihood other than agriculture. In the process, they squeezed out the mestiços (people of mixed African and white descent; see Glossary) and urban Africans who had hitherto played a part in the urban economy. In general, these later settlers lacked capital, education, and commitment to their new homelands.
When in the early 1930s António Salazar established the New State (Estado Novo) in Portugal, Angola was expected to survive on its own. Accordingly, Portugal neither maintained an adequate social and economic infrastructure nor invested directly in longterm development.
Ideologically, Portugal maintained that increasing the density of white rural settlement in Angola was a means of "civilizing" the African. Generally, the Portuguese regarded Africans as inferior and gave them few opportunities to develop either in terms of their own cultures or in response to the market. The Portuguese also discriminated politically, socially, and economically against assimilados (see Glossary)--those Africans who, by acquiring a certain level of education and a mode of life similar to that of Europeans, were entitled to become citizens of Portugal. Those few Portuguese officials and others who called attention to the mistreatment of Africans were largely ignored or silenced by the colonial governments.
By the 1950s, African-led or mestiço-led associations with explicit political goals began to spring up in Angola. The authoritarian Salazar regime forced these movements and their leaders to operate in exile. By the early 1960s, however, political groups were sufficiently organized (if also divided by ethnic loyalties and personal animosities) to begin their drives for independence. Moreover, at least some segments of the African population had been so strongly affected by the loss of land, forced labor, and stresses produced by a declining economy that they were ready to rebel on their own. The result was a series of violent events in urban and rural areas that marked the beginning of a long and often ineffective armed struggle for independence.
To continue its political and economic control over the colony, Portugal was prepared to use whatever military means were necessary. In 1974 the Portuguese army, tired of warfare not only in Angola but in Portugal's other African colonies, overthrew the Lisbon regime. The new regime left Angola to its own devices--in effect, abandoning it to the three major anticolonial movements.
Ideological differences and rivalry among their leaderships divided these movements. Immediately following independence in 1975, civil war erupted between the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola -- MPLA) on the one hand and the National Front for the Liberation of Angola (Frente Nacional de Libertação de Angola -- FNLA) and the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (União Nacional para a Independência Total de Angola -- UNITA) on the other hand. The MPLA received support from the Soviet Union and Cuba, while the FNLA turned to the United States. UNITA, unable to gain more than nominal support from China, turned to South Africa. Viewing the prospect of a Soviet-sponsored MPLA government with alarm, South Africa invaded Angola. The Soviet and Cuban reaction was swift: the former provided the logistical support, and the latter provided troops. By the end of 1976, the MPLA, under the leadership of Agostinho Neto, was in firm control of the government. Members of UNITA retreated to the bush to wage a guerrilla war against the MPLA government, while the FNLA became increasingly ineffective in the north in the late 1970s.
The MPLA, which in 1977 had declared itself a Marxist-Leninist vanguard party, faced the task of restoring the agricultural and production sectors that nearly had been destroyed with the departure of the Portuguese. Recognizing that traditional MarxistLeninist policies of large-scale expropriation and state ownership would undermine redevelopment efforts, Neto permitted private involvement in commercial and small-scale industry and developed substantial economic relations with Western states, especially in connection with Angola's oil industry.
After Neto's death in 1979, José Eduardo dos Santos inherited considerable economic difficulties, including the enormous military costs required to fight UNITA and South African forces. By the end of 1985, the security of the Luanda regime depended almost entirely on Soviet-supplied weaponry and Cuban troop support. Consequently, in the late 1980s Luanda's two main priorities were to end the UNITA insurgency and to make progress toward economic development. By late 1988, a United States-sponsored peace agreement held out some hope that, given time, both priorities could be achieved.
Data as of February 1989
NOTE: The information regarding Angola on this page is re-published from The Library of Congress Country Studies. No claims are made regarding the accuracy of Angola Historical Setting information contained here. All suggestions for corrections of any errors about Angola Historical Setting should be addressed to the Library of Congress.