The People's Republic of Angola was born on November 11, 1975, in the midst of civil war. Six weeks before, on September 25, it was revealed that the U.S. was helping, through the CIA, two groups fighting for control of the country. The U.S. government had secretly sent at least $60 million to the FNLA and Unita that spring.
Secretary of State Kissinger claimed the arms and money were sent because of Angola's strategic significance. William Colby, head of the CIA, later told Congress that Angola has no such importance. The question remained: Why had the U.S. gotten involved in this small African country?
Some Background to U.S. Involvement
When the April 1974 coup in Portugal took place, the People's Movement for the Liberation of Angola--MPLA--controlled large areas of Angola. In these areas it set up cooperatives, while in the towns it organized trade unions. The FNLA, which the CIA had supported since 1962, was "virtually inactive" by 1972. (1) FNLA was based almost entirely in the Bakongo tribe. Unita retained a little more credibility, but was also small and tribally based. The U.S. government showed its opinion of Unita when it said in a top secret memorandum (NSSM 39) that the Portuguese allowed Unita to exist mainly to "offset" the MPLA. Unita reportedly controlled some small areas in Angola at the time of the Portuguese coup.
Soon after the April 1974 coup it became clear that Angola, Mozambique and Guinea Bissau were going to be granted independence. MPLA was the strongest group in Angola; it was also the most independent and nationalist.
Kissinger, who strongly objects to the MPLA, authorized greatly increased CIA aid to the FNLA and Unita. In doing this, he overrode the Africa Desk of the U.S. State Department. The Africa Desk staff knew that U.S. support, through NATO, of the Portuguese colonialists against the African liberation movements would make it hard for the U.S. to present itself as the defenders of freedom in southern Africa. Nathaniel Davis, head of the Africa Desk, resigned in protest.
Through the spring, reports reached the Zambian press of FNLA/Unita attacks on MPLA cadres and supporters. FNLA reportedly imprisoned, tortured and massacred anyone who opposed it. By independence last November, full-scale war had broken out.
The situation was complicated further by the presence of South African troops in Angola. The South African army moved in to take over the Cunene Dam project, just over the border from Namibia, during the summer. A few months later, South Africa's defense minister admitted it was much further inside Angola, giving "tactical support to Unita. Its numbers have been estimated at somewhere between 2500 and 6000.
White mercenaries also fought on the side of the FNLA/Unita coalition. No hard figures are available; the lowest figure given is about 1000. An unknown number of Zairois is also helping the FNLA--estimates go up to 10,000.
In response to South Africa, U.S. and Zairois aid to the FNLA and Unita, the MPLA asked socialist countries for aid. The aid given was quite sufficient: over 10,000 Cuban troops (according to the U.S. press) and advanced equipment. The U.S. government tried to paint this as wanton aggression, but it finally admitted, as reported in The New York Times, that Soviet aid to the MPLA started after the massive increase in U.S. aid to FNLA and Unita last spring.
Despite United States, Zairois and South African aid however, Unita and FNLA soon folded. The Unita/FNLA coalition never had the popular support needed to win; that is why they had to ask for aid in the first place. And they quickly lost the support they had as they massacred and looted their way through Angola. For example, London Times reporters saw mass graves of MPLA supporters in Luanda; in a Unita prison which once held 140 MPLA cadres, only seven were alive when the MPLA took over. (2)
By contrast, in MPLA-controlled areas, worker and peasant committees were organized to resume production in the countryside and towns. These committees also form communication links between MPLA leadership and the people. (3)
Southern African Connections
To understand U.S. involvement with the unpopular FNLA and Unita, it is necessary to understand the overall situation in southern Africa.
The dominant, and by far the most industrialized country in southern Africa is South Africa. South Africa is also the most repressive country on the continent, perhaps in the world. It rules through the apartheid system, a system of institutionalized racism.