Three Armies, Fighting for Angola

The American press has been conspicuously mystified by the conflicts in Angola since the Portuguese revolution. It presents a drama with two antagonists: the Moscow-backed Communist Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) and the anti-Communist nationalists, the National Front for the Liberation of Angola (FNLA), supported by Peking. A third actor waits in the wings, its role uncertain: the Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA). But the situation is more complex than this First the factions themselves:


Headed by Agostino Neto, a noted national poet, it was formed in the late 1950s by European-educated Angolan intellectuals, centered in the capital city Luanda and associated with the short-lived Angolan Communist Party. Though it is influential with diverse groups such as the cotton-producing Mbundu a tribesmen of the hinterland northeast of Luanda, the MPLA draws the bulk of its support from the urban poor of the muceques, the black slums which ring Luanda. The Marxism of the MPLA, with its sophisticated critique of neo-colonialism, racialism and tribalism, attracts support in those areas where Portuguese economic influence penetrated most deeply, dissolving traditional tribal social life through urban enterprise, the free market and administrative bureaucracy.

Able to mobilize huge demonstrations in Luanda, as when 300,000 celebrated its anniversary last February, the MPLA's program for Angola includes poder popular, loosely translated as power to the people, which involves self-help through community organizations and has as its goal mass direct democracy. To this end, the MPLA has organized a whole series of popular institutions, from a national labor union and an organization of Angolan women to Centers of Revolutionary Instruction and a medical assistance program which campaign to bring literacy and health care to the countryside.



Led by Holden Roberto, it also began among the European-educated, but was originally connected quite closely to Bakongo nationalism and then to Pan-Africanism. The Bakongo, former residents of the Kingdom of the Kongo destroyed in the nineteenth century, are a populous nation divided among Zaire, Congo, and northwestern Angola, whose bitter experience with forced labor on the Portugese coffee plantations provoked them to a bloody revolt in 1961 and to energetic resistance ever since. While the FNLA's precursors sought to reconstitute the Kingdom of the Kongo, whose last king died in 1962, Roberto's contacts with African nationalists and socialists such as Fanon and Lumumba enabled him to convince his compatriots to broaden their scope to the liberation of the whole of Angola and to renounce tribalism officially. The FNLA, who now welcome the anti-tribalist influence of the Portugese occupation, claim that there is only one FNLA minister who speaks the Bakongo language, and have attracted to their ranks Daniel Chipenda, a pro-Maoist Ovimbundu from the southeast who split from the MPLA last year with 3000 men. But they have previously failed in efforts to win over the Ovimbundu and Cabindan tribes. In any event, the FNLA is still firmly anchored among the Bakongo, many of whom view Roberto as the heir of the Kongolese dynasty. The return of half of the 600,000 Bakongos who fled Portuguese repression after the 1961 revolt reinforces the FNLA tribal base substantially.

The FNLA, whose motto "self reliance" is reminiscent of the Chinese who train their 20,000-strong army in camps in Zaire, oppose the MPLA program poder popular because "within the context of our country, direct democracy is not possible." Holden Roberto has described his brand of socialism as neither right nor left, African above all--"If socialism is economic growth and a better life for the people, then I am a socialist" but denounces Neto's "Vandalistic socialism."


Joseph Savimbi's organization is difficult to categorize. Originally Roberto's right-hand man, Savimbi split in 1964, charging tribalism, and formed UNITA in 1966 to fight within Angola's borders rather than from adjacent countries as did the other groups. UNITA draws its support from the Ovimbundu of the southeast, who represent 38 per cent of the population, as well as from basically non-aligned tribes in the center. Ovimbundu living in Southwest Africa are so troublesome to South Africa that the Vorster government is considering allowing them to secede and unite with their brethren in Angola.

Savimbi is a slick and opportunistic politician who seeks to present himself as a moderate and a mediator, the logical compromise choice to become the first president of Angola. He rejects the anti-imperialist rhetoric of the MPLA and FNLA as irresponsible: "Complete independence is impossible. The population must not be misled on this point by propaganda. We must wait long years to attain economic independence." Savimbi favors "democratic socialism" and wants to "build a socialist society in Africa--not one molded on China, Senegal, or Congo, but one that fits in with the history and realities of our country."

UNITA has already attracted the support of Angolan whites whose own parties have been banned. It has been allied with both the MPLA and the FNLA at various times; it is even rumored that Savimbi cooperated with the Portugese against the MPLA. UNITA has participated in none of the recent street fighting and is currently allied with the FNLA, but if the tide should turn further in favor of the MPLA, one can assume that Savimbi will flow with it. If the future of Angola is decided by a presidential election, his non-aligned stance and populous tribe could well fulfil his ambitions.


In January 1975, the Portuguese met with representatives from the three parties at Alvor to create a transitional government and a timetable for independence. The Alvor accords set November 11 as the date for independence, prescribed elections within nine months, banned all parties except the signatories, established a cease-fire freezing troops in their present locations but permitting liberty of propaganda, and created a transitional government in which each party has equal representation. The three parties and the Portuguese would jointly police Luanda, while each party would contribute 8,000 troops to a national army, to be matched by 24,000 Portugese. The last Portugese troops are scheduled to leave on February 29, 1976. The accords also declared Cabinda, an oil-rich enclave along the Congo River, to be an integral part of Angola, quashing separatist hopes nourished by Zaire, Congo and Gulf Oil.

The Alvor accords began to collapse as soon as they were signed. The FNLA attacked MPLA muceques in Luanda and arrested MPLA literacy teams in their own territory. The new Portugese administration openly favored its ideological comrades of the MPLA. Street fighting between the MPLA and the FNLA erupted. The real fireworks, however, have been in the last two weeks--the MPLA and the FNLA have battled it out in the muceques of Luanda with mortars and bazookas. Having been driven from the capital, the last FNLA troops are now besieged in an old cliffside fort dangerously close to Angola's only oil refinery. The MPLA's military success has destroyed the provisional government, and FNLA march on Luanda from the North seems imminent, and a full scale war may start any day.

The FNLA is numerically superior but somewhat isolated while the MPLA has strategic position, control of Luanda. Portiguese support and little else. The prospect of civil war is further complicated by the presence of close to half a million Portuguese settlers, who are being evacuated as fast as possible, if civil war breaks out the Portuguese government will be obliged to intervene to extricate its citizens.


Beyond tribal rivalries, whose significance is problematic, there are two key issues: the territorial integrity of Angola and the nature of its path to economic development. Angola could be partitioned along political tribal geographical lines: the Bakongo and the Ovimbundu might rejoin their countrymen to the north and the south, leaving an MPLA rump consisting of Luanda and its hinterland. This solution is certain to be opposed by responsible African leaders, such as Kaunda of Zambia and Nyerere of Tanzania, but would be welcomed by South Africa.

Economically, Angola is an extremely rich prize: in addition to its booming industry and commerce, it possesses vast supplies of diamonds, iron, coffee, cotton and other natural resources. Texaco has discovered an oil bed off northern Angola which is half as large as that of Nigeria and ten times the size of the Cabinda concessions which have already provoked gleams in neighborly eyes. The 1960s saw the rapid expansion of investment from US, South African, German, British, and Japanese companies in exploiting this treasure trove. Thus policy toward foreign investment is crucial for whatever regime emerges. The MPLA would be likely to take a hard line on foreign capital, the FNLA somewhat less so, whereas UNITA might prove very pliable indeed. The MPLA, despite its Soviet ties, is probably the most likely of the three to seriously attempt to apply a Chinese model of development to its economy along the lines of Tanzania.

Whatever happens, the events of the next few months are crucial for the Angolan peoples, who have endured four hundred years of one of the harshest colonial regimes in history.