Background Paper: Angola

By the Africa Policy Information Center (APIC),
Paper 001 (March 1995)

With oil and many other resources, Angola could be one of Africa's most prosperous countries. Even now it provides abundant opportunities for international trade and investment. But it also presents one of the worst humanitarian crises on the continent. Turning from crisis to reconstruction depends on peace.

In past centuries, Angola was among the areas most devastated by the slave trade. In recent decades, it has been afflicted with wars which like the slave wars have pitted African against African. In both eras, much of the violence was driven by powerful external forces. As Angolans try to put their country together again, international factors will also have much to do with their chances of success.

The latest war began after the losing party rejected the results of elections in 1992. A new peace treaty was signed in November 1994, and the United Nations has approved a new peace mission of up to 7,000 troops. But peace is still not guaranteed. Even if it is secured, the legacy of conflict poses a host of challenges.

Current Policy Issues:

The most fundamental issue is implementation of the peace treaty. The United States, stressing the need for both the Angolan government and the rebel group Unita to demonstrate their commitment to peace, has insisted on numerous restrictions on the timetable for sending international forces. African critics stress that the previous peace process, in 1991-1992, failed largely because the international community did not commit enough forces and turned a blind eye to Unita's resort to war after losing the election. They fear that Unita leader Jonas Savimbi will again take advantage of international ambivalence to delay the process or even turn to war again. For more information: Africa Policy Information Center.

Specific concerns particularly needing international response include landmine clearance necessary for recovering a minimum of security in the countryside and press freedom, essential for encouraging public debate on the country's other problems.

Landmines: Angola has one of the worst mine problems in the world, with between 8 and 20 million mines, many on roads or agricultural land. Among groups involved in landmine clearance is Norwegian People's Aid, which focuses on building local capacity for dealing with mines. It is cooperating with the Holland Committee on Southern Africa in raising international awareness. For more information: Holland Committee on Southern Africa, O.Z. Achterburgwal 173, 1012 DJ Amsterdam, the Netherlands. Tel: 31-20-6270801. Fax: 31-20-6270441.

Free press: The precarious status of new press freedom in Angola was emphasized by the assassination in January 1995 of independent journalist Ricardo de Mello. There are new critical voices, both in the government-owned media and small independent media ventures. But some forces within the government, concerned with covering up corruption or military secrets, have been involved in harrassment of the media. No one has yet been arrested for the de Mello killing. In Unita-held areas, journalists are even more restricted. For more information: Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA), Private Bag 13386, Windhoek, Namibia. Tel: 264-61-232975. Fax: 264-61-248016. Email:

Capsule History (pre-1960s): As early as 1,000 years ago, Angola was inhabited by peoples speaking Bantu languages, engaged in agriculture with iron tools and trade over long distances. Before the Portuguese arrived on the coast in the 16th century, African states included the Kongo kingdom and Mbundu kingdoms inland from Luanda. Ovimbundu kingdoms arose later on the central plateau.

Among leaders prominent in early Angolan history were King Afonso I of the Kongo and Queen Nzinga of the Mbundu kingdom of Matamba. In the 16th century King Afonso adopted Christianity, but his efforts at a constructive relationship with Portugal were frustrated by the slave trade. In the 17th century Queen Nzinga resisted Portuguese influence for decades.

The Portuguese soon established control over the port cities of Luanda and Benguela, but they did not conquer most of the country until the late 19th century. The dominant feature of European-Angolan relations was the slave trade, mostly to Brazil.

Colonial Portuguese rule in the 20th century was characterized by rigid dictatorship and exploitation of African labor. Despite theories of cultural assimilation, racial hierarchy prevailed. After World War II many new Portuguese settlers arrived, making up 5% of the population by the early 1970s.

In the 1950s and 1960s the economy grew rapidly, with coffee, diamonds and then oil. But Portugal denied the possibility of independence, claiming that Angola was an integral part of the Portuguese nation. Angolan nationalists were not allowed to organize openly.

Capsule History (since 1960): In their war for independence, which began in 1961, Angolans were divided. The National Front for the Liberation of Angola (FNLA) was based among Kikongo-speaking people in the north. Jonas Savimbi's National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (Unita) claimed leadership of Umbundu-speaking Angolans. The Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) had a national appeal, but its strongest base was among Kimbundu-speaking people in the Luanda area.

Portuguese control began to crumble in 1974, and rivalry led to war the next year. U.S., Zairian and South African military intervention in favor of the FNLA and Unita was countered by Cuban forces and Soviet supplies aiding the MPLA. After Angola's independence in November 1975, the victorious MPLA soon gained international recognition, except from the U.S. and South Africa. The U.S. Congress barred further U.S. military involvement in Angola. The South African troops then also withdrew.

Over 90% of the Portuguese settlers fled. Since they had monopolized almost all skilled jobs, the economy was devastated. State companies took over from the Portuguese, but lacked management skills. Only the oil sector, where the government worked with foreign companies, prospered.

From 1976 through 1991, Angola suffered guerrilla warfare plus direct South African attacks. In retaliation for Angolan support for the freedom of South African-occupied Namibia, South Africa backed Unita on a massive scale until Namibia's independence in 1990. Conflict over Unita-occupied southeastern Angola led to large-scale battles involving South African and Cuban troops as well as Angolan government and Unita forces, ending in a military setback for South Africa in 1987/88.

Agreements in 1988 on Namibian independence and withdrawal of Cuban troops from Angola ended major South African military involvement. But the U.S. increased military aid to Unita, leading to a military stalemate with government forces. In May 1991, after two years of talks, the Angolan government and Unita signed a treaty providing for a cease- fire, troop demobilization and multi-party elections.

In the September 1992 elections, judged free and fair by UN observers, the MPLA won 54% and Unita 34% in the legislative race. President Jose' Eduardo dos Santos, of the MPLA, fell just short of 50% in the presidential contest, while Unita leader Savimbi had 40%.

After Savimbi refused to accept the results, Angola returned to war. Unita, aided by supplies from Zaire and South Africa (then still under the previous apartheid regime), launched offensives around the country. The government responded, expelling Unita from Luanda while armed civilians took reprisals against Unita supporters. In 1993-94, Unita controlled much of the countryside and some inland cities. Bitter fighting raged in most areas. In mid-1993 an estimated 1,000 people were dying each day from war and war- related causes.

Critics charged that inaction by the U.S. and the United Nations, which failed to protest Unita's failure to disarm before the election or to react quickly when the war resumed, was in part responsible for the catastrophe. In May 1993, the United States finally recognized the elected Angolan government.

In September 1993 the UN imposed an arms and fuel embargo on Unita. New peace talks began in Lusaka, Zambia, in November 1993. A year later came a new peace treaty, including troop demobilization in exchange for a share of ministries and provincial governorships for Unita.

In 1994, the government army advanced, while Unita's access to outside arms declined after South Africa's new government under President Nelson Mandela took office in May. Huambo, Unita's headquarters city, fell just before the November cease-fire.

[graphic in typeset version: This widely reproduced sculpture by an anonymous Angolan artist is entitled "The Thinker"]

Farewell at the Hour of Parting

My Mother

(all the black mothers
whose children left them)

you taught me to wait and to hope
as you waited in the hard times
But in me
life killed this mysterious hope
I no longer wait
I am one who is awaited
It is I, my Mother
we are hope
your children
on the road to a faith that feeds life
we are the naked children in the bush sanzalas
the unschooled urchins playing with rag balls
in the sandlots at mid-day
we ourselves are
the contract workers burning out our lives in
the coffee plantations
the ignorant blacks
who must respect the white man
and fear the rich man
we are your children
of the black ghettos
with no electric lights
drunks falling down
abandoned to the rhythm of the death drum
your children
with hunger
with thirst
ashamed of calling you Mother
afraid to cross the street
afraid of men
That's who we are.
we will sing songs of freedom
when we celebrate
the date this slavery ends
We are going in search of light
your children Mother
(all the black mothers
whose children left them)
are going in search of life.

Agostinho Neto, first president of independent Angola, was also one of Africa's most distinguished poets. This poem was first published in 1957.


Official Name:
Republic of Angola.
481,353 sq. mi. (1,247,000 sq. km.) larger than Texas and California combined.
9.9 million (est. 1992) roughly the same as Michigan or Ohio.
Date of Independence:
November 11, 1975.
Luanda (population est. 1990 as much as 2 million).
Other Major Cities*:
Huambo (population est. 1990 over 400,000), Benguela and Lubango (population est. 1990 each over 200,000).
Geographical Features:
A lowland strip stretches along the Atlantic coast, about 1000 miles (1600 km) from the dry southwest to the Congo River in the north. The enclave of Cabinda, across the Congo River, is also part of Angola. Major oil deposits are offshore of Cabinda and northern Angola. Railways run inland from the coastal cities of Luanda, Lobito, Benguela, and Namibe. The inland highlands of open grassland and brush around Huambo and Lubango are the location of much of Angola's rich farmland. To the south and east there is less rain, and much of the country is very sparsely populated.
Official Language:
Portuguese (spoken to some extent by about half the population).
Other Major Languages Spoken:
Umbundu (spoken by Ovimbundu people, roughly 38% of African population), Kimbundu (spoken by Mbundu people, roughly 23% of African population), Kikongo (spoken by Bakongo people, roughly 14% of African population). Smaller groups include the Chokwe and the Cuanhama.
Major Subsistence Resources:
Maize (corn), cassava, cattle (in some areas).
Major Commercial Resources:
Oil, diamonds. Assuming peace, there is much potential for resumed development of iron mining, commercial crops such as coffee and maize, transportation and industry.
Gross National Product**:
$6,010 million (1989) ranked 12th in Africa, 7th in sub-Saharan Africa.
Real Gross Domestic Product per Capita**:
$1000 (1991) ranked 24th in Africa, 19th in sub-Saharan Africa, roughly 4.5% of U.S. level.
Education Profile:
Under Portuguese rule few Africans in Angola had access to education; at independence in 1975 it was estimated that less than 5% of adults could read and write. Primary education expanded rapidly after independence, but outside the cities over half the population was not reached by primary schools. In the mid- 1980s in Luanda, only 12% of the labor force had completed primary school. There were only a few hundred university graduates.
Health Profile:
With a life expectancy of only 47 years, and an Under 5 Mortality Rate in 1993 of 292 per thousand (close to the highest in the world), Angola had only 550 physicians in 1985. There are estimated to be as many as 70,000 amputees as a result of injuries by land mines.
Religious Affiliations:
Rough estimates put Catholics at somewhat over 50% of the population; Protestants at over 20% and growing rapidly. Major Protestant denominations include Baptists, Methodists and Congregationalists. Many Angolans still adhere to traditional African religions.

* All urban populations have grown rapidly since war resumed in 1992.

** Given lack of data, both figures are very rough estimates, and have declined since war resumed in 1992.

[UN map of Angola included in typeset version]

Copies of the four-page typeset version of this background paper will be available by early April from APIC at $1 each, $0.80 each for 20 or more. Add 15% for postage and handling. Payment in advance by check or money-order. Both text-only and typeset versions may be freely reproduced with attribution to APIC.

This material is made available by the Africa Policy Information Center (APIC). APIC's primary objective is to widen the policy debate in the United States around African issues and the U.S. role in Africa, by concentrating on providing accessible policy-relevant information and analysis usable by a wide range of groups and individuals. APIC is affiliated with the Washington Office on Africa (WOA), a not-for-profit church, trade union and civil rights group supported organization that works with Congress on Africa-related legislation.

APIC publications are intended to be accessible to a wide variety of readers, including those with little prior background on African issues. Reposting or reproduction (with acknowledgement) is welcomed.

Note: Although we are considering options for automating this electronic mailing list, it is currently maintained manually. If you wish to be removed from the list, or suggest someone else to be added, please send an email message to, and be patient :-).

To receive basic information on APIC and WOA, with a list of publications, send a blank email message to

For additional information:
Africa Policy Information Center
110 Maryland Ave. NE, #112
Washington, DC 20002.
Phone: 202-546-7961.
Fax: 202-546-1545.

World History Archives Gateway to World History Images from World History Hartford Web Publishing