Angola: First War with UNITA


On the south western side of Africa, lies a country by the name of Angola. It is bordered by the Atlantic Ocean, and countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Zambia, and Namibia. The government is led from the capital, which is Luanda, and from there the struggle for power begins. Angola_map.gif
This war, beginning in 1975, was initiated by several issues, and is the cause of clashing between many political parties and religious groups. Three main groups are seen consistently throughout the war, and they are the MPLA, FNLA, and UNITA.

Group Descriptions :

  • MPLA : The name stands for the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola. It makes up the northwest region of the country, the ethnic region of Mbundu, and controls the Angolan capital, Luanda and the Cabinda oil fields. It is a left wing group, the ones in power in the beginning of the war, and are supported by the Soviet Union and Cuba. Led by Jose dos Santos.
Jose dos Santos

  • FNLA : The name stands for the National Front for the Liberation of Angola. It makes up the North and Northeast regions of the country and the ethnic region of Bakongo. It is supported by the CIA (United States) and also by Britain.
  • UNITA : The name stands for the Union for the Total Independence of Angola. It makes up the south and southwest regions of Angola and the ethnic region of Ovimbundu. It is supported by South Africa. Led by Jonas Savimbi.
    UNITA leader, Jonas Savimbi

Countries Included :

  • Throughout the war, many countries helped or were included in the war. Some played major parts where as others were minor. Some of the primary countries involved are first and foremost Angola, South Africa, Namibia, Zaire, and Zambia. The minor countries were the United States, the Soviet Union, Cuba, *France, *Belgium, *Morocco, *Egypt, and *Saudi Arabia (*Shaba Province Invasions) . Although many if not all of the minor countries contributed a whole lot to the cause, the fighting was constant between or in the primary countries.
U.S. Involvement :
  • In 1985, the United States began giving UNITA military aid through Zaire.
  • In 1993, The U.S. officially recognized the government of president Jose dos Santos.

The Beginning :

  • The starting date of the war can sometimes be hard to understand, and this is due to the long battle that everyone knew was coming between these powers. On November 11, 1975, the country of Angola was celebrating their first independence day, but the tense relations between these groups were blatantly obvious. The FNLA was busy marching into the city, while UNITA was planning a military drive into Luanda. Fighting ensued and a few short months after, the MPLA defeated the two other groups.
  • The MPLA first made sure to make the gathering or joining of the two groups illegal, and whoever was found connected to them would be tried for crime. During this time period, 13 FNLA members were found guilty, and 4 of them were executed.
  • To avoid rebellious acts from the people, the MPLA made the countries of Zaire and Zambia sign agreements that they would not help Angolan rival groups build up. This was just one of the acts that the MPLA did to try to control their power. Zaire and Zambia felt the only choice was to sign, seeing as they share common railroads and both countries use Angolan trade ports.
  • The MPLA was strongly supported by socialist bloc countries, such as the Soviet Union, but solely for their own benefit and the benefit of their ideologies.
    Soviet Pilots Captured by UNITA
  • In the beginning of the war, the MPLA looked for help from the west side, but had trouble finding it. Although they appealed to big oil companies since their land had large reserves, the United States was devoting their time to their own country and was giving help to the FNLA.

MPLA Struggling :

  • During their control of Angola, the MPLA ran into problems both within their own government and also with the people. One of their mistakes was that they did not make a large and wanted land reform that the people desired. Instead, they kept the agricultural policies of the Portuguese. Farmers had to sell their crops to the government with a lack of profit. Also, the MPLA made an attempt to create a centralized command economy like the one in the Soviet Union, and made a massive bureaucracy. In 1977, there was a coup to get MPLA out of the capital, where radical members, such as Nito Alves, created chaos. However, the MPLA was able to crush it and remain in control.

The Shaba Province :

  • The Shaba Province, also known as Katanga is located on the border of Northeastern Angola. This area is a mineral-rich region in Africa that separatists first invaded on March 8th, 1977. These "Shaba invaders" also known as the National Front for the Liberation of the Congo (FNLC) and nicknamed the Black Arrows try to take control of the Zaire government and make the Shaba Province an independent region. When both countries gain independence (Zaire in 1960 and Angola in 1974), they have tensions between them that increase during the Cold War. Mobutu Sese Soko, leader of Zaire, aids the Angolan group the FNLA to try and control the planning in Angola. In response, President Agostinho Neto of Angola supports the FNLC as the FNLC also is given help from Cuban troops allied with the MPLA. When the first attack strikes, Seko, asks Western countries for help.
    Mobutu Sese Soko of Zaire
    He tells Western powers that he is "defending Africa from Communist infiltration". He receives help from Islamic countries of Morocco, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia and is able to push back the advance of the FNLC. On May 11th, 1978 however, the Black Arrows begin a second invasion of the Province and the main focus is the Kolwezi mining center. Civilians are taken as hostages and nearly one thousand Africans and Europeans are killed. In response, countries such as Belgium and France send air rescue missions and several hundred troops and the United States, though it did not give troops, sends airlift aid. Belgian and French troops push the FNLC back into Angola with several days. These invasions are the final attempts to gain control of the Shaba Province for its mineral resources.

The Return of UNITA :

  • Jonas Savimbia, a leader of UNITA before it was outlawed, stayed out of sight in Southern Angola until 1977. By this time, UNITA had barely any supporters, so in order to become powerful and noticed, he began leading hit and run attacks on MPLA buildings and places. The most favored spot for these attacks was on the Benguela rail line which connected the port of Benguela to the copper belt of Zambia. In 1980, after gathering supporters and rebuilding its strength in numbers, they could attack anywhere on this 700 mile railroad. When the shocking return of UNITA was later looked at, some people have split views on how they grew so fast. People who support the group believe that they gained power so fast due to its appeal to farmers who were unhappy with the government. Other who opposed it believe that it followed the coup by Minister P.W. Botha. Click here for information on that topic:

South Africa Invades :

  • In 1980, South Africa once again came to be a large supporter of UNITA. For example, in 1981 the SADF (South African Defense Forces) were responsible for approximately 1000 bombing missions, 50 ground assaults and the important turning point of Operation Protea, all in favor of UNITA. In Operation Protea, 5000 soldiers entered the province of Cunene and after occupying it for several weeks, headed north. But with the help of Cuba, the Angolan government stopped the forces just 65 miles north of Namibia. Another attack was planned but wasn't very effective and that would be Operation Askari in 1983.
  • In 1984, UNITA and the MPLA were both loosing interest and strength in power. However, instead of backing down they began to use more harsher and cruel tactics. UNITA was aiming at making Angola ungovernable in hopes of being able to step in and save the country from the disaster that they would inflict upon it. They did this by creating terror, destruction and murder. They attacked farms and forced villagers to do jobs within towns or enroll them as soldiers all for the UNITA cause. On the other side, the MPLA imprisoned anyone who theyt thought was a supporter of UNITA. Most of them were from the province of Ovimbundo (which was previously occupied by UNITA). Instead of helping MPLA, it made it easier for UNITA to gather and recruit supporters for they went to these places and appealed to the people.
  • In 1987 there were two turning point battles. They were the Battle of Mavinga and the Battle of Cuito Cuanavale. By this time, everyone knew there was a battle coming, but no one knew how harsh it would be. It turns out that both went down in history for being the largest military battles in sub-Saharan African history.

Short facts on the battles :
    • Battle of Mavinga : The MPLA had been bombing UNITA, so UNITA then had a 10,000 man attack on the town.
    • Battle of Cuito Cuanavale : The MPLA had to ask Cuba for supplies, and they ended up giving them 50,000 troops. The MPLA then went on to attack South Africa, and Pretoria agreed to pull out of the war.
Angolans with Riffles

Suffering Angolans

The End :

  • South Africans were upset by the loss in the battle, which led them to make a new government under the lead of F.W. de Klerk. Under his rule, he tried to abolish racial separations. He also freed Nambia.
    F.W. de Klerk, President of South Africa 1989-1994
  • In May of 1991, Cuban troops left Angola.
  • MPLA and UNITA fought in ongoing Guerilla warfare.
  • Savimbia was told that the U.S. would still support UNITA, and was true even after President George Bush took office.
  • A talk was made at a place in Gbadolite, set up by Mobutu Sese Seko, who was the dictator of Zaire. This was in June of 1989.
  • The civil war was formally brought to an end on April 4 when the two sides signed a peace treaty.
  • This agreement was brought on as a result of the death of Jonas Savimbi, leader of UNITA.
  • The following Thursday, the commanders of the Angolan armed forces and UNITA's army signed a ceasefire that formally ended the civil war.
  • The citizens had mixed views as to why the treaty was signed at this certain time.
  • As result of the conflict 2 million people died. The civil war also left Angola with 40,000 orphans. external image angola_06-2001.jpg
  • The UN estimates the number of Angolan amputees resulting from the silent killers is 70,000.
  • It is also estimated that there are several million landmines in Angola as result of the Civil war.
  • UNITA was later tried for war crimes and violation of human rights. During the war period, UNITA intervened in the process of the United Nation's transferring of food to Angolan peasants who were starving. Also, earlier they had killed and destroyed towns in hopes of making the country ungovernable and create trouble for their opponents.

Citations :

  • Ciment, James. Encyclopedia of Conflicts since World War II. Ed. New York: M.E. Sharpe INC, 1999. Print.
  • Gorman, Robert. Great Events from History: the 20th Century 1971-2000. California: Salem Press, 2008. Print.
  • Durost Fish, Becky, Bruce Durost Fish, Dr. Richard E. Leakey, and Deirdre, Shields. Angola 1880 to the Present: Slavery, Exploitation, and Revolt. London: Chelsea House Publisher, 2002. Print.
  • Jost, K. (1994, January 14). South Africa's future. CQ Researcher, 4, 25-48. June 11, 2010. CQ Researcher Online,
  • Pearce, Justin. (4 April 2002). Angola to end civil war. 11 June 2010.
  • Talbot, Ann. (13 April 2002). The Angolan Civil war and US foreign policy. 11 June 2010.
Picture Citations :