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Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola
(Movimento Popular de Libertacao de Angola - MPLA)

During the 1960s, the MPLA established its headquarters at Kinshasa, Zaire, and then at Lusaka, Zambia, and Brazzaville, Congo. The MPLA's scattered bases and diverse constituent groups contributed to disunity and disorganization, problems that were exacerbated by personal and ideological differences among party leaders. The first serious split occurred in 1973, when Daniel Chipenda led a rebellion, sometimes termed the Eastern Revolt, in protest against the party's mestišo-dominated leadership and Soviet interference in Angolan affairs. Chipenda and his followers were expelled from the MPLA, and many joined the northern-based FNLA in 1975. Then in 1974, about seventy left-wing MPLA supporters based in Brazzaville broke with Agostinho Neto. This opposition movement became known as the Active Revolt. Shortly after independence, a third split occurred within the party, culminating in the 1977 coup attempt by Nito Alves. Later in 1977, the MPLA transformed itself into a Marxist-Leninist vanguard party and launched a lengthy rectification campaign to unify its membership, impose party discipline, and streamline decision-making processes.

In 1980 Angola was governed by a new head of state under a newly revised Constitution. The nation's first legislature, the People's Assembly, served as a symbol of people's power, but state organs were clearly subordinate to those of the party. Within the MPLA-PT, channels for political participation were being narrowed. Both government and party leaders established a hierarchy of organizations through which they hoped to mobilize rural populations and broaden political support. At the same time, MPLAPT leaders launched programs to impose party discipline on the party's cadres and indoctrinate all segments of society in their proper role in political development.

Overall goals were relatively easy to agree upon, but poverty and insecurity exacerbated disagreements over specific strategies for attaining these objectives. By the mid-1980s, the party had three major goals--incorporating the population into the political process, imposing party discipline on its cadres, and reconciling the diverse factions that arose to dispute these efforts. Some MPLA-PT officials sought to control political participation by regulating party membership and strengthening discipline, while others believed the MPLA-PT had wasted valuable resources in the self-perpetuating cycle of government repression and popular dissent. President dos Santos sought to resolve disputes that did not seem to threaten his office. However, much of the MPLA-PT's political agenda, already impeded by civil war and regional instability, was further obstructed by these intraparty disputes.

The Political Bureau reported in 1988 that the MPLA-PT had more than 45,000 members. Its social composition, an important aspect of its image as a popular vanguard party, consisted of approximately 18 percent industrial workers, 18 percent peasants, 4 percent agricultural wage earners, and 60 percent described by the Political Bureau as "other classes and social strata interested in building socialism." However, the fact remained that many party members were still government employees, members of the petite bourgeoisie the MPLA had denounced so loudly in the 1970s.

The central decision-making bodies of the MPLA-PT included the Political Bureau, Central Committee, and the party congress, each headed by the president as party chairman. A hierarchy of committees existed at the provincial, district, and village levels; the smallest of these, the party cell, operated in many neighborhoods and workplaces. The MPLA-PT's organizing principle was democratic centralism, which allowed participants at each level of the organization to elect representatives to the next higher level. MPLA-PT policy guaranteed open discussion at each level, but majority decisions were binding on the minority, and lower-level bodies were bound by higher-level decisions. Party hierarchies were incomplete in most areas, however, because of low literacy rates, poverty, and security problems. Many lower-level party functionaries therefore had roles in both party and government.

In addition to a chronic shortage of cadres, the MPLA-PT faced numerous obstacles in its first decade as a ruling body. By late 1988, the MPLA-PT party structure had not yet matured enough to respond temperately to criticism, either from within or from without. Party leaders dealt harshly with their critics, and political participation was still carefully controlled. Impeded by civil war, insurgency, economic problems, and the perception of elitism within its party ranks, the MPLA-PT campaign to mobilize grass-roots support remained in its early stages. Party membership was a prerequisite for effective political action, but channels of entry into the MPLA-PT were constricted by the party's entrenched leadership and centralized authority structure. Critics of the MPLA-PT, in turn, felt that after a quarter-century of warfare, they were being underserved by a large government apparatus that was preoccupied with internal and external security.

Factionalism also slowed the implementation of MPLA-PT programs. Rather than a strong, unified, vanguard leadership, the MPLA-PT presented an elite cadre torn by racial and ideological differences. Racial stratification, the legacy of colonial rule, permeated the party and society, providing a continuous reminder of economic inequities. The MPLA-PT had not established a reputation as a leader in the struggle to end racial discrimination, in part because of its roots among student elites selected by colonial officials. Many early party leaders were mestišos who had studied in Europe; some had married whites and were removed from the cultural background of their African relatives. Moreover, some Angolans still identified Marxist philosophy with European intellectuals rather than African peasants.

Ideological splits also grew within party ranks during the first years of dos Santos's regime, overlaying racial divisions. Divergent views on the role of Marxism in Angola produced clashes over domestic and foreign policy. Some African MPLA-PT leaders placed nationalist goals ahead of ideological goals, such as the radical transformation of society, and one of their nationalist goals was the elimination of mestišo domination.

The lines between racial and ideological factions tended to coincide. On the one hand, strong pro-Soviet views were often found among the party's mestišo leaders, who were inclined to view Angola's political situation in terms of revolutionary class struggle. In their eyes, ethnic, regional, and other subnational loyalties were obstacles to political mobilization. Black African party militants, on the other hand, often viewed racial problems as more important than class struggle, and they hoped to shape the MPLA-PT into a uniquely Angolan political structure. For them, Soviet intervention brought new threats of racism and foreign domination. Traditional ethnic group leaders were, in this view, vital to grassroots mobilization campaigns. Race and ideology did not always coincide, however. A few staunch ideologues were black Africans, while a small number of mestišos espoused moderate views and favored nonaligned policies.

By the time of the 2008 election, the MPLA was eager to cement its war-time victory with a victory at the polls; UNITA was equally determined to distance itself from its history of armed insurgency while showing it is a political force to be reckoned with. There was no expectation that the elections will provoke widespread or organized violence, and, unlike 1992, the opposition did not have an armed force standing by in case things go south.

The playing field for elections was not, however, level - the ruling MPLA held too many of the cards. The government controlled most media outlets, including the only daily newspaper, the only TV network, and the only nationwide radio station, all of whom allot only perfunctory coverage to opposition party activities. Independent newspapers, radio, and civil society elements were often critical of the government, but routinely limited such criticism through self-censorship and periodically face threats of suspension, closure, or other legal action.

The state, perceived by many to be synonymous with the MPLA, is the country's largest employer, and in most provinces virtually the only source of employment in the formal, non-agricultural sector. Many Angolans believe one must join the MPLA to get government jobs, and opposition parties will have to work hard to debunk the belief that jobs will be lost if the MPLA loses, or that the MPLA has methods of discovering who did and did not toe the line. The MPLA's influence extends to the village level; in many provinces traditional leaders (sobas) are selected by the MPLA rather than through traditional heredity lines.

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Page last modified: 22-08-2013 18:26:33 ZULU