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National Front for the Liberation of Angola
Frente Nacional de Libertacao da Angola (FNLA)

Three main military movements fought for Angolan independence since the 1960s. The Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) was a Marxist organization centered in the capital, Luanda, and led by Agostinho Neto. The National Front for the Liberation of Angola (FNLA), led by Holden Roberto, was based in the north of the country and had strong ties to the U.S. ally, Mobutu Sese Seko, in neighboring Zaire. The National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA), an offshoot of the FNLA, was led by Jonas Savimbi and supported by the country’s largest ethnic group, the Ovimbundu.

Following the Portuguese coup, these three revolutionaries met with representatives of the new Portuguese Government in January 1975 and signed the Alvor Agreement that granted Angolan independence and provided for a three-way power sharing government. However, trust quickly broke down among the three groups, and the country descended into civil war as each vied for sole power.

The National Front for the Liberation of Angola (Frente Nacional de Libertacao de Angola — FNLA) was founded in 1954 as the Union of Peoples of Northern Angola (Uniao das Populacoes do Norte de Angola — UPNA). Founded to advance the interests of the Bakongo rather than to promote independence, the UPNA petitioned the UN in 1957 for restoration of the Kongo Kingdom, an objective shared by the Alliance of Bakongo (Alliance des Bakongo—Abako) in the Belgian Congo (later Zaire). Because of important ties to the Bakongo in the Belgian colony and because of the difficulties of operating in Angola, the UPNA was based in Leopoldville (present-day Kinshasa, capital of Zaire). In 1958, acknowledging the futility of its quest, the UPNA adopted the title Union of Angolan Peoples (Uniao das Populacoes de Angola—UPA) and the aim of independence for all of Angola.

Holden Roberto, son of Garcia Diasiwa Roberto and Joana Lala Nekaka (and a descendant of the monarchy of the Kongo Kingdom.), was born in Sao Salvador, Angola. His family moved to Leopoldville, Belgian Congo in 1925. In 1940 he graduated from a Baptist mission school. He worked for the Belgian Finance Ministry in Leopoldville, Bukavu, and Stanleyville for eight years. In 1951 he visited Angola and witnessed Portuguese officials abusing an old man, inspiring him to begin his political career.

Holden Roberto and Barros Necaca founded the Union of Peoples of Northern Angola (UPNA), later renamed the Union of Peoples of Angola (UPA), on July 14, 1954. Roberto, serving as UPA President, represented Angola in the All-African Peoples Congress of Ghana which he secretly attended in Accra, Ghana in December 1958. There he met Patrice Lumumba, the future Prime Minister of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kenneth Kaunda, the future President of Zambia, and Kenyan nationalist Tom Mboya. He acquired a Guinean passport and visited the United Nations. Jonas Savimbi, the future leader of UNITA, joined the UPA in February 1961 at the urging of Mboya and Kenyan Prime Minister Jomo Kenyatta. Later that year Roberto appointed Savimbi Secretary-General of the UPA.

The rebels who had coordinated the 1961 uprisings later began to undertake effective military organization. The several nationalist organizations set up training camps and attracted external military aid. In the summer of 1961, for example, the UPA, which had strong support among the Bakongo, formed the National Liberation Army of Angola (Exercito de Libertacao Nacional de Angola—ELNA), a force of about 5,000 untrained and poorly armed troops. Subsequently, groups of Angolans went to Morocco and Tunisia to train with Algerian forces, then fighting for their own nation's independence. After winning its independence in 1962, Algeria supplied the ELNA with arms and ammunition.

In March 1962, the UPA joined with another small Kongo nationalist group, the Democratic Party of Angola (Partido Democratico de Angola—PDA) to form the FNLA. The FNLA immediately proclaimed the Revolutionary Government of Angola in Exile (Governo Revolucionario de Angola no Exilo—GRAE). The president of the FNLA/GRAE, Holden Roberto, declared his organization to be the sole authority in charge of anti-Portuguese military operations inside Angola. Consequently, he repeatedly refused to merge his organization with any other budding nationalist movement, preferring to build the FNLA/GRAE into an all-Angolan mass movement over which he would preside.

By 1963, with training and arms from Algeria, bases in Zaire, and funds from the Organization of African Unity (OAU), the FNLA/GRAE military and political organization was becoming formidable. Still, it made no significant territorial gains.

The FNLA settled into a mountain stronghold straddling the border of Uige and Zaire provinces and continued to carry on guerrilla activities. The insurgents found it increasingly difficult to sustain the cohesion they had achieved after 1961 and 1962. Between 1963 and 1965, differences in leadership, programs, and following between the FNLA and the MPLA led to open hostilities that seriously weakened each group's strength and effectiveness.

The FNLA, which fought from Zairian bases, made little progress inside Angola. Furthermore, the Kinshasa government, reacting to a 1969 Portuguese raid on a Zairian border village that the FNLA used as a staging base, shut down three border camps, making it even more difficult for the FNLA to launch actions into Angola. Moreover, internal dissent among FNLA troops exploded into a mutiny in 1972; Mobutu sent Zairian troops to suppress the mutiny and save his friend Roberto from being overthrown. Although the Zairian army reorganized, retrained, and equipped FNLA guerrillas in the aftermath of the mutiny, the FNLA never posed a serious threat to the Portuguese.

In the years before Angolan independence in 1975, Peking provided modest amounts of arms, money and training to two Angolan nationalist movements -- the National Front for the Liberation of Angola (FNLA) and the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) -- which were also battling the Soviet-backed Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) for control of the country. Most of China's assistance went to the FNLA, including shipments of small arms, mortars and antiaircraft weapons and training by about 100 Chinese military instructors assigned to the FNLA's camps in the Republic of Zaire.

Peking's training assistance to the FNLA stopped abruptly just before Angolan independence on 11 November 1975. China then maintainsed limited contact with all three groups, but apparently aided none of them

The thirteen-year Angolan war for independence, in which three rival nationalist groups fought the Portuguese to a stalemate, ended after the April 1974 military coup in Portugal. At that time, the MPLA and the FNLA had an estimated 10,000 guerrillas each, and UNITA had about 2,000. Within a year, these groups had become locked in a complex armed struggle for supremacy. By November 1975, when independence under a three-way coalition government was scheduled, the MPLA and the FNLA had built up their armies to 27,000 and 22,000, respectively, while UNITA had mustered some 8,000 to 10,000. Further complicating the situation was a substantial foreign military presence. Although the Portuguese forces numbered only 3,000 to 4,000 by late 1975, some 2,000 to 3,000 Cubans had arrived in support of the MPLA, from 1,000 to 2,000 Zairian regulars had crossed the border to aid the FNLA, and 4,000 to 5,000 SADF troops had intervened on behalf of UNITA. The civil war was soon decided in favor of the MPLA by virtue of the massive influx of Soviet weapons and advisers and Cuban troops.

On 14 July 1974, Spinola acceded to the wishes of officers who favored independence for the Portuguese territories in Africa and promised to take steps toward their freedom. At the end of July, Spinola appointed Admiral Rosa Coutinho as head of a military council formed to oversee Angola's independence. Also during this time, UNITA and the MPLA signed cease-fire agreements with Portugal; the FNLA initially moved military units into northern Angola, but later it too signed a cease-fire. The liberation movements set up offices in the major population centers of the country, eager to mobilize support and gain political control.

Unlike other Portuguese African colonies, the transition to independence in Angola did not proceed smoothly. During the 1960s and 1970s, the three most important liberation movements were the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (Movimento Popular de Libertacao de Angola — MPLA), the National Front for the Liberation of Angola (Frente Nacional de Libertacao de Angola—FNLA), and UNITA. When these groups could not resolve peacefully their differences about the leadership and structure of a unified government, they turned their guns on each other; the FNLA and UNITA eventually formed a loose coalition to oppose the MPLA, the movement that finally prevailed. The subsequent chaos, however, induced most Portuguese to repatriate, leaving Angola critically deficient in skilled professionals such as managers, teachers, and technicians.

On January 31, 1975, the transitional government was sworn in, but the coalition, based on a fragile truce, had serious difficulties, as the leaders of its three member organizations bickered over a number of issues, including personal power. Within days, localized conflicts between MPLA and FNLA forces were renewed. The FNLA and UNITA, recognizing that their separate military forces were not strong enough to fight the MPLA, formed an alliance and withdrew their ministers from the provisional government in Luanda, heralding full-scale civil war.

The resultant civil war had domestic, regional, and international dimensions. Domestically, the movements tended to be divided along ethnic lines: the MPLA came to be identified with the Mbundu, the FNLA with the Bakongo, and UNITA with the Ovimbundu. The MPLA received support from the Soviet Union and Cuba, while the FNLA turned to the United States. UNITA, unable to gain more than nominal support from China, turned to South Africa.

The FNLA and UNITA announced a separate regime with headquarters in the southern city of Huambo and called their territory the Democratic People's Republic of Angola. But because of continuing hostility between them, the FNLA and UNITA did not set up a government until December 1975, nor did they attempt to fuse their armies. Moreover, the FNLA-UNITA alliance received no formal recognition from other states, mostly because of its South African support.

In 1976, the MPLA defeated the FNLA in the Battle of Dead Road and the FNLA retreated to Zaire. Roberto's FNLA was defunct by 1988. After losing to the MPLA in the civil war, the FNLA retreated to its traditional refuge in Zaire and continued to wage a low-level insurgency. However, in 1978 Zaire withdrew its support of the FNLA as part of the Angolan-Zairian accord signed in the wake of the second invasion of Shaba Region. Ousted by his own commanders, Roberto was exiled to Paris in 1979. He emerged again in 1983 in an unsuccessful effort to generate international support and material aid for his 7,000 to 10,000 poorly armed troops, who operated (but did not control territory) in six northern Angolan provinces.

FNLA remnants formed the Military Council of Angolan Resistance (Conselho Militar de Resistencia Angolana—Comira) in August 1980 to replace the moribund movement. Comira claimed to have 2,000 troops training in Zaire for an invasion of northern Angola, but it never offered more than sporadic challenges. Its lack of strength was the result of the loss of its major external patron, the broadening of the leadership of the MPLA-PT to include more Bakongo people (the primary source of FNLA support), and more aggressive FAPLA operations. Several Comira leaders defected to the Angolan side, and in 1984 more than 1,500 armed rebels and 20,000 civilian supporters accepted the amnesty originally offered in 1978 and surrendered to Angolan authorities. Hundreds were integrated into FAPLA and the security forces. Luanda reported in October 1988 that 11,000 former FNLA/Comira members had been "reintegrated into national reconstruction tasks," and in November 1988 the exiled Roberto was reported to have accepted amnesty.

In 1991, the FNLA and MPLA agreed to the Bicesse Accords, allowing Roberto to return to Angola. He ran unsuccessfully for President, receiving only 2.1% of the vote. However, the FNLA won five seats in Parliament but refused to participate in the government.

FNLA (National Front for the Liberation of Angola) founder and Angolan nationalist Holden Roberto died on the evening of August 2, 2007, after a long illness. He was 83 years old. Unlike many fellow leaders of the Angolan independence movement, including Agostinho Neto and Jonas Savambi, Roberto died at home, surrounded by family and party leaders. MPLA's personal sentiments towards its old enemy aside, the state media highlighted his key role as a nationalist during colonial days. Roberto was remembered as a leader of Angola's fight for independence from the Portuguese and his role as the voice of the Angola independence movement, rather than the FNLA's role in launching the country into its bloody post-independence civil war. Angola's permanent representative to the United Nations, Ismael Gaspar Martins, on 04 August 2007 expressed his consternation at the death of opposition FNLA historical leader and nationalist, Holden Roberto. In a press note issued by that diplomatic mission, the diplomat considers Holden Roberto's role in the fight for national liberation as a determinant factor, mainly to awake the ideals of nationalism in the 1960s.

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Page last modified: 01-05-2017 18:54:04 ZULU