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Angola - First Civil War - 1975-1994

MPLA - Movimento Popular de Libertacao de Angola
FNLA - Frente Nacional de Libertacao da Angola
UNITA - Uniao Nacional para a Independencia Total de Angola
FLEC - Cabinda Liberation Front
FLEC - Front for the Liberation of the Enclave of Cabinda
FAC Armed Forces of Cabinda

Cuban Forces
US Covert Operations

Since Angola had been wracked by civil strife for over 30 years, most Angolans had never lived in a peaceful, stable environment. The prolonged civil strife in Angola devastated the country in every conceivable way. The conflict began in the late colonial period and continued in the post-independence era, first as an internal struggle which then became internationalized and entangled in cold war ideologies and partisanship.

In the three decades of conflict, over 500,000 people died, 3.5 million were internally displaced, hundreds of thousands fled to neighboring Zaire and Zambia and 70,000 Angolans suffer disabilities caused by landmines. Civil society ceased to exist, human rights abuses became the norm, rural and village infrastructure was destroyed or neglected, millions of land mines were laid in all parts of the country and the economy largely collapsed. The majority of Angolans were and remain politically disenfranchised and economically marginalized. Virtually the entire non-coastal population of Angola is war-affected. Despite a wealth of natural resources, the gross domestic product declined from an average of $820 between 1996-88 to $410 in 1995.

Angola has three main ethnic groups, each speaking a Bantu language: Umbundu 37%, Kimbundu 25%, and Kikongo 13%. The MPLA (Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola), founded in December 1956 under the direction of Agostinho Neto, called for the formation of a single front of all the anti-imperialist forces in Angola. Its appeal. however. was primarily limited to the second largest ethnic group - the Mbundu - living in the region around Luanda, and to the Mestiqos, who formed the multiracial colonial bourgeoisie. The Mbundu were integrated into Portuguese society more than any other group, and they created the drive and leadership for a nationalist movement.

The Frenta Nacional de Libertagao de Angola (FNLA) was founded in March 1962 under the leadership of Holden Roberto. Unlike the MPLA's nationalist goal of 'Angolity,' the FNLA's original objective was the restoration of the ancient Kingdom of Congo in Northern Angola. The party's main constituency remained the Bakongo people of the north, who were almost exclusively rural and remained largely outside colonial society. However, despite the degree of separation from the state, it was this group that suffered most from the policy of land dispossession in the 1950s. The FLNA tried to expand its constituency by establishing a government in exile (GRAE) in 1962, with Jonas Savimbi as minister of foreign affairs. However, the GRAE was short-lived and by 1963, Savimbi and Roberto were no longer speaking. Savimbi resigned from the GRAE in 1964, amid accusations of 'tribalism.'

UNITA was founded in March 1966 and drew its primary support from the Ovimbundu ethnic group. With the largest population in Angola, the Ovimbundu were well integrated into colonial society, but were also dispersed due to migrant work. This fragmentation largely explains their late entry into the nationalist movement, and UNITA became an internal vehicle for the Ovimbundu group to counterbalance the role of the other two major ethnic groups in the national liberation war.

UNITA formally declared war on the MPLA on August 1, 1975. A year earlier, the MPLA had created its military wing, the People's Armed Forces for the Liberation of Angola (Forças Armadas Populares de Libertação de Angola -- FAPLA), which became the core of the postindependence army). 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 United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), meanwhile, initiated a covert program to have American and European mercenaries fight with the FNLA.

In November 1975, FNLA President Roberto, suddenly deprived of Western support after the passage of the Clark Amendment, and faced with the retreat of the Zairian forces provided by Mobutu, recruited mercenaries in Britain, the US and the Netherlands. Bridgland writes: "The quality of the mercenaries was exceptionally low … They were the new young unemployed of the mid-1970’s, and for the most part they were the most socially ill-equipped of their generation – poorly educated and from poorer homes, many of them real intellectual innocents … Most had very little combat experience. Some had no military training at all, and two were London street sweepers recruited with the lure of $US300 a week and sent from their jobs straight to Angola."

UNITA was able to survive after the war for independence, first, because of the continued loyalty of some of its traditional Ovimbundu supporters, but, more important, because of military and logistical support from South Africa.

UNITA in the 1980s was a state within a state. Under the leadership of Jonas Savimbi, it survived defeat during the civil war, retreated to the remote southeastern corner of the country, regrouped and made its headquarters at Jamba, and launched a determined campaign to overturn the MPLA-PT regime or at least force it to accept UNITA in a coalition government. With increasing international support and military aid, particularly from South Africa and, after 1985, the United States, UNITA extended its campaign of destruction throughout the entire country. It enlarged its military forces and scope of operations and withstood several major FAPLA offenses.

Starting with a small army of a few thousand defeated and poorly armed followers at the end of 1976, Savimbi built a credible political organization and fighting force. Unlike what became of the MPLA under its faction-ridden leadership, UNITA remained the creation and vehicle of its founder. Internal opposition occasionally surfaced, but the lack of independent reporting made it difficult to assess its significance. South Africa kept the government's FAPLA and Cuban forces at bay and intervened whenever FAPLA offenses threatened, leaving UNITA comparatively free to consolidate its control throughout the south and to extend its range of operations northward. In February 1988, Savimbi announced the formation of a UNITA government in "Free Angola," the area he controlled. Although his intent was to regularize administration, rather than to secede or seek international recognition, this event marked a new stage in UNITA's organizational development and consolidation, and many Africans states maintained at least informal ties to the movement.

Savimbi's strategy and tactics were designed to raise the costs of foreign "occupation" through maximum disruption and dislocation, while minimizing his own casualties. UNITA's forces infiltrated new areas and contested as much territory as possible, wresting it away from FAPLA control whenever feasible. They rarely seized and held towns, except near their bases in the south. Rather, they sabotaged strategic targets of economic or military value and ambushed FAPLA units when the latter attempted to return to or retake their positions. FAPLA access was also obstructed by extensive mine laying along lines of communication, approaches to settlements, and infrastructure sites. To undermine support for the MPLA-PT, UNITA indiscriminately attacked or took hostage hundreds of expatriate technicians and advisers, and Savimbi repeatedly threatened multinational companies with retaliation for their support of the government. Apparently abandoning hope of military victory, Savimbi sought instead to strengthen UNITA's bargaining position in demanding direct negotiations with Luanda for the establishment of a government of national unity.

UNITA's military progress was remarkable. By 1982 it had declared all but six of the eighteen Angolan provinces to be war zones. In late 1983, with direct air support from South Africa, UNITA took the town of Cangamba, the last FAPLA stronghold in southeastern Angola. This operation marked a shift from guerrilla tactics to conventional warfare, at least in the countryside. In 1984 UNITA announced the beginning of an urban guerrilla campaign and claimed responsibility for acts of sabotage in Luanda itself and even in Cabinda. The movement gained control of the regions bordering Zambia and Zaire, enabling it to develop secure supply lines plus infiltration and escape routes. From 1984 to 1987, UNITA not only continued to advance north and northwest but also repulsed major FAPLA offenses backed by heavy Cuban and Soviet logistic and combat support, in the latter instances relying on SADF air and ground support. In spite of the 1988 regional accords, according to which FAPLA and UNITA were to lose much of their external support, no military solution to the war was expected.

FALA, like FAPLA, would not have been able to expand its size, capabilities, and range of operations without extensive external assistance. By supplying UNITA with US$80 million worth of assistance annually during the 1980s, Pretoria remained the group's principal source of arms, training, logistical, and intelligence support. The SAAF made regular air drops of weapons, ammunition, medicine, food, and equipment, sometimes at night to avoid interception, and was reported occasionally to have ferried FALA troops. South African instructors provided training in both Namibia and UNITA-controlled areas of southern Angola. The largest training center in Namibia was at Rundu, where intensive three-month training courses were conducted. In late 1988, amidst regional peace negotiations, there were reports that UNITA was planning to relocate its main external logistical supply lines from South Africa to Zaire and was moving its headquarters and forces into Namibia's Caprivi Strip before the anticipated arrival of a UN peacekeeping force.

Pretoria established its relationship with UNITA for several reasons. Vehemently anticommunist, South Africa felt threatened by the MPLA's turn toward the Soviet Union and its allies. The South Africans also wished to retaliate for Luanda's support of SWAPO. Furthermore, by helping UNITA shut down the Benguela Railway, which linked the mining areas of Zaire and Zambia to Atlantic ports, Pretoria made these two countries more dependent on South Africa's transportation system and thus more responsive to South African wishes. In support of UNITA leader Savimbi, the South African Defense Force (SADF) set up bases in Cuando Cubango Province in southeastern Angola. Savimbi established his headquarters in Jamba and enjoyed air cover provided by the South African air force from bases in Namibia. The SADF also trained UNITA guerrillas in Namibia and provided UNITA with arms, fuel, and food. On occasion, South African ground forces provided direct support during UNITA battles with FAPLA.

In addition to aid from South Africa, UNITA received support in varying degrees from numerous black African and North African states. Zaire provided sanctuary and allowed its territory to be used by others to train and resupply UNITA forces, and Zambia and Malawi were suspected of granting clandestine overflight and landing privileges. During the 1970s, UNITA troops were trained in Senegal, Tanzania, Zambia, and other African countries. Subsequently, Egypt, Morocco, Senegal, Somalia, and Tunisia also furnished financial and military aid. Morocco, which had supplied arms to the MPLA during the liberation struggle, switched sides and became a major source of military training for FALA, especially for officers, paratroops, and artillery personnel. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and other Arab states furnished financial support valued at US$60 million to US$70 million annually. Israel was also reported to have provided military aid and training to UNITA soldiers at Kamina in Zaire. Although Savimbi denied that UNITA had ever employed foreign mercenaries or advisers, there had been reports of South African, French, Israeli, and Portuguese combatants among his forces.

Beginning in 1986, the United States had supplied UNITA with US$15 million to US$20 million annually in "covert" military aid funded out of the budget of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The first acknowledged shipments of United States aid consisted of nonlethal items such as trucks, medical equipment, and uniforms, but antitank and air defense weapons soon followed. The bulk of this matériel was reportedly airlifted through Kamina airbase in Zaire's Shaba Province, where a UNITA liaison detachment was stationed and CIA operatives were believed by Luanda to have trained 3,000 UNITA guerrillas. The remainder was thought to have been delivered through South Africa, Gabon, and Central African Republic.

UNITA's military wing, the Armed Forces for the Liberation of Angola (Forças Armadas de Libertação de Angola -- FALA), was under the supreme authority of Savimbi as commander in chief. The chief of staff was second in command and controlled the headquarters elements of intelligence, personnel, logistics, and operations. In January 1985, the FALA chief of staff, Brigadier Demosthenes Amos Chilingutila, who had held that post since 1979, was removed and made chief of operations, possibly because of Savimbi's dissatisfaction with his performance, and replaced by Brigadier Alberto Joaquim Vinama. However, following Vinama's death in an automobile accident in October 1986, Chilingutila was reappointed chief of staff.

By the mid-1980s, FALA had evolved into a well-defined conventional military organization with command and specialized staff organs, a formal hierarchy of ranks, an impressive array of weapons and equipment, and considerable international support. Geographically, UNITA's nationwide area of operations consisted of five fronts commanded by a colonel or brigadier, which were subdivided into twenty-two military regions under a colonel or lieutenant colonel. The regions in turn were divided into sectors (usually three) commanded by a major and further subdivided into zones under captains or lieutenants.

FALA had a four-tiered hierarchical structure. The lowest level, the local defense forces, had six battalions of poorly armed men recruited as guards and local militia in contested areas. The next stratum consisted of dispersed guerrillas who trained in their local areas for about sixty days and then conducted operations there, either in small groups of about twenty or in larger units of up to 150. They were armed with automatic weapons and trained to attack and harass FAPLA convoys, bases, and aircraft. The third level included forty-four semi-regular battalions that received a three-month training course and were sent back to the field in units of up to 600. These forces were capable of attacking and defending small towns and strategic terrain and infrastructure. Finally, FALA regular battalions of about 1,000 troops each completed a six-month to nine-month training period, and about a quarter of them also received specialized training in South Africa or Namibia in artillery, communications, and other technical disciplines. Armed with heavy weapons plus supporting arms such as artillery, rockets, mortars, and antitank and air defense weapons, these FALA regulars had the tasks of taking territory and holding it.

By 1987 UNITA claimed to have 65,000 troops (37,000 guerrilla fighters--those in the first three categories cited above--and 28,000 regulars), but other estimates put FALA's total strength closer to 40,000. Among its specialized forces were sixteen platoons of commandos and other support units, including engineering, medicine, communications, and intelligence. In late 1987, women were integrated into FALA for the first time when a unit of fifty completed training as semi-regulars. Seven members of this group received commissions as officers.

In addition to combat forces, UNITA had an extensive logistical support infrastructure of at least 10,000 people, about 1,000 vehicles (mostly South African trucks), an expanding network of roads and landing strips, schools, hospitals, supply depots, and specialized factories, workshops and other facilities used to manufacture, repair, and refurbish equipment and weapons. The main logistical support center and munitions factory was Licua. Many smaller centers were scattered throughout UNITA-controlled territory. Like Jamba, UNITA's capital, these centers were mobile.

It was difficult to determine the conditions of service with UNITA guerrillas. Military service was voluntary and uncompensated, but soldiers and their families normally received their livelihood, even if it sometimes meant appropriating local food supplies. Moreover, political indoctrination was an essential part of military life and training. Although visitors to UNITA-controlled territory reported that the armed forces were highly motivated, FALA defectors and captives allegedly reported coercive recruiting and low morale.

FALA had a substantial arsenal of weapons and equipment of diverse origin, most of which was captured from FAPLA during attacks on convoys, raids, or pitched battles, or donated by the SADF as war booty. The remainder came from various countries and the international black market. Included in FALA's inventory were captured T-34 and T-55 tanks, armored vehicles, vehicle-mounted rocket launchers, 76mm and 122m field guns, mortars (up to 120mm), RPG-7 and 106mm antitank weapons, heavy and light machine guns, various antiaircraft guns, SA-7 and United States-manufactured Redeye and Stinger SAMs, and G-3 and AK-47 assault rifles.

Outside intervention had needlessly turned this martyred African country into a senseless, burning relic of the expiring Cold War. Against this background, the war-weary outsiders arranged a negotiated end to their war in Angola. The quadripartite talks in London in 1988 resulted in an agreement: the New York Accords, which provided for the complete withdrawal of South African and Cuban troops from Angola, expulsion of the African National Congress (ANC) and South West Africa Peoples' Organisation (SWAPO) from Angola, and independence for Namibia. But the de-internationalisation of the conflict failed to address the fundamental differences between UNITA and the MPLA.

The second United Nations Verification Mission for Angola (UNAVEM II) was established to verify the redeployment northward and the phased and total withdrawal of Cuban troops from the territory of the Peoples's Republic of Angola in accordance with the timetable agreed between the Parties. The Mission was established for a period of 31 months, with effect from January 1989.

By March 1990, the MPLA realised it could not impose a military solution and UNITA realised that it could not risk another battle of any great magnitude. By recognising a military solution was impossible, both were forced to consider a political solution. In May 1991, the mandate of the UN Mission was enlarged to include verification of the arrangements agreed to by the Angolan parties for the monitoring of the Angolan Police as set out in the Angola Peace Accords of May 1991. In theory, the peace accord ended the 16-year civil war, in which more than 300,000 people died.

In 1991 the Bicesse Peace Accord was brokered between the MPLA and UNITA which put forth a peace process that led to the holding of presidential elections in 1992. A new era of peace appeared to be on the horizon with the signing of the peace agreement between the two warring parties in far away Portugal on 31 May 1991. Angolans seem destined to a future of peace. This position was echoed by members of the younger generations. They neither want to fight, nor do they believe in the totalitarian rhetoric of both sides. They want to survive and, if possible, to be happy. This attitude is especially common among youth living in urban centers, where freedom of expression and movement were practiced.

The two main contenders for the country's first multiparty elections, set for September 29 and 30, 1992, were UNITA and the ruling MPLA party and their respective leaders, Dr. Jonas Malheiro Savimbi and Jose Eduardo dos Santos. UNITA expected to sweep the polls. The elections were characterised by a large voter turnout, but ended up shrouded in controversy amid UNITA charges that the ruling MPLA party had resorted to electoral fraud. Although the UN declared the elections free and fair, UNITA did not accept the outcome and intense fighting broke out country-wide between UNITA and Government forces. More than 120,000 people were killed in the aftermath of the failed 1992 election, which ushered in a bloodier phase of the war rather than the hoped-for peace.

United Nations Security Council Resolution 864 (1993) obliges all Member States to maintain sanctions against UNITA. This UN Security Council resolution specified steps for UNITA to do for the sanctions to be lifted. Every subsequent resolution has signalled that as soon as those steps are fulfilled, the sanctions would be lifted. United Nations sanctions against UNITA, some of which have been in place since 1993, include prohibitions on the sale and supply of arms and other forms of military assistance and petroleum and petroleum products, the provision of funds or financial resources, the export of diamonds, and a ban on travel and representation abroad by UNITA officials. UNITA has managed to evade most of these sanctions and has therefore been able to remain aggressive on the battlefield. The UN sanctions committee estimated that Savimbi has made between $3 and $4 billion in diamond sales between 1992 and 1999. Furthermore, there is some indication that UNITA has made more money by investing a lot of that very wisely in a bull market, and therefore made significant profits on those investments.

On September 26, 1993, the President of the United States issued Executive Order 12865, declaring a national emergency with respect to Angola, and invoking the authority, inter alia, of the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (50 U.S.C. 1701 et seq.) and the United Nations Participation Act of 1945 (22 U.S.C. 287c). Consistent with United Nations Security Council Resolution 864, dated September 15, 1993, the order prohibited the sale or supply by United States persons or from the United States, or using U.S. registered vessels or aircraft, of arms and related materiel of all types, including weapons and ammunition, military vehicles, equipment and spare parts, and petroleum and petroleum products to the territory of Angola other than through designated points of entry. It also prohibited such sale or supply to UNITA. U.S. persons are prohibited from activities which promote or were calculated to promote such sales or supplies, or from attempted violations, or from evasion or avoidance or transactions that have the purpose of evasion or avoidance, of the stated prohibitions. The order authorized the Secretary of the Treasury, in consultation with the Secretary of State, to take such actions, including the promulgation of rules and regulations, as may be necessary to carry out the purposes of the order.

Following a fresh military stalemate in 1993, and after prolonged negotiations, the parties to the conflict reached a peace agreement that was formalized with the signing of the Lusaka Protocol in November 1994. The Lusaka Protocol established procedures for a cease-fire, integration of military forces, and reconciliation guidelines. The Lusaka Protocol provided for the initial disarmament UNITA, the formation of a unified army and police force, the creation of a government of national unity and reconciliation, and the transformation of UNITA from an armed revolutionary movement into a political party.

In 1994, when the MPLA appeared on the brink of crushing UNITA, the UN insisted on the then in-progress negotiations at Lusaka, and convinced dos Santos to withdraw his attack. Military victory by one party over the other was a viable, and sometimes preferable, outcome to a weak negotiated settlement. Given Savimbi's destructive past behavior, some argue that the MPLA should have been allowed to press their advantage and attempt a total military victory over UNITA at this juncture.

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Page last modified: 30-04-2017 13:45:46 ZULU