Communist military advisors with MPLA troops in Angola, 1983.

Cuban soldiers, veterans of Cuito Cuanavale.

The MPLA government and Cuban troops had control over all southern cities by 1977, but roads in the south faced repeated UNITA attacks. Savimbi expressed his willingness for rapprochement with the MPLA and the formation of a unity, socialist government, but he insisted on Cuban withdrawal first. “The real enemy is Cuban colonialism,” Savimbi told reporters, warning, “The Cubans have taken over the country, but sooner or later they will suffer their own Vietnam in Angola.” MPLA and Cuban troops used flame throwers, bulldozers, and planes with napalm to destroy villages in a 2.6-kilometre-wide (1.6 mi) area along the Angola-Namibia border. Only women and children passed through this area, “Castro Corridor,” because MPLA troops had shot all males ten years of age or older to prevent them from joining the UNITA. The napalm killed cattle to feed government troops and to retaliate against UNITA sympathizers. A number of civilians fled from their homes; 10,000 going south to Namibia and 16,000 east to Zambia, where they lived in refugee camps.

Angola suffered from a prolonged civil war in the years following its independence in 1975. The seeds of this conflict, which would devastate much of the country, were sown during the independence struggle, which had been launched against the Portuguese in 1961. In 1956, various radical groups including the communists, had formed the Movimento Popular para a Libertação de Angola (MPLA)/Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola under the leadership of Agostinho Neto. In 1966, the União Nacional para a Independência Total de Angola (UNITA)/National Union for the Total Independence of Angola was formed under the leadership of Jonas Savimbi. These two movements were to become rivals for power during the struggle against the Portuguese and after independence in 1975.

The Portuguese

In January 1961, the Portuguese army in Angola embarked upon maneuvers to overawe part of the rural population, which was becoming restless; the army said that only a few people had been killed, although the nationalists claimed that 10,000 met their deaths. The MPLA dated the beginning of the struggle against the Portuguese from 4 February 1961, when violence erupted in Luanda, and by April of that year the struggle in Angola had become an issue at the United Nations. During the 15 years of warfare that followed, many thousands of Angolans were killed or maimed as the Portuguese fought to hold onto their richest African possession. By 1974, however, they were losing their African wars and following the April Revolution in Lisbon which overthrew the Caetano government and brought General Antonio de Spinola to power, the decision was made to withdraw from Africa and to stop fighting wars, which by then, Portugal knew it could not win. As the Portuguese prepared to withdraw, the bitter rivalries which existed between the liberation movements, based partly on ethnic and geographic divisions, partly on ideology, and partly on leadership ambitions, came to the fore and threatened to plunge Angola into a post-independence civil war. A third movement, apart from Neto’s MPLA and Savimbi’s UNITA, was Holden Roberto’s Frente Nacional da Libertação de Angola (FNLA)/National Front for the Liberation of Angola, but this was soon to collapse and disintegrate.

A sort of unity was achieved in January 1975 after the three movements had met in Nairobi in the hope of presenting a united front to the departing Portuguese. But though a transitional government was formed at the end of January, it soon fell apart and by June 1975, fighting between the three movements had spread to the capital, Luanda. By August there was fighting in most parts of the country. When, on 19 September 1975, Portugal announced that it would withdraw all its troops by 11 November, UNITA and the FNLA announced they would establish a common government in Huambo until they had driven the MPLA from Luanda. On 11 November 1975, the MPLA proclaimed the People’s Republic of Angola with Neto as president, while at Ambriz the FNLA and UNITA proclaimed the Popular and Democratic Republic of Angola with Roberto as president.

Even at this stage, as the year drew to its close and the Portuguese departed, the coming civil war was overshadowed by foreign interventions and Cold War considerations. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) hastened to provide the MPLA with military equipment and airlifted 16,000 Cuban troops into the country to support the MPLA government, which at this time controlled 12 of 15 provinces. France supported UNITA, which was assisting the Frente da Libertação do Enclave de Cabinda (FLEC)/Liberation Front for the Cabinda Enclave, since Cabinda was sandwiched between the two French-speaking countries of Congo (Brazzaville) and Zaire. South Africa was preparing to invade Angola from Namibia in the south to oppose a Marxist regime. Meanwhile, the Portuguese settlers saw no future for themselves in Angola and left in large numbers, crippling the workings of the economy in the process. The disagreements between the liberation movements were a mixture: opposition to the Marxism of the MPLA by the FNLA and UNITA, and also differences arising out of regional ethnic loyalties. But primarily they were factional—about post-independence power and who was to wield it. The civil war, which got under way, was to be both prolonged and complicated by external support for the different factions. Part of this support was motivated by the regional considerations of Angola’s neighbors (Zaire, Zambia, and South Africa through Namibia) and part by Cold War considerations, which would involve the People’s Republic of China (briefly), the United States, the USSR, and Cuba. President Joseph-Désiré Mobutu of Zaire began by supporting the FNLA, and when it disintegrated he transferred his support to UNITA. The MPLA relied upon Soviet and Cuban support. UNITA was to receive support from the United States, channeled through Zaire by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and South Africa, whose main aim was to destabilize a potentially powerful socialist or Marxist state to the north of Namibia, which it then controlled. The Ford Foundation lobbied Congress to provide $81 million in aid to Zaire, part of it to be used to fund mercenaries to fight against the MPLA, while the departing Portuguese provided $60 million in 1975 for the anti-MPLA factions. As a result of these interventions, what might otherwise have been a more limited civil war for post-independence power became instead inextricably bound up with the Cold War.

Civil War: First Phase (1975–80)

While the newly proclaimed MPLA government was recognized by the Communists, the Huambo (FNLA-UNITA) government received only assistance from the United States, South Africa, Zaire, and Zambia but not recognition. In December 1975, the fragile alliance between the FNLA and UNITA collapsed and after heavy fighting the FNLA was driven from Huambo and then from other strongholds by UNITA. In October 1975, as violence in Angola escalated, South Africa sent troops in support of the FNLA and UNITA. A column of 1,500 to 2,000 South African troops moved up the Angolan coast and, by 26 October, had driven the MPLA from Lubango; by the first week of November it had occupied Lobito and then, on 12 November, it took Novo Redondo, which was 160 kilometers north of Lobito. The USSR responded to this South African advance with a massive arms buildup for the MPLA, sending 27 shiploads of arms and between 30 and 40 cargo planes to Luanda to provide T54 and T34 tanks and 12 MiG-21s. By then Cuban troops had also been flown into Angola. The South African advance into Angola persuaded important African states such as Nigeria and Tanzania to recognize the MPLA government. Even so, the special Organization of African Unity (OAU) summit of January 1976 was split with 22 states recognizing the MPLA government, 22 arguing for a government of national unity and two—Ethiopia and Uganda—abstaining. South Africa failed to obtain western (meaning U.S.) support for its intervention and on 4 February 1976 pulled its forces back, although retaining positions 80 kilometers inside Angola to establish a cordon north of the Namibian border. This debacle for South Africa was largely caused by the prevalent mood in the United States, since Washington, in the aftermath of the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam, was not prepared to become involved in a war in Africa with its own troops on the ground.

The position of the MPLA government was greatly strengthened when, on 2 February, 25 African states had recognized it (a simple majority) and it was able to take its seat in the OAU. By late February, 70 states had recognized the MPLA government. Meanwhile, the government in Luanda had launched its own offensive against the FNLA and by mid-February 1976 had overrun most of the FNLA positions in the north of the country. It also launched a second campaign against UNITA strongholds in the south of the country and these too were overrun. The FNLA and UNITA then turned to guerrilla tactics. President Neto and the MPLA now appeared to have won the post-independence succession struggle although he retained the services of the Cuban troops, who would remain in the country until 1991. In June 1976, the government put on a show trial of captured western mercenaries of whom nine were Britons, three Americans, and one Irish: four were executed and the rest sentenced to long prison terms. In March 1976, the South Africans withdrew completely from Angola following mediation by Andrei Gromyko of the USSR and James Callaghan of Great Britain.

UNITA now began to turn itself into an effective guerrilla force and, for example, mounted attacks upon the Benguela Railway. Fighting between government forces and UNITA became severe during the last months of 1976. Luso, a focus of fighting, was reduced to a ghost town. Despite retreating from Angola in 1976, South Africa’s policy for the next decade would be to support UNITA as part of its general destabilization of independent black states on its borders. By the end of 1976, there were an estimated 18,000 Cuban troops in Angola and Neto had increased the size of the MPLA army to 50,000. During 1977, with the collapse of the FNLA, UNITA became the principal opponent of the Luanda government while, to oblige its new South African ally, it declared war on the South West Africa People’s Organization (SWAPO), which operated from bases in southern Angola. By 1979, the MPLA army had greatly improved its efficiency with Soviet arms and the support on the ground of the Cuban troops. During the years 1977 to 1980, UNITA was on the defensive, with Zaire temporarily refusing it base facilities and South Africa reducing the level of its support.

Civil War: Second Phase (1980–90)

UNITA began to achieve a comeback in the 1980s; in August 1980 it sabotaged oil storage tanks at Lobito. In 1981, South Africa increased its raids into southern Angola, ostensibly in pursuit of SWAPO, but in fact and more often to do damage to the MPLA position. The United States declared it would not recognize the MPLA government and the Senate then repealed its ban on providing aid to UNITA. From this time on, UNITA was to receive varying amounts of U.S. aid through Zaire. Savimbi was now able to claim that UNITA was receiving aid from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Morocco, Senegal, and Côte d’Ivoire. Late in 1981, Savimbi visited Washington and in 1982, he achieved a diplomatic breakthrough when he persuaded the United States to tie any agreement with the MPLA to the withdrawal of Cuban troops, a line that suited both Washington and Pretoria. Fidel Castro, however, announced that Cuban troops would remain in Angola until South Africa ceased its attacks and had withdrawn from Namibia. By this time South Africa was occupying 125,000 square kilometers of Angolan territory, while its incursions into Angola had become a regular activity for the South African Defence Force (SADF).

The war intensified during 1983, with South African forces damaging the Lomaum Dam on the Benguela to cause intensive flooding in three provinces. President Jose Eduardo dos Santos (who had succeeded Neto on his death in 1979) visited Moscow in 1983 to be assured by the new Soviet leader, Yuri Andropov, that Soviet support for his government would continue. During 1984, Savimbi called for a government of national unity and threatened to attack cities if he was ignored (which he was). In July 1984, UNITA cut an oil pipeline in Cabinda and took European hostages including a Briton, in the hope of forcing London to deal directly with UNITA. About 100,000 people were displaced during the year as a result of the UNITA offensive. By 1985, two wars had become intertwined: that of the MPLA government against UNITA, and that of SWAPO against South Africa, which also assisted Savimbi in his fight against the government. When in January 1986, Savimbi again visited Washington, he was received by the State Department as an important political figure. In May the Angolan government launched a massive campaign against UNITA resulting in thousands of refugees flooding into Zambia and devastation in central Angola. In September 1986, the U.S. House of Representatives voted 229 to 189 to provide UNITA with $15 million to help stem Soviet expansion in Africa. In 1987, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Chester Crocker began his long period of mediation to bring an end to the Angola/Namibia crisis, for by that time South Africa no longer denied that its forces were in Angola to help UNITA. In mid-November 1987, South Africa’s General Jannie Geldehuys admitted that South African forces had intervened on the side of UNITA in a developing battle near the southeastern town of Cuito Cuanavale while Soviet advisers and Cuban troops were supporting the MPLA forces.

The battle of Cuito Cuanavale (1987–88) was to prove a turning point: it was a large-scale conventional battle fought for control of the strategic town which dominated the southeastern part of the country (rather than guerrilla warfare), and Angolan airpower with Cuban help became a real threat to South African air superiority for the first time. Both sides made big claims about casualties inflicted upon the enemy, but what did become clear was the extent of South Africa’s involvement and the fact that it was unable to turn the tide of battle in favor of UNITA. The battle attracted increasing international attention, and Nigeria and other African countries offered to send peacekeeping forces to Angola. On 15 November 1987, President dos Santos claimed that there were 3,000 South African troops and 70 armored vehicles in Angola as well as a further 30,000 South African troops along the Namibian border. By mid-January 1988, the South African force had been increased to 6,000 men, with artillery and armored vehicles taking part in the siege of Cuito Cuanavale. Most of the population of 6,500 had been evacuated and MPLA planes were making daily sorties against the encircling troops. Cuito Cuanavale formed part of a line of towns from Namibe on the coast to Lumbala near Zambia, which controlled the Soviet radar system that monitored South African air activity. It was also the government’s most southerly base and essential for mounting air attacks upon UNITA headquarters at Jambe. Heavy casualties were sustained on both sides and the government forces, backed by an estimated 40,000 Cubans by then, were showing new confidence in facing the South Africans. By mid-February 1988, the South African forces had been increased to 7,000. At the same time, the South African air force was suffering losses and no longer enjoyed air superiority; the Soviet air defense system (radar) had altered the balance. By the end of the month, Cuito Cuanavale had become one of the largest set-piece battles in Africa since World War II. Its importance was as much psychological as military since it demonstrated, at last, that South Africa was not invincible and that years of warfare had created some extremely tough soldiers able to stand up to the South African military juggernaut. By March the MPLA armed forces, Forcas Armadas Populares de Libertação de Angola (FAPLA), contained 8,000 South African troops and claimed to have shot down 40 South African planes. By June 1988, it was clear that the South African effort to take Cuito Cuanavale had failed while the presence of Cuban forces along the Namibian border demonstrated South Africa’s increasing vulnerability. In addition, Pretoria was fearful of the political effect at home of some 60 white deaths in the Angolan war. Even so, Savimbi visited Washington in June and met President Ronald Reagan who promised his continued backing for UNITA. The stalemate at Cuito Cuanavale and Pretoria’s fear that its forces would be trapped and defeated there undoubtedly helped the Chester Crocker peace process.

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