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Historical Introduction

29 February 1988 near Cuito Cuanavale, southern Angola, shows an Angolan soldier holding a Soviet-made AK-47 Kalashnikov, as he guards a battery of Soviet-made ground-to-air missiles, in the region where Soviet-backed regular Angolan army and Cuban soldiers are fighting against anti-Marxist and Western-backed UNITA nationalist movement. AFP

Angola, a former Portuguese colony with a complex past, has been plagued by internal conflicts since the 1960s. Anti-colonialist militias developed into political movements whose power struggle and ideological divisions led to the breakout of a civil war in 1975. This war between the MPLA (Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola), backed by the Soviet Union, Cuba and Warsaw pact countries, the FNLA (National Front for the Liberation of Angola), supported by Zaire and Congo and leading a government in exile, and Maoist UNITA (National Union for the Total Liberation of Angola), initially backed by China and later by the USA and South Africa, turned into one of the bloodiest proxy wars of the Cold War era, claiming about 1,4–1,5 mln lives during 1975–2002 and internally displacing some 4,28 mln people.


Angola’s war-time government was led by the MPLA who imposed war communism and launched Stalinist-style repressions, killing dissidents and executing thousands of MPLA members during purges. A socialist development path was proclaimed in 1976 and the country’s economy, which had been rather successful until the 1960s, was wrecked by nationalizing banks and industry and creating state farms on estates confiscated from landowners. Due to administrative problems and ongoing war, collectivization was never completed. However, rulers of the mainly agrarian country used famine to achieve political goals, causing an unknown number of deaths. According to a 1987 UNICEF estimate, tens of thousands of children had died of starvation during the year before. Forced mobilization, mass deportations and sporadic bloody and destructive battles lasted until the truce of 26. June 1989, when MPLA accepted UNITA into national government.


After moving towards market economy and political pluralism in the early 1990s, UNITA lost at the 1992 elections and fighting between the MPLA and UNITA was renewed in 1993, lasting intermittently until 2002. Despite truces and withdrawal of foreign troops, the average number of war casualties in the 1990s was, according to UNICEF figures, 1000 per day. In 2003, United Nations estimated that 80% of Angolans lack access to basic medical assistance, 60% survive without clean water and 30% of children die before the age of 5, with overall life expectancy at 40 years. According to Human Rights Watch, about 15 mln landmines had been planted in the war-torn area by 2002 and internally displaced people accounted for 75% of all mine victims. Both the UNITA and Angolan government forces recruited thousands of child warriors and committed a myriad of war crimes.