After thirteen years of national independence, Angola's armed forces, FAPLA, remained pitted against UNITA in a civil war that had erupted out of the preindependence rivalry among liberation armies. The FNLA and the Front for the Liberation of the Enclave of Cabinda (Frente para a Libertação do Enclave de Cabinda--FLEC) lost popular support during the first decade of independence, and, as a result, in 1988 UNITA remained the only serious internal threat to the dos Santos regime. Few Angolans expected either UNITA or government forces to achieve a military victory, but the political impact of the UNITA insurgency was substantial nonetheless.
Jonas Savimbi established UNITA in 1966. Leading a group of dissident members from the northern coalition that included the FNLA, he established a rival liberation movement that sought to avoid domination by Holden Roberto and his Bakongo followers. UNITA recruits from Savimbi's Ovimbundu homeland and from among the Chokwe (also spelled Cokwe), Lunda, Nganguela (also spelled Ganguela), and other southern Angolan societies sought to preserve elements of their own cultures. Some southerners also maintained centuries-old legacies of distrust toward northern ethnic groups, including the Bakongo and the Mbundu.
Savimbi's legitimacy as a dissident leader was acquired in part through the reputation of his grandfather, who had led the Ovimbundu state of Ndulu in protest against Portuguese rule in the early twentieth century. From his father, Savimbi acquired membership and belief in the United Church of Christ, which organized Ovimbundu villages into networks to assist in mission operations under colonial rule. One of these networks formed the Council of Evangelical Churches, a pan-Ovimbundu umbrella organization that united more than 100,000 people in south-central Angola. They were served by mission schools, training centers, and clinics, with near-autonomy from colonial controls. Local leaders, who staffed some of these establishments, voiced their demands for greater political freedom, and colonial authorities moved to suppress the Council of Evangelical Churches as pressures for independence mounted in the 1960s.
The territory in southeastern Angola controlled by UNITA in the late 1980s included part of the area that had been administered by the Council of Evangelical Churches before independence. Here, many people supported Savimbi's struggle against the MPLA-PT as an extension of the long struggle for Ovimbundu, not Angolan, nationhood. UNITA-run schools and clinics operated with the same autonomy from Luandan bureaucratic control as their mission-sponsored counterparts had before independence.
Ethnic loyalties remained strong in the southeast and other UNITA-controlled areas of rural Angola. Class solidarity, in comparison, was an almost meaningless abstraction. Savimbi was able to portray the class-conscious MPLA-PT in Luanda in terms that contrasted sharply with models of leadership among the Ovimbundu and other central and southern Angolan peoples. He described party leaders as a racially stratified elite, dominated by Soviet and Cuban advisers who also provided arms to suppress the population. The MPLA-PT's early assaults on organized religion reinforced this image. Many rural Angolans were also keenly aware that the party elite in Luanda lived at a much higher standard than did Savimbi's commanders in the bush. And they carefully noted that people in rural areas under MPLA-PT control still lived in poverty and that the government bureaucracy was notoriously inefficient and corrupt.
UNITA's regimented leadership, in turn, presented itself as the protector of rural African interests against outsiders. Through Savimbi's skilled public relations efforts, his organization became known as a local peasant uprising, fighting for political and religious freedom. Savimbi had no headquarters in other countries and took pride in the humble life-style of his command in Jamba, well within UNITA-held territory. On this basis, he won some support in the south and east, gained volunteers for UNITA forces, and slowed government efforts to extend MPLA-PT control into the countryside. In the late 1980s, however, international human rights organizations accused UNITA of human rights abuses, charging that UNITA was intimidating civilians to force them to support UNITA or to withhold support for the MPLA-PT.
For the government, the ever-present threat of the UNITA insurgency served a number of useful purposes. It helped rally support for party unity in the capital and surrounding areas. The government was able to capitalize on the reputation for brutality that grew up around some UNITA commanders and the destruction of rural resources by UNITA forces. Young amputees in Luanda and other towns provided a constant reminder of the several thousand land mines left in rural farmland by Savimbi's troops. UNITA activity also provided an immediate example of the party ideologues' stereotype of destabilization sponsored by international capitalist forces. These forces were, in turn, embodied in the regional enemy, South Africa. The UNITA insurgency also enabled the MPLA-PT government to justify the continued presence of Cuban troops in Angola, and it helped maintain international interest in Angola's political difficulties.
The regional accord reached in December 1988 by Angolan, South African, and Cuban negotiators did not address Angola's internal violence, but in informal discussions among the participants, alternatives were suggested for ending the conflict. Western negotiators pressured the MPLA-PT to bring UNITA officials into the government, and even within the party, many people hoped that UNITA representatives--excluding Savimbi--would be reconciled with the dos Santos government. Savimbi, in turn, offered to recognize dos Santos's leadership on the condition that free elections, as promised by the 1975 Alvor Agreement, would take place after the withdrawal of Cuban troops.
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