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Angola of attack

February 22 sees the 10th anniversary of the death of Jonas Savimbi. Unfortunately (whatever your views on him), like so many across the continent of Africa he was killed in a civil war.

Jonas Savimbi by Ernmuhl

The Republic of Angola sits on the west cost of the African continent and sits surrounded by the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Zambi and Namibia. Like much of Africa, Angola spent a long time being a colonial subject. In Angola’s case the colonial power in question was Portugal. Without digressing into a lengthy discussion on colonialism (which this Edward Said/Elke Boehmer fan happily could), there were lots of reasons much of Africa ended up under European control but one of the most powerful reasons was rocks. The kimberlites of South Africa and Zimbabwe, and the other diamond deposits in Sierra Leone may be amongst the best known resources, but Angola is not short. Plenty of shiny things attractive to Europe come out of Angola; gold, copper, diamonds, oil and people. So it is no great surprise that Portugal held on. Especially given that from 1932 to 1974 the Estado Novo party, who were the sort of right wing that, at points could make the BNP look like a social work convention, were in control. For much of that time the helm was held by António de Oliveira Salazar, who desired that Portugal remain an empire for perpituity. Inspired by a poorly evidenced sociological theory known as Lustotropicalism, which essentially suggested that the Portuguese were better at colonising because Portugal was closer to Africa and had themselves been colonised. Which is a bit like saying I’d make an good footballer because I live near a stadium.

Angola’s resources. Pictures by Paulo César Santos.

After Operation Vijay which liberated Goa from Portuguese control there were international questions asked about the way in which Portugal went about colonialism. Though no European power came out of the colonial period with their former subjugants telling the world how amazing they were, Portugal was broadly regarded as being at the worse end of the spectrum. It was in this atmosphere that Angola made a bid for liberation. In 1961 a group of Angolans protested their poor work conditions, the Portuguese government responded a month later with napalm. Killing 7,000 villagers. Liberation movements had existed from the 1950s, and the MPLA clashed with the police over political prisoners on the same day as the napalm attack. The hostilities increased until in March MPLA established the 1st military regime, and the UPA took 5000 militants into northern Angola, and proceeded to massacre 7000 civilians, most of whom were black. The subsequent response from the Portuguese was the start of the war of independence. In 1961 50,000 Africans and 2000 Portuguese were killed, and half a million became refugees. The war became a three way battle between UPA, MPLA and the Portuguese government. In 1962 UPA became FNLA and established the Revolutionary Government of Angola in Exile, with Jonas Savimbi as foreign minister.

António de Oliveira Salazar Prime Minister and architect of Portugal’s dictatorship.

However, the situation became even more complicated when Savimbi left and formed UNITA. His primary objection being that the war wasn’t big enough. In an effort to expand the war UNITA began attacking the railway and in 1966 and 1967 derailed trains on the border with Zambia. Unfortunately this rather backfired on UNITA, who had been living in Zambia, as the derailments disrupted the Zambian copper exports. The battle continued gaining and losing a range of allies and enemies along the way. From the Soviet Union to South Africa. China had been supporting MPLA from 1970, but by 1974 they were persuaded to swap to FNLA. At the same time in 1974 the long standing right wing Estado Novo was being challenged. The Movimento das Forças Armadas, a group of left leaning army officers, lead a military coup in Lisbon, in which, unusually no shots were fired. This revolution brought benefits for the Angolan insurgents, by ultimately awarding Angola liberty.

Portuguese troops during the conflict by Joaquim Coelho

However, the removal of colonial power did not solve Angola’s problems. The battle between the rebels and revolutionaries increased and the MPLA and UNITA both made efforts to increase their international support. Though FNLA took little role in the civil war that lasted until 2002, but FLEC who were fighting for independence for Cabinda region took their place, maintaining a manage a trois guns. During the conflict everyone from the CIA to Cuba was implicated in supplying arms and money to different factions.

The map of the Belgian Congo shows Angola and the enclave of Cabinda Carte du Bas Congo encadré de Carte du Congo Belge par Goossens Bruxelles 

UNITA managed to maintain funding from mining and exporting diamonds. De Beers, controller of all things diamond in Africa (officially and unofficially) and no stranger to controversy and law breaking, traded the diamonds despite international sanctions. De Beers netted $500million out of the sales and UNITA raised $3.72 million.

Still continuing the battle into the 2000s the rebels began contracting a range of private miliitary companies such as Executive Options. Commanded by a former South African army officer the organisation had been contracted in a range of wars across the continent. In the Angolan civil war they were contracted by the Angolan government to ‘manage’ UNITA. Part of this manangement strategy was the removal of Dr Jonas Savimbi, who having survived many many assasination attempts had gained something of a mystical reputation. Unfortunately for Savimbi, apparently the 15 machine gun bullets that killed him hadn’t recieved the memo about his death defying powers. Though unfortunate for him, his death led gradually to the demobilisation of forces. And a ceasefire later that year.

The result of the war was a huge humanitarian crisis, with over 4million refugees, a life expectancy of under 40 and landmines all over the place.

For wargaming, the many African civil and revolutionary wars are not that exploited (pun unintentional) and if you haven’t considered them already, it is perhaps worth doing so. Are there any modern African conflict players out there?