Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index

History of Angola

This is the History of Angola. See also the History of Africa and History of present-day nations and states.

As far back as as 1,000 years ago, Angola was inhabited by peoples speaking Bantu languages, engaged in agriculture with iron tools and trade over long distances. States in the area included the Kongo kingdom and Mbundu kingdoms inland from Luanda.

In 1482, when the Portuguese first landed in what is now northern Angola, they encountered the Kingdom of the Kongo, which stretched from modern Gabon in the north to the Kwanza River in the south. Mbanza Congo, the capital, had a population of 50,000 people. South of this were various important states, of which the Kingdom of Ndongo, ruled by the Ngola (King), was most significant. Modern Angola derives its name from the king of Ndongo. The Portuguese soon established control over the port cities of Luanda and Benguela and gradually took control of the coastal strip throughout the 16th century by a series of treaties and wars. The Dutch occupied Luanda, with the help of Ngola Nzinga, from 1641 - 1648, providing a boost for anti-Portuguese states. In 1648, Brazilian-based Portuguese forces re-took Luanda and initiated a process of military conquest of the Congo and Ndongo states that ended with Portuguese victory in 1671. Ngola Nzinga would continue to resist Portugal form the hills in Matamba until her death in 1683. Full Portuguese administrative control of the interior did not occur until the beginning of the 20th century.

Portugal's primary interest in Angola quickly turned to slavery. The slaving system began early in the 16th century with the purchase from African chiefs of people to work on sugar plantations in Sao Tome, Principe, and Brazil. Many scholars agree that by the 19th century, Angola was the largest source of slaves not only for Brazil, but for the Americas, including the United States. By the end of the 19th century, a massive forced labor system had replaced formal slavery and would continue until outlawed in 1961. Colonial Portuguese rule in the 20th century was characterized by rigid dictatorship and exploitation of African labor.

It was this forced labor that provided the basis for development of a plantation economy and, by the mid-20th century, a major mining sector. Forced labor combined with British financing to construct three railroads from the coast to the interior, the most important of which was the transcontinental Benguela railroad that linked the port of Lobito with the copper zones of the Belgian Congo and what is now Zambia.

Colonial economic development did not translate into social development for native Angolans. The Portuguese regime encouraged white immigration, especially after 1950, which intensified racial antagonisms--many new Portuguese settlers arrived after World War II, making up 5% of the population by the early 1970s. As decolonization progressed elsewhere in Africa, Portugal, under the Salazar and Caetano dictatorships, rejected independence and treated its African colonies as overseas provinces. Consequently, three independence movements emerged: the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), with a base among the Kimbundu and the mixed-race intelligentsia of Luanda, and links to communist parties in Portugal and the East Bloc; the National Liberation Front of Angola (FNLA), with an ethnic base in the Bakongo region of the north and links to the United States and the Mobutu regime in Kinshasa; and the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA), led by Jonas Malheiro Savimbi with an ethnic and regional base in the Ovimbundo heartland in the center of the country.

From the early 1960s, elements of these movements fought against the Portuguese. In their war for independence, which began in 1961, Angolans were divided. The tribal-based (FNLA), the Maoist (UNITA), and the Maoist and broadly-based (MPLA) were all strong groups fighting the Portuguese.

A 1974 coup d'etat in Portugal established a military government that promptly ceased the war and agreed to hand over power to a coalition of the three movements. The coalition quickly broke down and turned into a civil war. The USA, Zaïre and South Africa intervened militarily in favor of the FNLA and UNITA. In response, Cuba, backed by the Soviet Union, intervened in favor of MPLA. In November 1975, the MPLA had all but crushed UNITA, and the South African forces withdrew. The U.S. Congress barred further U.S. military involvement in Angola.

Portugal granted Angola independence on November 11, 1975.

In control of Luanda and the coastal strip (and increasingly lucrative oil fields), the MPLA declared independence on November 11, 1975, the day the Portuguese abandoned the capital. Augustinho Neto became the first president, followed by Jose Eduardo dos Santos in 1979.

Civil war between UNITA and the MPLA continued until January 10, 1989 when Cuba withdrew its forces. For much of this time, UNITA controlled vast swaths of the interior and was backed by U.S. resources and South African troops. Similarly, tens of thousands of Cuban troops remained in support of the MPLA, often fighting South Africans on the front lines. A U.S.-brokered agreement resulted in withdrawal of foreign troops in 1989 and led to the Bicesse Accord in 1991, which spelled out an electoral process for a democratic Angola under the supervision of the United Nations. When UNITA's Jonas Savimbi failed to win the first round of the presidential election in 1992 (he won 40% to Dos Santos's 49%, which meant a runoff), he called the election fraudulent and returned to war. Another peace accord, the Lusaka Protocol, was brokered in Lusaka, Zambia and signed on November 20, 1994.

The peace accord between the government and UNITA provided for the integration of former UNITA insurgents into the government and armed forces. However, in 1995 localized fighting resumed. A national unity government was installed in April of 1997, but serious fighting resumed in late 1998 when Savimbi renewed the war for a second time, claiming the MPLA was not fulfilling its obligations. The UN Security Council voted on August 28, 1997, to impose sanctions on UNITA. The Angolan military launched a massive offensive in 1999 which destroyed UNITA's conventional capacity and recaptured all major cities previously held by Savimbi's forces. Savimbi then declared a return to guerrilla tactics, and much of the country remained in turmoil.

The extended civil wars rendered hundreds of thousands of people homeless. Up to 1.5 million lives may have been lost in fighting over the past quarter century.

In 2002, Savimbi was killed in a military operation, and UNITA and the MPLA agreed to sign a ceasfire six weeks later, on April 4. In August UNITA declared itself a political party and officially demobilized its armed force, ending the civil war. Angola is currently at peace under the leadership of the MPLA and Dos Santos, although still facing huge social and economic problems as a result of almost continual war since 1975, and Portuguese colonialism for decades before that.


Much of the material in this article comes from the CIA World Factbook 2000 and the 2003 U.S. Department of State website.