The group was formed from the politicized split in the Angolan idependence movement, the two original groups were the FNLA (founded 1957) and the socialist MPLA (founded 1956). In March 1966 Jonas Savimbi broke with the FNLA to form his own group, UNITA, initially based in Muangai but later in Jamba in the south-east. Its leadership was drawn from the majority Ovimbundu tribal group and its policies were Maoist, aimed at rural rights and recognized ethnic divisions, it was the most 'African' of the groups and was also considered the most radical. Whatever its politics UNITA guerillas proved themselves especially effect at sabotage before and after independence.
After the Portuguese withdrawal in 1974-75 the groups splintered into civil war, MPLA leader Agostinho Neto became prime minister. Backed by Cuban money, weapons and troops the MPLA broke the FNLA and forced them into exile. UNITA was almost destoryed by November 1975. But UNITA survived and set up a second government in Huambo. UNITA was hard-pressed but recovered with South African aid from 1975 and then US support during the 1980s. The MPLA was strongest in the cities, the coastal region and the strategic oil-fields, UNITA controlled much of the highlands interior, notably the Biť plateau.
Despite the intervention of the Soviet Union in 1987 fighting continued until 1989 when Cuba withdrew its support and 50,000 troops from the MPLA. A ceasefire was agreed and the MPLA leader Josť Eduardo dos Santos and Central Committee rejected its Marxist past and proposed democracy.
Following the 1991 Bicesse Accord, signed in Lisbon, there were UN brokered elections between Savimbi and dos Santos in 1992. Falling to win an overall majority UNITA returned to armed conflict, this time establishing a base in Huambo. The UN agreed an embargo against UNITA and the US government finally recognized the MPLA government. After failed talks in 1993 another agreement, the Lusaka Protocol, was made in 1994 to form a government of national unity and in 1995 UN peacekeepers arrived. UNITA again broke away from this agreement in 1998 but a MPLA offensive in 1999 destroyed UNITA as a conventional force. UNITA then returned to guerilla tactics.
The conflict ended only after the death of Savimbi in an ambush in February 2002, after which UNITA agreed a ceasefire with the government in April 2002. Under an amnesty agreement UNITA soldiers and their families, about 350,000 people, were gathered in 33 demobilisation camps under the Program For Social and Productive Reintegration of Demobilizeds and War Displaced People. In August UNITA officially gave up its armed wing, effectively ending the civil war.
Savimbi was apparently succeeded by Antonio Dembo, he died shortly after Savimbi. As of June 2003 UNITA has not yet chosen a new leader. The interim leader, secretary-general, and also a candidate is General Lukamba Paulo Gato, his opponents are Dinho Chingunji and Isaias Samakuva.