Don’t forget Angola’s horrible history

Thursday, 24 August 2017
Richard Dowden

Angola is different. The clues are in the names. Check the names of the Central Committee of the ruling party, the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA). Out of its 47 members, only 10 have African-sounding names. The rest, including President Jose Eduardo dos Santos, have what derive from originally Portuguese names. Several of them do not speak an African language but use Portuguese.


These families have lived in Africa long before European imperialists took over Angola and the rest of the continent. Unlike the European imperialists who came later, they married into African families. These families managed the slave and ivory trades to South America. Britain claims to have abolished the slave trade in 1806 but allowed the Portuguese - Britain’s oldest European ally - to continue in the southern Atlantic, mainly to Brazil and Central America. It only ended in the late-19th Century. 


In the 20th Century, the Portuguese government encouraged migration to Angola and evicted African farmers from their land. It also pushed out the mixed race Portuguese-speaking Africans who had run the country’s government and economy for centuries, replacing them with white Portuguese. So the former traders turned to the only countries who would help them, the Cubans and Russians. Angolans who spoke only Portuguese and had been slave traders suddenly became Marxist revolutionaries with African code names. With military support from the Soviet Union and Cuba, they seized power when Portuguese empire in Africa collapsed. 


On my first visit to Luanda in 1983, I had dinner with a minister and asked him what languages he spoke. “Portuguese, French and English”, he said. When a troupe of African dancers performed for us, I asked which ethnicity they were from. “They are our idea of Africa”, he said.


Angola, rich in resources - oil, diamonds, miles of fertile land - was an important Soviet ally in the Cold War. American policy in those days was to harass all countries with links to the Soviet Union. In Angola, the Americans had no problem finding an anti-communist revolutionary leader. Jonas Savimbi, the bearded swaggering “president”, carried a silver revolver and became the darling of Western countries and supplied by Apartheid South Africa. Ironically, one of his slogans was “negritude” - a swipe at the mixed-race coastal Angolan slavers.


His rebel movement UNITA made much of the country a no-go area. If you flew on a commercial flight to a distant town, the plane would drop metal chaff to deter missiles launched by UNITA fighters. But America and Britain had interests in Angola. Its oil production was managed by US companies (the Soviet Union did not have offshore oil expertise). Its diamonds were mined by a British company protected by a group of former SAS soldiers. So Angola was ruled by the old slave traders and coastal merchants who had suddenly become a Marxist revolutionary elite whose first language was Portuguese and were protected by US and British special forces from a US-backed rebel movement. If it had not been so horribly destructive that war would have been just a bad joke. 


But the MPLA did have a large and powerful “black African” element in the struggle for liberation. They resented these former slave-trading masters who spoke no African language becoming their new “Marxist revolutionary” masters. Nito Alves, a member of the MPLA's Central Committee, felt that the government had become a mere pawn in the Cold War and demanded that the party become more African-led. He whipped up the people of the shanty towns around Luanda and other cities. On 17 May 1977 they took to the streets of Luanda and tried to overthrow the government. The uprising was brutally suppressed with thousands killed or rounded up and executed.


This massacre was barely reported in the rest of the world. Many of the British, Portuguese and French Africa experts on Angola tended to belong to the hard left and commented favourably on the suppression of an anti-Communist plot. Since then, the former slave traders and merchants of the Angolan coast have kept tight control over the country and its resources. In 2014, at a RAS meeting at SOAS at which Lara Pawson’s book on the Nito Alves coup was launched*, young Angolans were stunned. They had no idea of what had happened in the capital and other cities of Angola, now 40 years ago. 


What has all this to do with the election? As Angola’s population expands rapidly and gains more more access to the internet and information from the rest of the world, the inhabitants of its huge musseques (shanty towns) can only become more restless. Especially when they learn more about the playboy lifestyles of the ruler/owner family, the Dos Santos clan.


By putting his daughter - said to have accumulated $3.5 billion - in charge of the Central Bank, Dos Santos hopes to keep the stolen money in the family. There will be many ambitious or angry people to buy off. But with two thirds of the population, an estimated 26.5 million people, living on less than $2 a day in a society as top heavy as Angola’s, this may well bring back the angry ghost of Nito Alves. 


*In the Name of the People by Lara Pawson I.B.Tauris