Reading Hitch-22, a memoir by Christopher Hitchens, inspired me to research and write about political conflicts that I happened to hear about in my childhood, in an attempt to discover why some of my senior family members held the views that they did and the role some of them might have played.
The Portuguese have been interacting in Angola for almost half a millennium thanks to their former imperialism, and their colony began to take significant shape thanks to the bespoken Congo Conference, which was organised by Otto von Bismarck of the German chancellorship. This piece of research on the European New Imperialism reminded me of learning about my great grandfather, who was a German general, and, presumably at the start of the Great War, escaped to Angola and reversed his Jewish name “Zarref” to “Ferraz” (a name that my mother inherited) to avoid persecution. (I also wonder if his agenda included aiding European imperialism in colonisation and trade.) His ethnic origin also explains why some of the family members on my mother’s side have blue eyes and/or light complexion coupled with physical features of the black race.
Later, the fascist Portuguese dictator Antonio de Oliveira Salazar, who had a way with words that undergirded his countrymen, wrestled with his African colonies as liberalists began to rebel. Salazar was an advocator of lusotropicalism - an abhorrent doctrine of jingoistic conceit which asserts the superiority of the Portuguese over other European nations in the colonial trade. This was bound to have a profound brainwashing effect on the male population - which in turn caused the autocratic leader to be delusively hailed as “the greatest Portuguese” - and prompted many husbands to think in this manner: If the Portuguese man can manage his colonies abroad well, how can he not have any control over his wife? Thus, for many psychotic and gambling men such as my father, the answer was domestic violence. I remember clearly, as a young boy, when my mother complained to her father-in-law that his son had hit her. My grandfather’s reply was, “You must’ve deserved it.” Lusotropicalism had also surreptitiously found its way in my eldest and estranged sister’s mind, as she often defended my thuggish father, and, my brother-in-law, who often ranted about the Portuguese being the greatest conquerors ever. Salazar, in my opinion, should be remembered historically as a bete noire: the name alone should recall tyranny, incursion, and slavery.
Agostinho Neto, an Angolan anti-colonialist who studied medicine in Portugal, was opposed to Salazar’s Estado Novo and was destined to become Angola’s first president. Neto was arrested by PIDE (Portugal’s secret police) for his revolutionism, and, after 7 years of incarceration, returned to his homeland. (Just a year after my mother was born.) He then led a political merger of communists and rebels: the MPLA (Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola).
The colonial war broke out in Angola in the early ‘60s, my mother was about 3-years-old and right in the middle of it. This war would bankrupt Salazar’s un-democratic regime and add to the dictator’s opprobrium in the eyes of other United Nations members. In Angola, working towards the declension of Salazar’s colonialism, besides the MPLA, were two further parties (in chronological age order): Holden Roberto’s anti-communist FNLA (National Liberation Front of Angola) - who formed GRAE (a democratic revolutionary government, in temporary expatriation, opposed to the MPLA); and the louche Maoist warrior Jonas Savimbi’s UNITA (National Union for the Total Independence of Angola).
Savimbi was a prominent figure (culturally popularised in the computer game “Call of Duty: Black Ops”) in the civil war that broke out after the Alvor agreement between Portugal and Angola, a formal demarcation officially declaring the latter’s independence. (Independence came a year after a coup d’etat performed in Lisbon by the armed forces as part of the Carnation revolution - the reason why the 25th April is a Portuguese holiday as it celebrates freedom and democracy, despite also designating the disintegration of the Portuguese empire - so much for lusotropicalism!) Savimbi’s UNITA, which had formerly fought against the Portuguese colonialists, waged a war against the MPLA government. (Savimbi had met Neto in Portugal when he studied there, and, like Neto, was anti-colonialist.)
Eventually, Savimbi was chased out of the country by PIDE and moved to Romandy (where he studied social sciences) with the help of Portuguese and French communists. There, he met Holden Roberto, who had already voiced his concerns about colonialism in Angola at the United Nations, and would later join UPA (Union of Peoples of Angola), a precursor of the FNLA. (Roberto and Savimbi inevitably had their disagreements, and the latter would form his own movement and turn against the FNLA.)
Savimbi trained as a guerrilla fighter in China, adopting Maoist approaches to warfare, which makes me wonder if this type of initiation in the art of war, and its influence, is what impelled him to continue the pursuit of civil war for so long. Later, his CIA associates would describe him as opportunistic and having a penchant for war. The year my parents left Angola, the MPLA announced its adherence to Leninism, which caused Savimbi to sever his ties with China and publicly evince anti-communist views in the Third World. By now, the superpowers were paying close attention to the Angolan situation. (Washington and Moscow could see the conflict having impact on a global scale.)
While the United States, Zaire, and South Africa plunked for the FNLA (Roberto also had Chinese support) and the south-manoeuvring UNITA; the Soviet Union and Cuba backed a socialist MPLA dispersed all over the African country. How did this happen? Agostinho Neto had already been rejected by the USA (JFK administration) when the Angolan leader had asked them for help against colonialist Portugal. (The Americans were interested in the oil colonial Angola produced.) This prompted Neto to meet Che Guevara (who was ironically idolised by Savimbi) in Cuba and form an alliance with Fidel Castro. The intellectual Neto also began to author postcolonial poetry, which would deliver a great display of the influential power of writing, both politically and in popular culture. One poem in particular, “Saturday in the Musseques,” highlights the atrocities of Western civilisation and the problematic apartheid system.
President Ronald Reagan would later back the Democratic International meeting held in Cuando Cubango, which was attended by Savimbi as well as many other anti-communist guerrilla leaders. The CIA, at this point, subsidised Savimbi with weapons and recruited guerrillas for him, however, the guerrilla leader still had his own plans to rule a Marxist nation one day (as discrepant as this seems), and for this reason he can only be thought of as an apparent protégé of American intelligence agency. Nevertheless, Savimbi was such a great warrior that his supporters, as well as the Americans, were confident that he could help the West win the Cold War.
While Neto, as acting president, had hold over the capital and support from eastern Angola, the Lunda regions of the country were massacred by guerrillas in the late ‘70s, and this was only the start of a conflict that would kill millions and churn out many refugees. (I still remember hearing the Portuguese word “retornados,” meaning, “the returned,” as a boy.) The north-manoeuvring FNLA, with the help of western Angolan forces, began to capture MPLA members and sending them to Congo for execution. As the nationalist parties fought for laterality, thousands of Portuguese workers fled to their homeland - causing a drop in economy and business failure in Angola. My parents, who had already met, left for Portugal in ‘77 (and my mother was already pregnant with my sister at this point) a couple of years after Angola’s declaration of independence - so one can already infer the precipitous beginnings of the civil war - one of the most longstanding, internecine battles of the Cold War. A day before the declaration of independence had already seen the Battle of Dead Road (or Quifangondo), which, besides being part of the decolonisation conflict, was the first battle of the Angolan civil war. (This involved the MPLA trouncing the FNLA’s Bakongo army and Zaire’s battalions with the military help of Cuba’s operation Carlota.)
In the year of my parents’ departure, president Neto also circumvented a coup d’etat attempt by Fractionism, a coterie opposed to the MPLA’s socialism and led by a previously discharged minister called Nito Alves. Once the Angolan president overcame this offence, with the help of the Cuban military, he proceeded to execute tens of thousands of civilians who supported Fractionism’s brand of communism, including Alves.
I was conceived in the early ‘80s, when the Portuguese began to say, “Look at the Angolans, we gave them independence and they can’t be civil enough to run their country.” I still remember eavesdropping on snippets of political conversations which sometimes included racist versions of that type of criticism. Such ignorance, often coming from adult bigots who are inevitably found in big families, was enough to make my younger and naïve self wonder if skin had something to do with it. Fortunately my education showed me that there is no truth in that proposition as conflicts and disorganisation are found all over the world and people of all races make mistakes. The bigots should also be reminded that colonialism is what impelled the people of Angola to fight in the first place, and that Salazar also had a revolution coming his way.
To solely blame Angolans for the civil war was also unfair. The incongruity of dissenting ideologies that were being introduced in a naturally unstable nation post-independence, and the greed for power and control from nationalists as well as the intervening superpowers, was the real recipe for disaster. People owed it to themselves to have learnt something, as I did much later, from George Orwell’s famous apologue published at the end of World War II, “Animal Farm,” at the end of which pigs and men are indistinguishable. Or, as Orwell once put it, “One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes a revolution in order to establish a dictatorship.”
The world had seen a cancerous Agostinho Neto succumb to a botched surgical operation in Moscow, and Angola needed a new leader. With the help of the United Nations, the Bicesse Accords were established in order to help the political parties come to a resolution. Holden Roberto returned from exile and unsuccessfully ran for the presidential post. Angola had a new victor on the MPLA side, one that would prove to be despotic, corrupt, and with an unhealthy interest in the African diamond trade: Jose Eduardo dos Santos. Rivalled by Savimbi (who had accused him of rigging the elections), this empowered, collusive murderer set out to kill UNITA voters en masse. The result is known as the Halloween massacre, which gave Savimbi the perfect excuse to re-start the war. The MPLA had even used Savimbi’s many progeny, the result of his philandering and polygamy, against him!
Savimbi and his army gave the MPLA’s allies a good fight and began to gain ground control in the ‘90s. There were lots of casualties and I heard the guerrilla leader’s name being uttered frequently. I was young and naïve and didn’t know much about the individual or the situation, but I drew a logical conclusion based on the majority’s assessment as best as I understood it: Savimbi kills and terrorises the population, assassinates dissenters within his party, and wrecks the country - therefore, he is bad. And this conclusion would be reinforced whenever I enquired about why UNITA’s leader was terrorising the populace: “Because he is evil,” was the most common reply. “When are they going to kill him?” I’d enquire with some impatience, naively believing at the time that the American world police would do something about it. (Little did I know!) My Angolan uncles were right to vilify Savimbi. Later, my oldest uncle was understandably apoplectic with the professed UNITA-sponsoring Reagan (imagine my surprise to find that Americans were on the murderer’s side and the contrast I was made aware of between the real life goons and my Hollywood action heroes), and later, George Bush, Sr., for accommodating Savimbi at the White House. (Around this time, the Soviet Union was about to collapse as Mikhail Gorbachev worked on a reform for economic reasons. Savimbi was killed much later in Moxico, and it was the MPLA that got the job done.)
The Cubans, according to my uncle, were strong and fought well. It was true. I saw this in a documentary about the Angolan civil war. As South Africa invaded from Namibia with their huge tanks, the Cuban heroes forced them to retreat with their smaller ones, thus preventing the spread of apartheid in Africa. As the communist warriors battled the encroachers from the south and settled in trenches, their engineers would rebuild the war-torn areas of the country, including bridges to help them get about. I found that pretty impressive. (In a twist redolent of the Bay of Pigs fiasco, the MPLA’s enemies found that American help was drying up.)
But Castro is not as noble as he makes out to be. As I learnt from Christopher Hitchens’s account of attending a political rally in Havana, the Marxist leader plied the audience with booze, and, hypocritically because their profession is illegal in Cuba, prostitutes. (Even worse, like Russia, Cuba is a homophobic state.) Also, despite the differences between Castroism and Soviet communism - and we must bear in mind that Cubans helped the MPLA against Alves’s Soviet-loving Fractionists - the Cuban leader was rather slow in evincing his stance on the imperialist, Russian incursion of Czechoslovakia. (The old fox knows not to bite the hand that feeds him!)
In the early ‘90s, as Gorbachev and the Americans were taking steps towards collaboration, Antonio da Costa Fernandes (Toni) and Miguel N’zau Puna, a couple of Savimbi’s political associates, decided to desert him. They were peeved about their militant boss being disinterested in a diplomatic solution and relying mostly on the illegal mining of diamonds by the De Beers cartel in order to fund his war affair. But another thing frightened these two: they knew Savimbi was in the habit of killing off dissenters, moles, or suspected spies in his organisation. So they took refuge in Portugal. Somehow they met my aunt and my mother ended up wining and dining them. My mother announced that “Toni and Puna” were coming to dinner while she prepared a traditionally Angolan cornmeal as the main course, and there was no excitement on my part. (I was a fledgling then, but, had I been as sapient as I am now, I would have looked forward to meeting the ex-UNITA members, especially Puna who was Secretary-General - it would certainly have helped with my research and made this essay richer.) The two diplomats came and the conversation at the table flowed on political overtones. Puna would later serve a term as ambassador of Angola to Canada and subsequently declared his allegiance to the MPLA government, which, in his opinion, was the only one with potential to develop his homeland.
Before Toni and Puna had even got there, I was already sick at the thought of politics being discussed in my house. The prospect of the visit was redolent of the times when I was innocent and blissfully ignorant, and certainly barely old enough to understand the discrepancies between the nationalists of Angola. Some of my mother’s friends’ kids would ask me what side I was on, “MPLA or UNITA?” and I never knew what to say but felt compelled to pick a team. If I didn’t, the children of the Angolan civil war would look at me like I was some kind of alien. The feeling I’d experience when confronted with such question returned when I arrived in England and was asked what football team I supported by my schoolmates. “I’ve only just got here!” would have been a fairly justified reply, but one I refrained from using, nevertheless, out of a wish to not so much belong as to be accepted. So, like a demagogue, I either faked a status or did my best to fudge the inquisition altogether. (But kids can be pardoned for their stupidity in hiding or avoiding nonconformist sentiments.)
Today, Angola has luridly fulfilled George Orwell’s prophecy regarding revolutions and dictatorships. The current situation, like the Russian revolution and the Stalinist era, is an analogue of the Animal Farm finale and reiterates the moral of his allegory. Jose Eduardo dos Santos, who was elected by the people under an ostensible democracy, is one of the most corrupt leaders in Africa. (His racketeering is reflected in the government’s ledger alone.) He muffles journalists who attempt to uncover his financial shenanigans; threatens dissidents; bypasses republican ruling as regards how much power the head of state should possess; ignores the needs of the natives; pimps corporations in order to expand his wealth; and refuses to free the exclave of Cabinda (who never even had a chance to take part in negotiations during the colonial era). A further testament to the president’s corruption is the public display of his billionaire daughter Isabel, who is one of the richest women in the world! So here is the answer to the question that is posed by many: How can there be so much poverty in such a naturally wealthy country?
And one begins to see how history ironically repeats itself - just like the Tsars and the Bolsheviks - where dos Santos, it seems, is as bad as the Portuguese colonialists. The land is fraught with dangerous minefields and the war-ravaged countryside shows how agrarian business has come close to extinction. This led to urban areas becoming more populated and the establishment of housing for the poor in the suburbs (musseques). So what happened when Princess Diana arrived in Angola to condemn the use of landmines? She was vehemently criticised by surly government officials who would rather preserve the military’s arsenal for effective, future use than to mitigate its perils. Quite tellingly, the world’s main superpowers refused to sign the Ottawa Treaty (which tried to enforce the forbiddance of the dire booby traps). The civil war in Angola had endured long enough to render its soil generally infertile so the country is now forced to import food from its former foes (Portugal and South Africa).
But the president is not bothered by the Angolan’s poor quality of life, nor is he fazed by the fact that his country was found to have one of the worst life expectancies in the world. As long as his diamonds and oil are being sold abroad, and as long as his reprobate political economy is maintained, everything is sumptuous and dandy. Herein lies the answer that slaked my mother’s surprise at finding so many Chinese people working in Angola when she paid her friends and relatives a visit. The deal is that Angola imports builders and engineers from China while this one imbibes the natural commodities of the African land. Angola has become China’s gem!
Another thing I’d like to point out is that the Angolan government officially recognises all religions (Angola being predominantly Christian) apart from Islam - preventing the construction of mosques. (This isn’t a bad policy, given the atrocities committed by Islamists and the Quran’s eschatological concept of jihad, and the United Kingdom could certainly profit from a similar policy.) To his credit, dos Santos is sagacious enough to know that Islam is a religion of war and conquest, and, if there is one thing he won’t stand for, it’s opposition. He knows that, deep down, Muslims are only faithful to sharia law.
But his reasons for not wanting a dystopian scenario similar to Ottoman-conquered nations such as (to give a few examples) Syria (which saw the Hama massacre up until its recent devastation); Egypt (with the Muslim Brotherhood headache); and Nigeria (the bombing in Abuja and the kidnapping of hundreds of girls as punishment for the spread of Western education); isn’t necessarily a noble one. Dos Santos isn’t primarily protecting his people from the clutches of Islam. He isn’t worried about young Angolan men being brainwashed to become suicide bombers or the violation of women’s rights by a chauvinistic faith. He is only worried about competition and the preservation of his power.
My personal opinion is that the answer to running a nation successfully doesn’t lie in political or religious doctrines (such as colonialism, lusotropicalism, communism, monotheism, polytheism). The answer lies in running a secular state where education is available to everyone, and where humanism and enlightenment prevail. I hope to see this one day, not just in Angola, but all over the world.
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