Angola has known little peace since its independence from Portugal in 1975. Internal conflict flared when the three nationalist groups that had been fighting colonial rule - the Movement for the Popular Liberation of Angola (MPLA), the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA), the National Front for the Liberation of Angola (FNLA) - fought each other for control of the capital, Luanda, before Portugal's official departure on November 11, 1975.
The Soviet Union and Cuba supported the MPLA, which controlled the city of Luanda but little else. South Africa invaded Angola in support of UNITA. Zaire invaded in support of the FNLA. The U.S. provided extensive assistance to both UNITA and the FNLA. In October 1975, a massive Soviet airlift of arms and Cuban troops turned the tide in favor of the MPLA. South African and Zairean troops withdrew, and the MPLA was able to form a single-party socialist government, which gained widespread diplomatic recognition, although not from the U.S. or South Africa.
UNITA and the FNLA then joined forces against the MPLA. UNITA was initially driven out of its headquarters in Huambo and its forces scattered and driven into the bush. But it subsequently regrouped and waged a devastating, long-running war against the MPLA government, which it saw as asimilado (urban, educated, and Portuguese-oriented), mestizo (mixed race), and northern dominated. UNITA portrayed itself as anti-Marxist and pro-Western, but it had its own regional roots, primarily among the Ovimbundu people of southern and central Angola.
The war spread, with UNITA making steady gains and South African forces operating sporadically in Angola in support of UNITA. The largest South African incursions occurred between 1981 and 1993, partly in retaliation for MPLA support for the South West African People's Organization's (SWAPO's) guerrilla war against South Africa's occupation of Namibia. During this period, South African forces occupied parts of the extreme south of Angola.
In late 1983, the U.N. Security Council demanded South Africa's withdrawal from Angola. Shortly afterwards, the two countries signed the Lusaka Accord, under which South Africa agreed to withdraw if Angola ceased its support of SWAPO. However, in 1985 South Africa launched another invasion to counter a major MPLA government offensive against UNITA, carried out with the assistance of some 50,000 Cuban troops.
U.S. covert assistance to UNITA had been prohibited by the U.S. Congress through the Clark Amendment in 1976, but was resumed after a repeal of the amendment in 1985. U.S. covert aid totaled about U.S.$250 million between 1986and 1991, making it the second largest U.S. covert program, exceeded only by aid to the Afghan mujahedeen.
In 1987, a series of major battles in the south of Angola culminated in the siege of Cuito Cuanavale by South African and UNITA forces. Although this resulted in a military stalemate, the outcome was a psychological defeat for the South African Defence Forces (SADF), which came to believe they could not win militarily in Angola. This prompted a rethinking of South African military strategy.
Cuito Cuanavale also marked the beginning of new diplomatic efforts to end the conflict. In 1988, the Soviet Union signaled that it was no longer prepared to arm the MPLA indefinitely. In January 1989, President Dos Santos made an offer to UNITA leader Jonas Savimbi that led to a peace process brokered by eighteen African nations. At a meeting in Gbadolite, Zaire, in June 1989, Dos Santos and Savimbi shook hands and agreed on an immediate cease-fire. But it quickly collapsed, as a dispute developed over what their oral agreements had been, and especially over what Savimbi's future role would be.1
The following eighteen months saw the most sustained efforts to achieve a peaceful settlement, as well as some of the fiercest fighting of the entire war. Between April 1990 and May 1991 six rounds of peace talks took place between UNITA and the government. The negotiations were hosted by Portugal, with observers from the United States and the Soviet Union. These nations were subsequently called the observing Troika. In May 1991 the talks resulted in an agreement, known as the Bicesse Accords, which temporarily ended a conflict that had already killed between 100,000 and 350,000.2 The agreement was made possible partly by the ending of the Cold War, which facilitated U.S.-Soviet cooperation, and partly by the desire of the Soviet Union and Cuba to reduce their financial commitment to Angola.
The accords ratified a cease-fire and called for government and UNITA forces to be integrated into the Angolan Armed Forces (FAA), a 50,000-strong military force. The accords contained a so-called "Triple Zero" clause, which prohibited either side from purchasing new supplies of weaponry. Under the accords, the MPLA remained the legitimate and internationally-recognized government,retaining responsibility for running the state during the interim period and for setting the date for elections. A U.N. Angola Verification Mission (UNAVEM) team of 576 people was responsible for monitoring during this interim period.
Angola's first nationwide elections were held on the last two days of September 1992. They provided the first opportunity for Angolans to express their will in what the U.N. and other foreign observers concluded was a "generally free and fair" process.3 With a turnout of more than 91 per cent (4.4 million) of registered voters, President dos Santos, the MPLA's candidate, received 49.6 per cent of the vote against 40.7 per cent for Savimbi. In the election for the legislature, the MPLA won 54 per cent of the vote, against UNITA's 34 per cent. Under Angolan law, failure of the winner in the presidential election to receive more than 50 per cent of the votes cast required an election runoff. However, a runoff was not held. Instead UNITA rejected the results and returned the country to civil war by remobilising its forces across the country. Less than a month after the elections, the "Third War" had started. It was to last until November 1994.4
This extremely destructive conflict was notable for systematic violations of the laws of war by both the government and the UNITA rebels. Indiscriminate shelling of starving, besieged cities by UNITA resulted in massive destruction, and the loss of untold numbers of civilian lives. Indiscriminate bombing by the government also took a high civilian toll, as did landmines, starvation and disease. It is estimated that 300,000 Angolans - 3 per cent of the population - died as a result of fighting between October 1992 and late 1994; probably more than in the preceding sixteen years of war. The U.N. reported that between May and October 1993 as many as 1,000 people were dying every day in Angola - more than in any other conflict in the world at the time.5
By late 1993, UNITA controlled more than 70 per cent of Angolan territory. However, throughout 1994, military gains by the government forced UNITA to make ever greater concessions in the Lusaka peace talks, and to accept proposals for national reconciliation. As its territorial losses quickened, UNITA promised to sign the protocol in an effort to persuade the government to stop its militaryadvances. Both sides initialed the Lusaka Protocol on October 31 1994, with President dos Santos promising the U.S. and the U.N. that government forces would not capture the UNITA headquarters at Huambo. Yet government forces continued to push forward. Because UNITA had pulled out, the government captured the city quickly. By November 1994, government offensives had reduced UNITA's territorial control to 40 per cent of the country.6