Revolutions don’t turn the world upside down.They are a journey back to square one: The Angolan case.
Did you ever find it strange that the word ‘revolution’ has two meanings that happen to be complete opposites? In politics, a revolution is the overthrow of an order and all its norms, to bring about an irrevocable change. In contrast, revolution in the astronomical sense refers to the long journey of the Earth around the Sun. The revolution is completed when the Earth has returned to its starting point.
The Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) aimed to conduct a revolution in the political sense. But today, it is clear that the revolution it led was in fact astronomical. This article seeks to show how the MPLA fought colonialism, but ended up replicating the model it eradicated, thus acting as an obstacle to the political, economic and identity reconstruction of the post-conflict Angolan people.
Domination, War, and War Again: Oppression as Angola’s Birthmark
Angola was a Portuguese colony from the 1440s. Until 1926, an economy satisfying the interests of both countries qualified Angola’s colonial experience. But the arrival of Salazar in power heralded a colonisation based on racial discrimination, through the 1930 Colonial Act defining Angolans as beings to be civilised, and on economic discrimination, favouring the enrichment of the Portuguese.
This drastic change in colonial policy aroused the anger of the Angolans, and anti-colonisation movements were formed: the National Force for the Liberation of Angola (FNLA) in 1954, the socialist MPLA in 1956, and the National Unity for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) in 1966. The war of independence took place from 1961 to 1975. When Angola gained independence, a new Constitution removed its colonial past, notably embodied in the 1930 Colonial Act. All Angolans were now equal, regardless of their colour, ethnicity, religion or gender.
But one question persisted: who would form the new Angolan government, among the three ideologically opposed movements?
In response, a civil war exploded. This appeared, in a way, as a failure of decolonisation: Angola had replaced the hatred of the colonial invader with hatred of its own brothers. The thirst for power of the decolonisation movements had deposed the Angolan enfranchisement of all its importance. The MPLA maintained a Manichean discourse, opposing its supporters as the true native Angolans, to the supporters of the FNLA-UNITA as outsiders, purged in bloodshed. The civil war proved more violent than the war of independence. Confrontations ended in 2002, and MPLA leader José Eduardo Dos Santos became the president of the new Angolan government.
Post-Conflict Angola: The Ghosts of the Past Keep Haunting the People
Now that conflict is over, one would have hoped to read on the last page of this bloody story “and they lived happily ever after”. But Angola today does not live happily. Since the total end of the armed conflict in 2002, Angola has been haunted by the ghosts of its colonial past. The country suffers from three diseases:
First, despite the end of the civil war, the MPLA perpetuates its Manichean propaganda, defining veterans of the FNLA and UNITA as traitors to the interests of the country. Thus, we see the reproduction of the model of duality used by the colonists to justify Portuguese supremacy over the lower Angolans. Here too, a relationship of superiority is perpetuated between insiders – MPLA supporters – and outsiders. Furthermore, justice was not done to punish the massacres carried out by the MPLA. This represents an enormous obstacle for the reconstruction of the Angolan identity and the reunification of a mutilated people.
Second, the fragility of the state leads to a political and social crisis. First, democracy is fragile because of the strong paternalism of the MPLA. The government censors the media and represses the opposition because it thinks it knows what is good for the people. Second, Angola’s political system suffers from government corruption. Dos Santos’s family and friends control key sectors of the economy. Thus, economic discrimination persists, through the enrichment of an elite, without the Angolan people being able to benefit from the fruits of its own efforts. This leads to a lack of social services and access to essential goods for Angolans. The population is in a very precarious situation, particularly as regards access to water. Due to a lack of infrastructure, Angolans are constrained to obtain water through informal means. But the water is not always clean, which leads to cholera epidemics. In 2008, Médecins Sans Frontières recorded 20,000 cases ten weeks after the first was detected, of which 900 died (Médecins Sans Frontières, 2008).
Third, the colonial model has not completely evaporated following Angola’s independence. The current society presents phenomena that recall Portuguese domination. Since the end of the civil war, a great wave of Portuguese immigration has transformed Angolan society. Portuguese immigrants are mainly from the poor, most of them farmers and not educated. But because they are Portuguese, their chances of getting a job are higher, as are their wages and their access to social services. Such racial discrimination persists in Angolan society. This racist logic is also perpetuated by the Angolans themselves: between a poorly qualified Portuguese and an Angolan expert in the field, another Angolan will more often choose a Portuguese. Racial discrimination has remained very much rooted in post-independence Angola.
What the Angolans Truly Need
In order for Angolans to heal from the wounds of the past, they first need a representation, that their voice is finally heard, that their interests are truly carried to the national level. Through a more participative democracy, Angola first needs to launch a real political dialogue between its people and its government. Paternalism cannot continue. It is up to the people to decide their future, not the government to decide which future is best for the people.
Another dialogue must take place, that of identity. The non-violent civil war, through the opposition among ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’, can no longer persist. Angolans need to forgive themselves, define what it means to be Angolan, and unite around this identity to defeat the ghosts of the past and move forward hand in hand, stronger.
This must be accompanied by a lengthy process of trying the crimes committed by the MPLA. In order to turn the page of their bloody story, Angolans need justice and truth, to heal through memory. Orphans will never look forward to the future if the murderers of their parents haunt their past without punishment. They also need places of remembrance, and annual days to gather around a common suffering at the national scale and vow never to repeat such atrocities.
Finally, post-conflict Angola must ensure the security of its people, not only physical security; but economic security, by prioritising Angolans on the job market; health security, by ensuring quality medical services accessible to all; food security, by providing equal access to clean water.
Conclusion: From a Post-Conflict Community to a Society
To conclude, I would like to draw a distinction between post-conflict communities and full-fledged societies. The former is a community that carries the remnants of the conflict, its diseases and its scars. It is a community that is haunted by its own past and that, as long as it lasts, will remain frozen in time while slowly decomposing. A society, on the other hand, is forward-looking, it has overcome the barriers of the past, has healed its wounds, and is united and stronger to face even more difficult challenges. Angola is currently a post-conflict community: because of an astronomical revolution, it has returned to its starting point and reproduced what it was supposed to overthrow. It now drags the ghosts of its past and does not heal. We all want to stop calling Angola a post-conflict community and start calling it a Society. Angola is like a bird whose wings are held by a ball. Remove this ball and it will fly to infinity.
Iris is a second year International Relations student at War Studies Department - King's College, London. She researched and wrote this article as part of the BizGees & War Studies Department Internship programme.