The first inhabitants of the area that is now Angola are thought to have been members of the hunter-gatherer Khoisan group. Bantu-speaking peoples from West Africa arrived in the region in the 13th cent., partially displacing the Khoisan and establishing a number of powerful kingdoms. The Portuguese first explored coastal Angola in the late 15th cent., and except for a short occupation (1641–48) by the Dutch, it was under Portugal's control until they left the country late in the 20th cent.
Although they failed to discover the gold and other precious metals they were seeking, the Portuguese found in Angola an excellent source of slaves for their colony in Brazil. Portuguese colonization of Angola began in 1575, when a permanent base was established at Luanda. By this time the Mbundu kingdom had established itself in central Angola. After several attempts at subjugation, Portuguese troops finally broke the back of the kingdom in 1902, when the Bié Plateau was captured. Construction of the Benguela railroad followed, and white settlers arrived in the Angolan highlands.
The modern development of Angola began only after World War II. In 1951 the colony was designated an overseas province, and Portugal initiated plans to develop industries and hydroelectric power. Although the Portuguese professed the aim of a multiracial society of equals in Angola, most Africans still suffered repression. Inspired by nationalist movements elsewhere, the native Angolans rose in revolt in 1961. When the uprising was quelled by the Portuguese army, many fled to Congo (Kinshasa) and other neighboring countries.
In 1962 a group of refugees in the Congo, led by Holden Roberto, organized the Front for the Liberation of Angola (FNLA). It maintained supply and training bases in the Congo, waged guerrilla warfare in Angola, and, while developing contacts with both Western and Communist nations, obtained its chief support from the Organization of African Unity (OAU). Angola's liberation movement comprised two other guerrilla groups as well. The Marxist-influenced Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola (MPLA), founded in 1956, had its headquarters in Zambia and was most active among educated Angolan Africans and mestiços living abroad. The MPLA led the struggle for Angolan independence. The third rival group was the União Nacional para a Independência Total de Angola (UNITA), which was established in 1966 under the leadership of Jonas Savimbi. As a result of the guerrilla warfare, Portugal was forced to keep more than 50,000 troops in Angola by the early 1970s.
In 1972 the heads of the FNLA and MPLA assumed joint leadership of a newly formed Supreme Council for the Liberation of Angola, but their military forces did not merge. That same year the Portuguese national assembly changed Angola's status from an overseas province to an "autonomous state" with authority over internal affairs; Portugal was to retain responsibility for defense and foreign relations. Elections were held for a legislative assembly in 1973.
In Apr., 1974, the Portuguese government was overthrown in a military uprising. In May of that year the new government proclaimed a truce with the guerrillas in an effort to promote peace talks. Later in the year Portugal seemed intent on granting Angola independence; however, the situation was complicated by the large number of Portuguese and other Europeans (estimated at 500,000) resident there, by continued conflict among the African liberation movements, and by the desire of some Cabindans for their oil-rich region to become independent as a separate.
Portugal granted Angola independence in 1975 and the MPLA assumed control of the government in Luanda; Agostinho Neto became president. The FNLA and UNITA, however, proclaimed a coaliton government in Nova Lisboa (now Huambo), but by early 1976 the MPLA had gained control of the whole country. Most of the European population fled the political and economic upheaval that followed independence, taking their investments and technical expertise with them. When Neto died in 1979, José Eduardo dos Santos succeeded him as president. In the 1970s and 80s the MPLA government received large amounts of aid from Cuba and the Soviet Union, while the United States supported first the FNLA and then UNITA. In Cabinda, independence forces that had fought against the Portuguese now fought against the Angolan government. Although the FNLA faded in importance, UNITA obtained the support of South Africa, which was mounting its own campaigns against the Southwest Africa People's Organization (SWAPO), a Namibian liberation group based in Angola.
In the late 1980s the United States provided military aid to UNITA and demanded the withdrawal of Cuban troops and an end to Soviet assistance. As a result of negotiations among Angola, South Africa, Cuba, and the United States, the withdrawal of Cuban troops began in 1989. Also in the late 1980s, Marxist Angola implemented programs of privatization under President dos Santos. A cease-fire between the ruling MPLA and UNITA was reached in 1991, and the government agreed to make Angola a multiparty state. However, when dos Santos won UN-supervised elections held in Sept., 1992, UNITA leader Jonas Savimbi charged fraud and refused to accept the results. In Nov., 1992, bitter fighting broke out between rebel UNITA troops and government forces, destroying many cities and much of the country's infrastructure. Despite initial victories that gave UNITA control of some two thirds of Angola, the MPLA eventually gained the upper hand in the renewed warfare.
In Nov., 1994, with UNITA on the verge of defeat, dos Santos and Savimbi signed the Lusaka protocol, a new agreement on ending the conflict. The two sides committed to the integration of several thousand UNITA troops into the government armed forces as well as the demobilization of thousands more from both sides. UN peacekeeping troops began arriving in June, 1995, to supervise the process. Troop integration, however, was suspended in 1996, and UNITA's demobilization efforts lagged. A new government of national unity was formed in 1997, including several UNITA deputies; Savimbi had declined a vice presidency in 1996.
With renewed fighting in 1998, Angola's ruling MPLA put the country's coalition government on hold, saying that UNITA had failed to meet its peace-treaty obligations. It suspended all UNITA representatives from parliament and declared that it would no longer deal with Savimbi, instead recognizing a splinter group, UNITA Renovada. In 1999 the United Nations voted to pull out all remaining troops stationed in the country, while continuing humanitarian relief work with over a million refugees.
UNITA was able to finance its activities, including an estimated 30,000 troops stationed in neighboring Zambia and Congo (Kinshasa), with some $500 million a year in diamond revenues from mines it controlled in the country's northeast. Fighting continued, with Angola's army inflicting several defeats on UNITA beginning in late 1999, weakening UNITA's still sizable forces. International restrictions (2001) on sales of diamonds not certfied as coming from legitimate sources also hurt UNITA, and the death of Savimbi in battle in 2002 was a severe blow to the rebels, who subsequently signed a cease-fire agreement and demobilized. UNITA subsequently reconstituted itself as a political party. Also in 2002 Angolan government forces gained the upper hand against Cabindan separatists; a peace agreement for the province was signed in 2006. As many as one million people died in the Angolan civil war, and the country's infrastructure was slow to recover from the effects of the fighting.
Parliamentary elections scheduled for 2007 were postponed late in 2006 until mid-2008, and the presidential election was then set for 2009. In Mar., 2007, there was an apparent attack on the leader of UNITA, Isaias Samakuva; UNITA accused the government of trying to assassinate him. When the parliamentary elections were finally held in Sept., 2008, they were marred by procedural irregulaties and difficulties but were otherwise generally transparent, and the MPLA won a landslide victory, with more than 80% of the vote.
In 2009 the presidential election (scheduled for Sept., 2009) was again postponed; a new constitution approved by the National Assembly in Jan., 2010, abolished direct election for the president. In the legislative elections of Aug., 2012, the MPLA won 72% of the vote, which thus resulted in the election of dos Santos as president. UNITA and other opposition parties unsuccessfully challenged the result in the courts.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.