Angolan civilians walking past the remains of tanks in 2004. Relics of the conflict still litter the Angolan countryside.

A new study using extensive eyewitness accounts re-examines the causes and legacy of Angola's brutal 27-year civil war, once described by the United Nations as "the worst war in the world".

Probably the most surprising finding was that this conflict didn’t arise from a broad identity split across Angolan society; it created it. Its end marked the culmination of a process whereby firepower, bloodshed and starvation were employed to transform the possibilities of what Angolans considered imaginable.

Justin Pearce

The voices of ordinary people who lived through Angola’s devastating, 27-year civil war have been captured in a damning study that reassesses both how the conflict happened, and the nature of the country’s so-called democracy today.

From 1975 until 2002, hundreds of thousands of Angolans were killed and millions more displaced in a brutal conflict that was described by the United Nations as “the worst war in the world”. By the time it ended, it had become synonymous with child soldiers, human rights atrocities, landmine victims and blood diamond economics.

The bloodshed has usually been seen as the result of ethnic divisions in Angolan society, which mixed with Cold War politics as international powers intervened.

In a new book that draws on extensive interviews with those caught in the crossfire, however, Dr Justin Pearce – a former BBC correspondent in Angola who is now a Research Associate at St John’s College, University of Cambridge – brings the political motivations of Angolans themselves to the centre of the analysis. He reaches a bleak conclusion: This, he suggests, was a war that for most people meant nothing when it started, and then found reasons for existing as it developed, almost as if it were feeding itself.

His study challenges conventional views about why the devastating conflict happened, and considers what it means for Angola today – a supposed democracy which, Pearce says, is for all practical purposes a one-party state.

“We think of most wars as starting with two groups with antagonistic interests,” he said. “Probably the most surprising finding was that this conflict didn’t arise from a broad identity split across Angolan society; it created it. Its end marked the culmination of a process whereby firepower, bloodshed and starvation were employed to transform the possibilities of what Angolans considered imaginable.”

The roots of the Civil War pre-date Angola’s independence from Portugal in 1975. Amid abrupt decolonisation, the rival movements that had opposed colonialism began fighting for the right to rule the new state. The Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) took control in the capital, but the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) contested the power of the MPLA government.

Despite the intervention of Cuba and South Africa, with the support of the Soviet Union and the United States during the Cold War, the resulting struggle was frequently ignored in the West. In the mid-1990s, when the daily casualty rate was higher than in Bosnia, Margaret Anstee, the United Nations’ special representative to Angola called it “the forgotten tragedy”. “Even now it is difficult to lift the veil of silence,” she wrote in 1996. “The argument is that there is no public interest – and apparently no desire to awaken it, either.”

Pearce’s study seeks to fill a gap by examining what motivated ordinary Angolans to participate in  Africa’s worst conflict: did they believe in a cause, it asks, or did they really not have a choice? Focusing on the Central Highlands region, he spoke to many of the country’s poorest people – rural peasants – as well as town dwellers, farmers, soldiers and politicians.

In part, their personal accounts add to what is already known about the war’s horrors. Some gave examples of the extreme tactics with which UNITA and the MPLA sometimes controlled the population – tales of public executions, kidnappings, forced marriages, and even the burning of alleged “witches”.

In addition, however, their accounts show that the ideological divisions associated with the Cold War meant little to ordinary Angolans. Instead, Pearce found that after years of political suppression by the Portuguese, few Angolans were engaged with politics in 1975. As the MPLA and UNITA seized parts of the country, the locals simply accepted their military domination as legitimate political power.

For most, therefore, the war began not for a cause, but as a reality that was imposed upon people. Many of Pearce’s interviewees described their lives under UNITA and the MPLA as if they had been “owned” by the warring factions. “People lost the notion of being independent,” one interviewee told him. “People became possessions.”

The study found that such political affiliations were often fluid. When territories changed hands, “UNITA people” simply became “MPLA people” instead, and vice-versa. In one particularly extreme case, Pearce was told about a train journey in which the passengers switched allegiances at different stations, to avoid being executed by the opposing militias.

That situation made a mockery of attempts by the West during the 1990s to end the war through democratic means. As the war went on, however, the study suggests that it developed its own reasons for existing. Control was founded upon force and fear, but it was maintained by means of persuasion. Both parties created jobs and provided local services. They also used education programmes to strengthen their claims to rule, while cultivating a fear of the adversary.

Gradually, these strategies turned many Angolans into die-hard supporters of either UNITA or the MPLA. Citizens came to depend on their local party for their livelihoods, and came to define their sense of national identity with the fight against the other side.

Pearce suggests that the consequences were disastrous, because this made the conflict a “zero-sum game”, in which one side had to undermine the other’s ability to support its people in order to win. The MPLA government’s counter-insurgency operations, which intensified in the late 1990s, finally achieved peace on this basis – in the process causing widespread starvation, large-scale population displacement and appalling suffering.

Landmine clearances in Angola (credit Justin Pearce)

Seen through the prism of this bleak recent history, the book argues that 13 years later, Angola’s supposed democracy remains the result of a war that was won through  domination.

Since its end, the MPLA has implemented a reconstruction programme on the back of an oil boom that is now stalling. While Pearce says that this has created “the most disgusting rich-poor gap imaginable”, he also notes that the government still suppresses political opposition using repressive tactics that echo the war itself.

“It goes through the rituals of multi-party democracy, but I would say it’s a strongly authoritarian state with the trappings of a democracy that doesn’t really function,” Pearce added.

“It’s as if the channels simply don’t exist for the expression of an alternative vision. Even now, with the economy suffering from plunging oil prices, all you see are occasional, small, street protests by a few disaffected young people. It’s hard to see how that alone is going to chip away at the edifice of power, and the government’s response has been brutal. Fifteen activists were imprisoned without trial in June this year, and their mothers were beaten by police when they demonstrated for their sons’ release. I fear that there is going to have to be some sort of severe crisis in Angola before things really get better.”

Political Identity And Conflict in Central Angola, 1975-2002, by Justin Pearce, is published by Cambridge University Press. Dr Pearce is a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow in the Department of Politics and International Studies, and a Research Associate of St John's College.

Inset images: (1) UNITA troops during a handover of their weapons to government monitors at the war's end in 2002; (2) Civilians carry sacks of food flown into Kuito during the humanitarian crisis of 2001; (3) Landmine clearances in Angola, one legacy of the conflict. All images credit Justin Pearce.

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