More than a Proxy War: Angolan Independence and Civil War

30 years ago, the Angolan government and its Cuban allies agreed on a ceasefire with South Africa after 13 years of fighting in Angola. The warring sides had been supported by the two superpowers USSR and USA with funds and weapons. “Ah, I see”, you nod, “a proxy war in the Cold War. Poor puppets of the superpowers!” Not so fast, my young friend. Let me tell you another story from that war. Before that ceasefire, it was a regular occurrence that Cuban soldiers armed with Soviet weapons protected the drilling sites of American oil companies. They protected them from a US-funded guerilla movement (many of which had been trained by Chinese Communist military advisors). Does it still sound like a textbook proxy war to you? – I’d thought not. Come along on this wild ride through decolonization in the Cold War. Our first stop will be Angola as a Portuguese colony. Then we will move on to the violent decolonization of Angola before we look at the Civil War proper. Your conceptions of superpowers in charge of a bipolar world will be shaken. To make up for that (and because I know that you like shiny pieces of cardboard), board games will feature on the way.

Angola under Portuguese rule

Portugal claimed Angola as a colony at the Berlin Conference that divided Africa between the European powers (see more on this Scramble for Africa here). Portugal, however, was never able to exert much control over her vast colonies with her limited means. Colonial rule became even harder when the anti-colonial struggle taking in Africa after World War II also inspired the Angolans to rebel. In 1961, anti-colonial fighters attempted to storm the prison of the Angolan capital Luanda. Operationally entirely unsuccessful, the bold move sparked a guerilla war against the Portuguese colonial army. However, this war was not waged by one guerilla movement, but by three!
The MPLA (Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola, Popular Movement of the Liberation of Angola) led by Agostinho Neto employed an ideological mix of African nationalism, anti-imperialism and Marxism – among several other influences. While their base was around Luanda and with the Mbundu people, they also appealed to non-Mbundu with their class-based rhetoric.
In the north, close to the Zairian border, was the FNLA (Frente Nacional de Libertação de Angola, National Front of the Liberation of Angola) under the leadership of Holden Roberto. They coupled a radical African nationalism with messianic religiosity.
Lastly, the UNITA (União Nacional para a Independência Total de Angola, National Union for the Total Independence of Angola) was founded in 1966 when Jonas Savimbi fell out with the FNLA leadership and decided to found his own movement. The UNITA had the least defined ideological convictions and therefore relied exclusively on its ethnic appeal among the Ovimbundu people in the east of the country.


The fall of the Portuguese empire from a macro perspective: The new post-colonial governments in both southwest and southeast Africa aligned themselves with the USSR. Image: Card Portuguese Empire Crumbles from Twilight Struggle, ©GMT Games.

While the three movements were suspicious of each other, each of them fought the Portuguese army in their respective spot. All of them tried to gain outside support – often from multiple powers, and often multiple movements from the same power. So as the MPLA asked the United States for assistance in the early 1960s, they were rejected because Holden Roberto, eager to secure exclusive backing for his FNLA, had already denounced them as Communist. The MPLA, however, managed to receive Chinese aid (albeit much less than the UNITA). The MPLA also requested support from the Soviet Union and received a minuscule amount as the Soviets were suspicious of any movements backed by China (which were threatening her role as the leader of world Communism). The Soviet assistance, in turn made China suspicious of the MPLA as well, so that they too curtailed their support for the MPLA. Even smaller powers were involved: Zaire’s dictator Mobutu developed a liking for the FNLA’s anticolonial guerilla struggle and allowed them to operate from bases in his country. Yugoslavia was the main provider of weapons to the MPLA until the mid-70s. In the strangest of alliances, the all-black UNITA cooperated at times with apartheid South Africa.
So we have a complex political situation in which three mutually suspicious insurgent powers fight against the Portuguese colonial army as the counter-insurgent force. Sounds like a textbook COIN game, right? You’re not the first to think so. A game on the Angolan War of Independence was originally planned as Volume II of the COIN series by its creator Volko Ruhnke. However, both the COIN series and Volko went other ways – COIN has broadened its range of topics from 20th century conflicts to the American Revolution and even antiquity, Volko is now working on a medieval operational wargame. At some time, another designer had stepped in and taken up the idea of an Angola COIN, but as we haven’t heard any updates on that for two years, the status of the project seems to be in question.


The Decolonization Crisis, 1975—1976

Besides the Angolan War of Independence, Portugal faced anti-colonial uprisings in her other two colonies Mozambique and Guinea-Bissau (both of which were better organized than the chaotic Angolan three-way guerilla war). For a country as small and poor as Portugal, that came with a massive expenditure of money and blood. By the mid-1970s, all other European powers had let go of their African colonies, but Portugal still fought on – precisely because she was so small and poor and didn’t have the means for informal economic permeation of former colonies.[1] In addition, the Portuguese Estado Novo (New State) regime counted on the colonial possessions as a source for national pride to keep the population loyal. That backfired. After many years of fruitless colonial wars, even large parts of the military were fed up with the Estado Novo and toppled the regime in the Carnation Revolution of April 1974. The newly formed Portuguese government negotiated a decolonization plan with the three insurgent movements called the Alvor Agreement (January 1975). An interim government for Angola was set up with twelve ministers – three from Portugal and each of the movements.


Map of Angola, used as the board for Angola! (Phil Kendall, Multi-Man Publishing). A strong distinction is made between the clear, easily passable areas on the coast and the often wooded and hilly interior. Note the stacks of counters which denote military units in their starting positions – MPLA (yellow) and their armed wing FAPLA (red) mostly in the center, FNLA (green) in the north and UNITA (blue) in the south. Image taken from the Vassal module of Angola, ©Multi-Man Publishing.

With independence in reach, the suspicion between the movements turned into outright hostility almost immediately. Less than a month after the Alvor Agreement, military skirmishes for Luanda began. From there it turned into open warfare. Zairian and South African troops repeatedly crossed the border, but didn’t interfere with the fighting yet. By September, the MPLA had gained military predominance. It seemed likely that on November 11, the scheduled independence day, a communist-backed government would take power in Angola.
This prospect made the anti-communists in Washington and Pretoria rather uncomfortable. The US government urged South Africa to step up their commitment and intervene in Angola. On October 14, the South African army invaded Angola from their bases in Namibia. The well-equipped South African forces, aided by UNITA troops, quickly advanced from the south toward Luanda, while the FNLA put pressure on the MPLA from the other side. Now it was the MPLA’s time to frantically look for assistance – in their case, from the Soviet Union. The Soviets faced quite a dilemma: On the one hand, they had barely any knowledge of or experience with Angolan (or African, for that matter) affairs. Shortly before Angolan independence, the entire Soviet presence (which had only been established in March 1975!) in the country numbered four people – two journalists, one KGB officer and one officer of the Soviet Navy. In addition, Soviet General Secretary Brezhnev did not feel like endangering his favorite foreign policy project of superpower détente with adventures in Africa, a continent in which he was not particularly interested. On the other hand, the more activist parts of the Soviet leadership (mainly the secret services and parts of the Communist Party) demanded strong action lest Angola fall to a US- or Chinese-backed government and Soviet credibility in the Third World be diminished.
The Soviets did not come up with a solution to their dilemma themselves. Instead, they were saved by Castro’s Cuba. The Cubans had furthered revolutionary causes in the Third World for years and had enjoyed a close relationship with the MPLA since the mid-1960s when Che Guevara was on a mission to aid the movement in its struggle with the Portuguese colonial army. Castro therefore sent his troops to Angola. The relieved Soviets only had to provide airlift capacities and heavy weapons to add speed and strength to the Cuban counter-punch. “Operation Carlota”, named after a Cuban black slave leader to emphasize Cuba’s African roots, brought the first Cuban soldiers to Angola on November 7, four days before the scheduled independence day. And indeed, the Cubans managed to turn the tide. Luanda held, and on November 11, the MPLA declared independence in the capital and itself the first government of independent Angola.


Will this airgroup finally bring you victory? A steady influx of heavy arms characterized the escalation of the Angolan decolonization crisis. Image: Card from Angola!, ©Multi-Man Publishing.

Where would this race of escalating international commitments lead? Now the South Africans demanded from Washington to send money, material, and men. President Ford, who had already approved of CIA funding for the FNLA and UNITA in July, planned to meet the South African demands. But Congress would have none of it. Only half a year after the fall of Saigon, America was weary of war and the Senate and House of Representatives feared a second Vietnam if they became involved in Angola. That the war would be conducted jointly with South Africa’s apartheid regime did not make it any more popular. Congress denied the president the funding in December 1975 and even passed a bill (the Clark Amendment) barring aid to (para)military forces in Angola in January 1976. Only 22 senators and 99 representatives voted against the bill. While South Africa felt “left in the lurch” by the United States, to use the words of their defense minister P.W. Botha, they fought on, but kept their involvement limited to irregular incursions to Angolan territory. In February 1976, the Organization of African Unity (OAU) recognized the MPLA government as the legitimate government of Angola. Even the pro-Western African countries supported the Soviet/Cuban backed MPLA as they were seen as fighters against apartheid. Ironically, the South African invasion had thus effected the opposite of its goal – making the MPLA the undisputed and accepted representative of Angola.
The turbulent months before and after Angolan independence are the subject matter of Angola! (Phil Kendall, Multi-Man Publishing) – thirty years after its original publishing (by Ragnar Brothers) still the premier game on the Angolan conflicts since the 1960s. Two to four players will take the sides of a “Western” (lumping together the dissimilar factions UNITA and FNLA) and “Communist” (splitting the MPLA and its armed wing FAPLA into two factions) alliance. Fighting units are grouped in “columns” which are activated semi-randomly, capturing the chaotic nature of a conflict in which command and control were difficult to exert. All sides start out weakly armed, but soon an arms race will begin with a steady influx of armored cars, missile batteries, airplanes… The players will find themselves expecting victory with every new shipment of shiny heavy equipment, just like their historical counterparts did. And, just like their historical counterparts, more often than not will they be disappointed when their bold advance runs into fresh reinforcements of the other side.


The Angolan Civil War, 1976—1988

Neither independence nor the recognition of the MPLA government ended the violence in Angola. While the FNLA largely ceased to be an effective fighting force, their Zairian allies in the north and UNITA and South Africa in the south kept challenging the MPLA government. In office, the MPLA was impressively pragmatic. Despite some anti-capitalist rhetoric, they maintained the partnership with American companies to exploit the oil and diamond resources which are the country’s main source of wealth. Nonetheless, the MPLA also kept requesting troops from Cuba and weapons from the Soviet Union – which they then used against the US-supported UNITA which were periodically attacking those American-owned oil rigs.
The irony cannot have been lost on the US administrations. Nonetheless, they poured money and arms into Angola. As the Clark Amendment forbade direct aid for Angolan (para)military groups, the CIA used Israel as a proxy. Especially the Reagan administration stepped up their commitment and supplied UNITA with advanced weaponry ranging up to Stinger surface-air missiles which were normally only given to the closest allies of the United States. On the other side, Cuba was still committed to supporting the Angolan government, but the Soviet Union under Gorbachev turned away from funding Third World movements, which Gorbachev saw both as a waste of money given the desolate state of the Soviet economy and a hindrance to his goal of superpower détente.

Border War

Box cover of Border War (Joseph Miranda, Decision Games) showing South African armored vehicles and soldiers in the bushlands of southern Angola. Image ©Decision Games.

The solitaire game Border War: Angola Raiders (Joseph Miranda, Decision Games) puts the player in the shoes of a South African commander carrying out incursions into Angola to capture bases and fight both Angolan and Cuban troops. Much of the player’s success depends on putting together the right combination of troops in the battlegroup to achieve the objective and overcome the obstacles of the specific mission. The feel of the game captures light infantry combat reasonably well but does not fare as successfully in portraying more heavily armed engagements.
“Heavily armed engagements?”, you ask. “In an African civil war?” – Quite so! In fact, the later stages of the Angolan Civil War saw the greatest tank battle in sub-Saharan Africa ever – fought from August 1987 to March 1988 around the town of Cuito Cuanavale, a transport hub and site of a military airfield. South African and UNITA forces conducted their last large-scale operations there. After initial successes, once more Cuban reinforcements halted the South African/UNITA advance. That’s a central mechanism in the Angola scenario of Cold War Battles: Budapest ’56 and Angola ’87 (Joseph Miranda, Decision Games) – a South African attack on Cuito Cuanavale, the locale giving the most victory points to South Africa, will trigger those Cuban reinforcements to arrive.

Cold War Battles

Cold War Battles: Budapest ’56 and Angola ’87 as it was published in Strategy & Tactics magazine in 2006. Note that the headline advertises the game as “South Africa vs. Cubans”, leaving out the Angolans whose country was fought over and who made up the vast majority of the fighting forces of either side entirely. Image ©Strategy & Tactics.

As Pretoria realized that the war in Angola could not be won, peace negotiations between South Africa, Angola, and Cuba commenced (under US supervision). They agreed on a ceasefire on August 5, 1988 and signed a peace treaty in December that year. UNITA, however, had not had enough of the fighting yet. The movement kept its guerilla war up until its leader Jonas Savimbi died in 2002. The long war in Angola finally ended. Today, the MPLA is still the dominant party in Angola, and UNITA the strongest opposition party in the Angolan National Assembly. Even the FNLA has still a representative in the parliament. The shadow of Angola’s decolonization crisis is long.

Great Powers and Small Powers in a Bipolar World?

Angola shows that the Cold War was not the game of the superpowers alone, and that it was no affair of two neatly different sides either. The superpowers had to deal with massive limitations – the US Congress denied the president funds to step up the commitment in Angola; the Soviets feared the political defeat of non-intervention but were unable to intervene by themselves. Smaller powers like Cuba and South Africa were much more than mere proxies of their superpower allies – they made the decisions if, when, and how they wanted to intervene in the conflict. Even the Angolan movements which fought not for prestige but for their very existence had often more freedom of action than the superpowers as they did not have to account for complex world politics and could just focus all their energy on their single conflict.
The alliances in Angola followed no simple pattern. The Soviet Union was less concerned about the United States than about Communist China.[2] Unexpected alliances and rifts also took place between smaller powers (like the cooperation between the all-black UNITA and apartheid South Africa) or within one country (like the business partnership between American oil companies and the MPLA government which the US administration tried to topple). For the Angolan movements, the Cold War calculus was not inherently important anyway: They asked many powers for support (skillfully tailoring their discourse to their respective audience in East or West) and accepted it no matter where it came from. While the superpowers were caught in the trap of their own Cold War logic of countering each other’s moves, the Angolans saw the Cold War as a situation skillful politicians could use to their advantage.

Games Referenced

Twilight Struggle (Ananda Gupta/Jason Matthews, GMT Games)
Angola! (Phil Kendall, Multi-Man Publishing)
Border War: Angola Raiders (Joseph Miranda, Decision Games)
Cold War Battles: Budapest ’56 and Angola ’87 (Joseph Miranda, Decision Games)

Further Reading

The best account of the Angolan anti-colonial struggle as well as the decolonization crisis is Guimarães, Fernando Andresen: The Origins of the Angolan Civil War. Foreign Intervention and Domestic Political Conflict, Macmillan/St. Martin’s Press, London/New York, NY 1998.
Moscow’s decision making of 1975 – put into the greater context of superpower politics and analyzed with the cool distance of hindsight – is the subject of Westad, Odd Arne: Moscow and the Angolan Crisis, 1974—1976: A New Pattern of Intervention, in: Cold War International History Project Bulletin 8-9, 1996-1997, p. 21—37 which you can find online here.
For the Cuban intervention from 1975 to 1988, see Gleijeses, Piero: Moscow’s Proxy? Cuba and Africa 1975—1988, in: Journal of Cold War Studies 8, 2, 2006, p. 3—51.
The nexus between superpower Cold War and local conflicts in the global south is nowhere better explored than in Westad, Odd Arne: The Global Cold War. Third World Interventions and the Making of Our Times, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2005. For the Angolan decolonization crisis see p. 207—245.


1. If you want to read more about formal colonization as the instrument of the weaker European countries, see this article.
2. It is telling that when the Soviet Union supplied Angola with Communist literature in 1976 (a form of foreign aid of which local governments were never quite keen), they sent one plane full of copies of Brezhnev’s speech at the recent Communist Party Congress, but two planes full of anti-Maoist pamphlets.


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