When Johnny Eduardo Pinnock returned home from exile in Zaire one day in October 1984, he was unsure what welcome awaited him. After all, he had served as prime minister for the U.S.-backed National Front for the Liberation of Angola (FNLA) in the Portuguese-supervised transitional government before independence in 1975 and it had lost out badly in the stuggle for power to its Soviet- and Cuban-backed rivals.

"When I came down the plane steps at Luanda airport and someone called out my name, I felt like Benigno Aquino returning to the Philippines," he remarked in an interview in Luanda.

Instead, he said he was received like the prodigal son. "I didn't expect the warmth of the reception when I came back," he remarked. "And since I came back I have not gotten one phone call insulting me or threatening me, nothing.

"I don't have a bodyguard, either. I don't want to be guarded. If they shoot me, it's my destiny," he added.

Pinnock's return is obviously viewed by the Luanda government as a major political coup. Officials seemed particularly anxious for an American reporter to interview him, presumably because he is the prime example of their notion of how "national reconciliation" between the central government and UNITA -- which the Reagan administration supports -- could come about.

Luanda refuses to recognize the FNLA or UNITA as legitimate nationalist groups with which it is willing to share central power. But it is ready to welcome back repentant opposition figures like Pinnock.

The FNLA, based in northern Angola, has mostly petered out as a fighting force, but there are still remnants in the bush. Some FNLA guerrillas have joined the ranks of UNITA, serving as guides for the units that have infiltrated the northern region.

Several thousand remain loyal to FNLA leader Holden Roberto, but the government is holding talks with their leader, Commander Patricio, to win them over. Pinnock said 5,000 to 6,000 other FNLA fighters have returned and been integrated into the Angolan Army.

Pinnock urged Roberto -- who is in Washington often these days lobbying, like Savimbi, for U.S. aid -- to give up his struggle. "His is a lost battle without glory," he said. "He should end his struggle and start the reconstruction of his country. The people have suffered long enough."

Pinnock has just been named to head a mixed, state-private oil-producing company that is a subsidiary of the Angolan government's oil conglomerate. But he has not been offered a place either in the government or the ruling party, and he has had to accept their Marxist-Leninist politics.