Between 1975 and 2002, Angola was locked in one of the world's bloodiest wars. Around half a million people lost their lives in the conflict, which saw two former liberation movements face off against each other with Cold War superpower backing. In 1993, faced with a conflict that seemed to have no end in sight, the United Nations even dubbed it: "The worst war in the world.''
Over a decade since the end of the war, a new study has been released that tries to make sense of it. Titled "Political Identity And Conflict In Central Angola, 1975-2002" and written by Justin Pearce, a research associate at the University of Cambridge and a former correspondent in Angola, it comes to a remarkable conclusion: For many of those who lived through the conflict, there was little meaning behind it.
That's not to say that Pearce found the war had no impact on people — in fact, he finds it has had a profoundly devastating effect on Angola and its people. However, through a broad range of interviews with eyewitnesses of the war, Pearce discovered that for many, there had been no force compelling them to join in the conflict other than the conflict itself.
“We think of most wars as starting with two groups with antagonistic interests,” Pearce said in a statement. “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.”
Angola's civil war had been sparked by the rivalry between two groups, the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) and the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA). When the MPLA took control of the central government after Angola gained independence from Portugal in 1975, UNITA fought back.
These two organizations drew support from significant parts of Angolan society. They had, nominally at least, significantly different ideologies, with the MPLA considered Marxist and UNITA styling itself anti-Communist. And both sides were supported by opposing Cold War powers — Cuba, backed by the Soviet Union, fought alongside the MPLA, while UNITA was supported by the United States and had help from South African forces.
However, in his research, Pearce found that these differences weren't reflected in the lives of ordinary people in Angola in 1975. In the introduction to his book, he recalls an interview he had with one young woman in 2002, when she told him: “I used to be a member of UNITA. But now I’m a member of the Government.” Pearce then asked her why she was a member of the government. “Because I am here with the Government," she responded.
Throughout the book, other interviewees made similar comments that suggested their allegiance to groups was only based on which one was closest. One UNITA follower who later joined the MPLA government told him: “In the conditions in which we were taken, of necessity, one had to identify oneself as an adherent of UNITA. If you identified yourself the other way you would be dead. As long as we stayed with UNITA, we were UNITA. But when we came back here with the MPLA, we became MPLA.”
Another anonymous interviewee explained: “During that period of almost 30 years, people lost the notion of being independent persons. They would say, ‘I’m UNITA’ or ‘I’m MPLA’… I was either MPLA or UNITA – there was no middle way. People became possessions.”
As a man who worked as a driver in the city of Kuito during the war told Pearce, "Like trees bending in the wind, the people had to lean whichever way."
The Angolan civil war may have been considered a Cold War proxy war by the rest of the world, but Pearce's study finds few ordinary Angolans cared about that ideological divide. Many of those who were interviewed suggested that they simply accepted the authority of whichever military power was controlling the land they lived on at that moment. As the war went on, the rival groups began creating jobs and providing services to the civilians they controlled, who in turn became loyal to the group for the positive effect it may have had on their life.
Pearce writes that in the end the war became a "zero-sum game," with each side working to destroy the other's ability to provide for its supporters. "The MPLA won the war through military might," Pearce writes. "But the ending of the war was the culmination of a process whereby firepower, blood-shed and starvation were employed to transform the possibilities of what was imaginable."
It's a depressing conclusion to the conflict, and one that falls short of a real resolution. It's a conclusion that may well have a negative impact today. Pearce says that in 2015, Angola "goes through the rituals of multi-party democracy" but that really it is "a strongly authoritarian state with the trappings of a democracy that doesn’t really function."
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