Show Summary Details

Page of

Printed from Oxford Research Encyclopedias, African History. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a single article for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

date: 19 October 2021

Agostinho Netofree

Agostinho Netofree

  • David BirminghamDavid BirminghamEmeritus Professor of History, University of Kent


Agostinho Neto was an Angolan medical doctor who was born in the agricultural hinterland of Luanda City in 1922 and died in a Moscow hospital in 1979. He had been assimilated into Portuguese colonial society by gaining a school education at a Methodist mission station where his father was the minister, and he proceeded to university studies in Lisbon. There his radical politics fell foul of the dictatorial police, and after a spell in prison he escaped, via London, to become an itinerant political exile in Africa. There he became a guerrilla commander leading small bands of soldiers who fought a gainst both a Portuguese conscript army and rival political movements seeking independence for Angola. In 1974 the Portuguese colonial empire imploded, and Neto found himself leader of the largest nationalist movement in Luanda, the Movement for the Popular Liberation of Angola (Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola; MPLA). On November 11, 1975, he became Angola’s president as the last Portuguese governor-general sailed away on a gun-boat under cover of darkness. Neto’s four years in the presidential palace were not happy ones. Rival political movements not only challenged his legitimacy but also made unholy military alliances with South Africa, Congo, and the United States. He also alienated his domestic constituents, and when they attempted a coup d’état he rounded on them with all the ferocity that he had experienced himself when being persecuted by the Portuguese political police. His health rapidly deteriorated, and two years later he was flown to Moscow, albeit too late, to seek a cure.


  • Central Africa

The Origins and Evolution of Angolan Nationalism

One afternoon in 1962 a shy and rather short-sighted Black poet walked along The Strand in London looking for a legal solicitor’s office. The office hosted half a desk used by a new civil rights organization called Amnesty. The person was Agostino Neto who was not only a distinguished poet but also an Angolan politician and a Portuguese-trained medical doctor. As an African nationalist he had suffered several terms of imprisonment for anticolonial subversion. In 1962 he had jumped bail from house arrest in Lisbon and escaped from Portugal. While in prison he had been selected by Amnesty as its first “prisoner of conscience.” Once exiled from both Portugal and his homeland in Angola, his life became precarious. Over the next seventeen years he became a politician, a guerrilla commander, a statesman, and, for the last four years before his death in 1979, the president of the new republic of Angola.

Agostinho Neto was born on September 17, 1922, in the lowland farm country behind the city and fortress of Luanda which had been founded by the Portuguese in the 1570s. His village was in the district of Icolo e Bengo, a long-established and moderately prosperous colonial community devoted to horticulture and fishing. Some of its old buildings had a colonial graciousness. By the end of the 19th century the district was in the heart of Angola’s Methodist belt, and Methodism flourished when a Portuguese republican regime, run by Freemasons after 1910, realized that the Methodist bishop of Luanda was himself a Freemason. In this provincial Protestant community Neto’s father was a church minister and he was able to get his son onto the first rung of the educational ladder, a ladder which was eventually to lead young Agostinho to spending some time in Coimbra and qualifying as a medical doctor in the University of Lisbon.

When Neto was four years old Portugal’s republican regime, which had appointed a future Masonic Grand Master as is high commissioner to Angola, was overthrown by Roman Catholic military officers. The democratic republic was replaced in 1926 by generals from the north of Portugal who began Portugal’s slide into dictatorship, a move which deeply affected Angola and its people for the next half century. The generals soon found, however, that they were incapable of managing the Portuguese national exchequer which had been ruined by a reluctant participation in World War I. In 1928 they invited an abortively aspiring priest, with a law degree in book-keeping and some experience as a rather opinionated newspaper columnist, to become their minister of finance. António Salazar accepted the proffered task but on condition that he be given almost dictatorial control over the government, a control which led him to be appointed chairman of the council of ministers three days after Portugal’s exiled king, Manuel II, had died in England in 1932.

The authoritarian regime of Salazar, under which Neto grew up, had to balance the books while making sure that it protected army privilege. It pruned government expenditure, and especially colonial expenditure, to the bone and drove the colonies to subsidize the empire. Hard times in Angola were experienced by all except the small minority of educated Black Angolans who were associated with the white population. Slavery, and slave exports, had been outlawed after 1910, but a system of compulsory labor, with savage physical punishments for defaulters, survived in ways which mimicked slavery. Only about 1 percent of Angola’s Black population was deemed to be “civilized” or “assimilated.” Neto belonged to this tiny elite and was thus exempt from labor dues and the “native” taxes which had to be paid in colonial coinage which had been painfully earned by working for white employers under harsh conditions. Neto fraternized with his white and mixed-race contemporaries and in the course of time married a white wife, Maria Eugenia, and fathered three mestizo (mixed-race) children. Integration into this multiracial, Portuguese-speaking world was later to become a problem for Neto since some of Angola’s other anticolonial campaigners were Black purists.

Neto’s early education had led him into the field of literature and he began writing poetry. Writing prose had been risky for authors with nationalist aspirations, but the colonial police seem to have been relatively slow to realize that poetry, a harmless hobby, could actually be subversive. Neto’s first poems were published in 1948. Two years later his status did not give him immunity and he was incarcerated for distributing leaflets relating to the world peace movement. One of his poems critical of colonialism referred to Angola’s first steam railway which crossed his village. “Many lives, have drenched the land, where the rails lie, crushed under the weight of the engine, and the din of the third class: slow, absurd, and cruel the African train.”1 In 1979 this poem was read at Neto’s memorial service in London. By 1957 Portugal’s secret political police, the dreaded PIDE (Polícia Internacional e de Defesa do Estado; International and State Defense Police) modeled on the Gestapo, was introduced into Angola—initially to check the subversive aspirations of some white settlers. Soon Black nationalists, including Neto, were captured in the police web. In 1960, after returning to Luanda from his studies, he was arrested and sent with his wife and son to the rocky Cape Verde islands, 500 miles off the Saharan shore. At one time the Portuguese spread rumors that Neto had escaped from the islands aboard a Russian submarine. He assumed that this rumor would be used as an explanation for his disappearance should he be extrajudicially murdered. In various prisons Neto wrote a lot more poetry of despair, notably when a daughter in his household died while he was held, en route to Lisbon, in the notorious PIDE prison in Luanda through the open windows of which torture victims could be heard screaming in the days of empire. An abbreviated and translated version of his poem reads:

Someone died in my home In my home was a small daughter A shining star in the sky of my poverty She died I see the white garland of her innocence trailing in waters over her body black Ophelia in the putrid river of slavery she died and who will hold her funeral? Who nail down the coffin? Who will dig her grave? Who throw earth over her eternal bed? Enclosed between four walls without light without seeing the dead face of my daughter I suffer the anguish of darkness Burn me rather Take me to the lime kiln Incinerate my viscera and brain And these hands that can do nothing Against the walls Against the metal door Against these armed men filled with fear Against torture Roast me in the lime kiln.2

Poetry was also the voice of others who became future political leaders in Angola, including rivals such as Viriato da Cruz and Mário de Andrade and even Nito Alves, the young guerrilla leader who fifteen years later became Neto’s most prominent adversary. Soon after qualifying as a medical doctor, Neto set up a medical practice in Luanda. He naturally became popular with his patients, though not with the colonial authorities. On June 6, 1960, he was once more arrested for holding subversive opinions. Aggrieved people from his home town organized a protest march to demand his release. The hostile authorities responded with guns and in the notorious “Icolo e Bengo massacre” thirty people were killed and 200 injured. Neto wrote more prison poetry but two years later, while under house arrest in Portugal, he jumped bail and escaped to England via Morocco and Congo. Hence his search for the Amnesty office on The Strand where he had been named a prisoner of conscience.

Between 1948, when Neto was a student, and 1962, when he claimed the presidency of a burgeoning “popular” movement for the liberation of Angola, the history of Angola is rather confused. The most famous of all Angola’s historians, the late Christine Messiant, exclaimed at a congress in 1987 that in Angola even the past was unpredictable. She was addressing a packed audience in the old imperial cinema in Luanda which had been refurbished as the national parliament. Among the audience there were many veterans of the liberation struggle and each was passionately keen that their version of history be heard. Open debate reverberated until the night porters came to close the building. The next morning the repercussions were swift. The prime minister, a member of the great van Dúnem clan called França, brought word to the congress that variants of history were not acceptable. Only the official “correct” political interpretation of the past was to be tolerated. Historians naturally asked whether a regime, a government, a state could claim to “own” history. But the warning was clear, and henceforth debate about the Neto era was largely carried out abroad. Even Messiant herself was later banned from entering Angola for criticizing Neto’s successor, and the regime attempted, with limited success, to commission academics inside Angola to write an acceptable “official” history of the Movement for the Popular Liberation of Angola (Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola; MPLA). One of the most convincing accounts of the movement’s history, supervised as a French doctoral thesis by Catherine Coquery-Vidrovitch, was written by Jean-Michel Mabeko-Tali and his two volumes were later published into Portuguese.3 Mabeko-Tali hailed from Brazzaville where he had been at school with the children of MPLA exiles, including the son of a future speaker of the Angolan parliament.

The early history of the movement for the “popular” liberation of Angola over which Neto came to preside remains controversial. African political voices had been heard in the days of the republic when the Liga Africana and the Grémio Africano were founded in 1913 but repressed in 1922. More muted voices were heard again in the 1930s when for a time the dictatorship permitted the supervised Liga Nacional Africana and the Associação dos Naturais de Angola to hold meetings. In the 1950s tiny discussion groups with a bewildering range of acronyms sprang up. A manuscript manifesto for independence which linked some of them was drafted in 1956, apparently by Viriato da Cruz, and was subsequently, if somewhat spuriously, claimed to be the founding document of the MPLA. The future leaders of the movement were broadly divided between those who lived in Europe and those who lived in Luanda and its neighborhood. Luanda’s urban political awareness spread out as far as Malange in the east and Benguela in the south. One of its first prominent leaders was Mário de Andrade who came from the creole district of Golungo Alto in the Luanda hinterland but had moved to Paris in 1954. There he met Viriato da Cruz who had founded an Angolan “communist” party but later became prominent in the embryonic MPLA. Both men may have met Neto before he returned home in 1959 as a medical doctor. When he arrived in Luanda Neto was invited to take the chairmanship of a mini-movement called MINA, but he suggested a change of name and in January 1960 the name Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola was first heard.

Later, in 1960, Neto was once again in gaol while world events shook the whole of Africa. The French gave “flag independence” to their seventeen colonies, the Belgians hurriedly left Congo, Kennedy was elected president of the United States with an initial promise to liberate Africa from European colonizers, and a second pan-African conference—which included some anticolonial Portuguese speakers such as Viriato da Cruz—was held in Tunis. In ex-French Guinea Angolan exiles established an office headed by Mário de Almeida as president, Viriato da Cruz as secretary, and Lúcio Lara, a prominent mestizo intellectual who became Neto’s long-term political partner. Meanwhile political activity in Luanda was soon penetrated by PIDE when a courier was caught carrying compromising documents and many tacit supporters of the independence movement, including Neto, were arrested. Surviving Neto supporters in Luanda lost any means of contacting outside activists.

On February 4, 1961, a riot occurred in Luanda. This was not the first anticolonial confrontation. The “Icolo e Bengo massacre” in Neto’s home community had occurred eleven months earlier, and in the previous month, January 1961, a serious outbreak of anticolonial violence had erupted in the eastern cotton fields of COTONANG, a Belgian plantation company, beyond Malange. Portugal flew its miniature air force to Africa in order to bomb villages which refused obediently “to plant cotton for the governor.” The subsequent urban riot of February occurred when a few dozen angry youths, armed with cutlasses which they had allegedly kept hidden in the safe house of a Catholic clergyman, attacked Luanda’s gaols in which some nationalists were being held. The date of the riot was subsequently adopted by Neto as the starting date for his revolution. In practice, however, there had been no leaders at large who were capable of organizing the riot. Indeed, the attack on the prisons might have passed unnoticed had it not been for the fact that Henrique Galvão, a sea captain opposed to the Salazar dictatorship, had gained notoriety by highjacking a cruise liner in the Atlantic and heading for Luanda. The world press rushed to meet him there but he changed course and sailed to Brazil. It was thus by happenstance that foreign journalists, who were not subject to Salazar’s strict press censorship, were in Angola and reported on the prison attack. The great February crisis, though later claimed to be the start of a revolution, was in practice most prominent for the savage retaliation against angry youths by frightened white settlers rather than an organized uprising by Black nationalists. Settlers were encouraged by the authorities to take up arms and murder any Westernized African, or mestizo, or assimilated citizen, who seemed capable of mounting a challenge to the colonial regime. The bloodshed marked Angola for a generation.

After the Luanda violence subsided the future MPLA supporters had to mobilize their efforts outside the country. This proved difficult, however, since a rival nationalist movement, the FNLA (Frente Nacional de Libertação de Angola; National Liberation Front of Angola) with deep roots in the Belgian Congo, had gained international pre-eminence by organizing, or claiming to have organized, a much larger riot than the February one. In March 1961 unpaid migrant workers had marched up to a plantation house in northern Angola to ask for their arrears of wages in the coffee groves. This triggered an unprecedented anticolonial rebellion. Settlers panicked at the thought that disorder might break out as it had done nine months earlier in Congo and a few weeks earlier in Luanda. Planters attacked workers who retaliated by attacking plantation houses. The result was more murderous than the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya and couple of hundred settlers and several thousand Angolans were killed. The northern nationalist movement claimed that it had planned, launched, and coordinated the uprising. By so doing it gained publicity and support from several independent African countries.

In September 1961 Neto supporters who were not in prison gathered in Léopoldville (Kinshasa) but they were not welcomed by the FNLA who despised their intellectual pretentions and their white associations. So uncomfortable was the racial discordance that Viriato da Cruz decided to marginalize some lighter-skinned members of the MPLA committee. Mário de Andrade, although a mestizo, and also five university graduates nevertheless retained their positions. In December 1962, Neto arrived back in Africa after his escape from Portugal. He replaced Mário de Andrade as president of the incipient MPLA liberation movement and called a meeting which reversed all quasi-racist initiatives. Neto affirmed that under his leadership the movement would not permit any racial, religious, tribal, or regional intolerance, and Lúcio Lara was restored to a senior role despite his European family connections. Viriato da Cruz, although himself a mestizo intellectual, continued to argue that the only way forward was to form an alliance with the FNLA. This Black, high-profile, national front had the advantage of good relations with the government of ex-Belgian Congo. It also had potential military access to the whole northern frontier of Angola and also broad international support for its so-called revolutionary government in exile, GRAE. Neto, however, was adamant in rejecting any collaboration with the FNLA (Frente Nacional de Libertação de Angola – National Liberation Front) and Viriato da Cruz was expelled from the MPLA to join the FNLA and advocate the expulsion of the MPLA from Congo. He had limited success and eventually migrated to China where he died in 1973. Mário de Andrade was also marginalized and exiled, and Neto was left with a mere handful of loyalists in the hostile city of Léopoldville.

In order to survive Neto aspired to move to Brazzaville, a mile away across the Congo River. The problem was that France’s client politician, Catholic Abbot Fulbert Youlou, presided in Brazzaville and was not wholly sympathetic to Neto’s brand of left-wing nationalism. When the tide turned, in three “glorious” days of revolution, a new Brazzaville regime welcomed Neto when he was expelled from Léopoldville in November 1963. MPLA military action now became theoretically possible. Neto hoped to match an isolated “First Military Region,” in the hinterland of Luanda, with a “Second Military Region” in the enclave of Cabinda, a detached triangle of Portuguese territory north of the Congo River. An account of the Cabinda front was written by one of Neto’s white militant supporters, Artur Pestana who published fiction under the nom de plume Pepetela.4 The Cabinda campaign was almost wholly abortive and the guerrillas whom Neto recruited fluctuated between periods of boredom in which they longed for cigarettes and sex and short periods of absolute terror when they were launched into the Mayombe forest against a fully equipped colonial army deployed to protect American oil wells which lay off shore. The Cabinda effort did not gain Neto any territory though it did gain him accreditation to the Organization of African Unity which had been founded in Addis Ababa in 1963.

Failure to make any progress in Cabinda caused Neto to radically change tack and open a “third” front in eastern Angola. He moved his headquarters from Brazzaville to Dar-es-Salaam on the Indian Ocean coast of Tanzania. The logistical challenges this presented were immense since all military and other supplies had to cross Zambia whose government was ambivalent about hosting guerrilla platoons. Zambia was dependent on Portugal for its shortest rail link to the sea, on the Atlantic coast, and so would only tolerate liberation fighters on its territory if they agreed not to attack the Benguela railway. Hitting the railway, however, was the only way in which the MPLA could dent the Portuguese colonial economy. Neto’s own sea port was 2,000 miles away, at Dar-es-Salaam in the east, and transporting any equipment, especially military equipment, over rough laterite roads of dust and mud was slow and expensive. Equally difficult was the matter of rewarding small guerrilla units posted in makeshift huts in eastern Angola’s vast and sandy savannah. One of Neto’s roles was to become a travelling paymaster, walking through the bush with a satchel of money to urge his men on.

The liberation war on the eastern front, like the Cabinda campaign, and even the FNLA’s rival war in northern Angola, gradually came to a stalemate. During the static years Neto spent time touring the world giving lectures about his aspirations. He was not, he said, running a one-man crusade against little Portugal. The issue facing Africa was a challenge to global capitalism affecting all underdeveloped countries. He emphasized his ideological position in a major speech to the students and staff of the University of Dar-es-Salaam in February 1974, two months before the fall of Portugal’s autocratic regime. Before that he had asked Africa’s bishops, meeting in Uganda in 1969, to support Africa’s liberation movements though some Catholic bishops had a problem with antagonizing Portugal since it had allowed Paul VI to visit the shrine of Fátima for an hour or two in 1967 and commemorate an appearance by the Virgin Mary. The main thrust of Neto’s international campaign, however, targeted the twenty-odd US companies which Salazar had allowed into Angola to extract raw materials and thus pay mineral royalties to finance the colonial war. As Portugal’s isolationist protectionism waned, both Germany and Japan were enticed into Africa with visions of a railway which might extract millions of tons of iron ore from southern Angola. As part of his widening campaign Neto attempted to bring his main domestic opponent, the northern FNLA, into the pan-national alliance once advocated by Viriato da Cruz. This presented a “Cold War” problem. When Neto had failed to gain support from the United States, he had turned for support to the Soviet Union while the FNLA retained quasi-sympathetic relations with America and the West. Angola’s old social divisions also inhibited collaboration since Neto remained keen to avoid any alliance which might perpetuate racial hostilities.

The stalemate which Neto’s MPLA and the rival FNLA faced in the Angolan wars of liberation had huge immediate costs and catastrophic long-term consequences. Some immediate costs were borne by Portugal when Salazar refused to go down the road adopted by Belgium, France, and ultimately Britain by which they conceded independence to forty-odd tropical colonies. In these colonies power was transferred from governors, commissioner, and expatriates to a Black bourgeoisie of politicians, bureaucrats, and soldiers. Economic affairs, trade, transport, currency, mining, and insurance remained largely in the hands of the three metropolitan nations, with limited cooperation from America, Russia, and China. This “neo-colonial” option was not, however, open to Portugal. No Black bourgeoisie of the kind to which Neto belonged was large enough to run an ex-colony in the interests of Portugal and no Portuguese services and industries were robust enough to become the commercial partners of a nominally independent Angola.

Salazar decided to fight back against the tiny bands of FNLA guerrillas in the north and Neto’s guerrillas now in the eastern wilderness described as “the end of the earth.” At first the Portuguese generals who maintained Salazar’s regime had doubts about embarking on a colonial war in Africa after their fingers had been burnt when India invaded Portuguese Goa. Soon, however, some generals were persuaded that for top-ranking officers war could be financially profitable and therefore they participated in the recruitment of a huge conscript army and led 100,000 reluctant and largely illiterate Portuguese youths out to Africa for four-year periods of national service. So unpopular, ill-paid, and dangerous was wartime service in Africa that a million-odd young Portuguese migrated illegally to France to evade conscription.

At the beginning of the war Neto had hoped that a new American president, John F. Kennedy, might activate an American policy of “Africa for the Africans” which would drive out Europeans, as it had done in Egypt in 1956, and open the door to Americans. Neto’s hope of American support was soon frustrated, however, when American oil companies, which Salazar had reluctantly allowed into Angola, pressured Washington into supporting the colonial order. Simultaneously the American military were advised that if they were to back Neto’s liberation movement, Portugal would withdraw their refueling rights on the Azores, a then-essential halfway stop in the Atlantic between America and its client state in Israel. America was also cautious since its intervention in the Suez war had not opened the door—as hoped—to US enterprises bur rather to Russian ones which moved in to build the great industrial dam on the Nile. Having recognized that American support was not an option, Neto did turn to Russia, though Russia had also burnt its fingers in Africa when its policy in Congo resulted in the murder of Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba, and the ensuing civil war led to the rise of Mobutu’s American-backed dictatorship. Although it did receive Russian support, Neto’s eastern front made little progress. When MPLA men laid land mines along sandy tracks to blow up expensive military vehicles, the Portuguese retaliated by recruiting Black conscripts to walk the roads and step on improvised booby-traps before they were detonated by their vehicles or they killed white troops. The bitterness of war left its lasting legacy.

While Neto was touring the world seeking support for his international vision for Africa, the war on the ground in Angola faltered. The failure of the guerrilla campaign for independence hit the FNLA before it hit the MPLA. The northern front’s leadership split in two, and a breakaway faction of southern Angolans, initially with some Chinese support, created a splinter movement which took the cumbersome title Union for the Total Independence of Angola (União Nacional para a Independência Total de Angola; UNITA). This caused Neto long-term grief as the ambitious new leader, Jonas Savimbi, entered into competition with the MPLA for a territorial base in the east. The seeds of a civil war, which was to rumble on for twenty-three years after Neto’s death, were thus sown in the second half of the 1960s.

Being squeezed between the Portuguese and UNITA was one of the factors which caused Neto’s MPLA to fall apart in the early 1970s. One faction saw some old militants in the movement lose faith in Neto’s increasingly arrogant leadership style. This splinter called itself the Active Revolt and was led by mestizo intellectuals who had once worked together in Brazzaville. A second uprising against Neto was termed the Eastern Revolt and was led by a Black leader born in the south, Daniel Chipenda, another cosmopolitan Angolan who had become disillusioned with Neto. Chipenda revived the old complaint that the movement was dominated by mestizos and whites, this despite the fact that he himself, like Neto, had a white wife. On the eastern front, where Chipenda was active, fighting men complained that all the best weapons were being sent to the hopeless front in Cabinda. Life in Zambia, however, was so austere that some guerrillas had had to sell their scarce old weapons in order to survive. The Soviet Union became so alarmed at rumors of internecine conflicts, which even threatened Chipenda’s life, that it decided to abandon its support for Neto.

A constant shortage of weapons also affected Neto’s first military region outside Luanda. One early shipment was brought in by a guerrilla leader with the nom de guerre Immortal Monster. The local guerrillas, hidden in a forest which had resisted Portuguese colonization for the past century, managed to hold down the many Portuguese troops required to protect 400 coffee plantations which employed 9,000 Umbundu-speaking southern laborers. One of the forest fighters was Nito Alves who came to national prominence in 1974. Meanwhile this forest was the only “independent” part of Angola on the eve of the Portuguese revolution of April 1974 which overthrew the Lisbon dictatorship. The divisions which scarred the MPLA had not been played out by the time the Portuguese empire unexpectedly imploded.

The fall of the Portuguese government, now led by Salazar’s one-time minister for colonial affairs, Marcelo Caetano, took almost everyone, including Neto, by surprise. Shortly before an academic speaking in Britain had predicted at a conference that Portugal was about to lose the war in Africa, though in Mozambique rather than in Angola. He was derided by military experts with an assurance that—to the contrary—Portugal was in the last phase of winning the African wars. A rather more savvy insight than that of the military was, however, held by British bankers who predicted a coup in Lisbon rather than a defeat in Africa. When the coup occurred, on April 25, 1974, it was led by Portugal’s junior army officers who foresaw no profit for themselves in a war to which they perceived the only solution to be political rather than military. The non-commissioned plotters probably recognized that Portuguese business and industry had come to see that a union with a democratic Europe held far more economic promise than a costly dictatorial hanging on to Angola, this in spite of the colony’s growing oil wealth.

April 1974 caused everyone to scramble. America, fearing a communist takeover of Portugal, considered mounting a counter-putsch in Lisbon but its wise ambassador persuaded Washington to hold its hand. The Soviet Union scrambled to restore relations with the Neto faction of the MPLA of which it had so recently despaired. South Africa panicked that African liberation in Angola might spread to Namibia or even to South Africa itself. President Botha and his army-led regime in Pretoria took measures to prepare for an invasion of Angola. So too did President Mobutu of Congo who feared that Angolan independence might be handed by Lisbon’s left-wing Portuguese officers to Neto and the MPLA rather than to the FNLA with which he had close links. The most important observer of the scene, however, proved to be Cuba which came stealthily to Neto’s aid. The West saw Cubans as Moscow’s Ghurkhas but Havana claimed to be running an independent policy of southern solidarity against the industrial powers of the West.

The search for a viable postcolonial government in Angola was protracted and complex. Foreign interests, including the incipient African Union, attempted to cobble together a four-way coalition of Portugal and the three liberation movements. In July 1975 jeeps jointly staffed by recruits from the four interested parties patrolled the streets of Luanda. Fraternity failed, however, and internecine fighting soon broke out. At this point most of Angola’s quarter of a million white residents decided to flee the country though a few radical young Portuguese supported national liberation as defined by Neto and the MPLA and were able to proclaim proudly that they had had stood firm until the day of independence while others fled. In the maelstrom Lisbon decided to favor Neto as its chosen heir. The decision caused panic in both South Africa and Congo, and each neighbor decided to invade Angola in an effort to impose its own choice of president. The date for independence was fixed for November 11, 1975. As the date approached both Botha and Mobutu invaded and Cuba hesitatingly intervened in support of Neto by flying in “advisers” aboard a makeshift, propeller-driven fleet of ancient aircraft. Yugoslavia also helped Neto’s cause with seaborn supplies from its armaments industry. By November guns from Congo could be heard in north Luanda and tanks from South Africa were poised to take Luanda from the south. Cuban “advisers,” however, strengthened Neto’s ragged conscript army to the point where neither invader was able to capture Luanda. The MPLA became, and remained, the governing party in Angola’s capital and ruled North Kwanza, Malange, Lunda, and Cabinda.

The new government faced a severe challenge when it sought to impose its authority over the provinces of the north and of the south. Opposition in the FNLA territories in the north did soon crumble, though the threat from across the Congo border remained real for several years. The south presented a more severe challenge, however, when Jonas Savimbi with short-term help from the FNLA, declared a unilateral independence based on the highland city of New Lisbon, now renamed Huambo. By cutting his ties with China Savimbi managed to burnish his anti-communist credentials and appeal for support not only to the United States but also to South Africa and even Saudi Arabia. He protested that the MPLA was not a truly “nationalist” movement but a clique of mestizos, sons of colonizers. He proclaimed that Black was the true color of Angola, with the Black cockerel as its political symbol. A civil war dragged on into 1976 but gradually Neto, with increasing numbers of Cuban troops, drove South Africa back across the border. This victory was the height of Neto’s ascendency and the day was to be marked for years to come by carnival celebrations in Luanda. Meanwhile UNITA continued to fight against the MPLA in a retreating rear-guard action. Control of the coast, and of the Atlantic oil wells, funded Neto’s supply of weapons, and it was oil which backed a growing line of credit from Moscow. Although UNITA later captured many of Angola’s diamond fields, these yielded only about one-tenth of the income derived from oil. Neto’s successes in the aftermath of the anticolonial war did not last long, however, and they were succeeded by episodes of civil war and also by “proxy wars” between the superpowers and their acolytes.

The dark night of Neto’s presidency occurred on May 27, 1977, halfway through his tenure which began with independence in 1975 and ended with his death in 1979. Neto’s cabinet was constantly preoccupied with the fear of rural rebellion in the north, where people still had sympathy for the old FNLA liberation front, and in the south, where UNITA continued to maintain bases. The regime was also still fighting in five marginal zones of the country. In the enclave of Cabinda both local separatists and foreign neighbors aspired to capture the great offshore oil wells and Gulf Oil had to rely on at least 2,000 well-paid Cuban troops to protect its onshore facilities. In the north there was constant fear that Mobutu might attempt a new destabilizing invasion. In the east Angola had long given hospitality to so-called gendarmes who had once tried to seize the copper-rich province of Katanga from the central government of Congo and they were expected to try again, potentially with deep repercussions. In the south it was not only UNITA which threatened Neto’s government but also skirmishes on the Cunene River where neighboring Namibians were fighting to escape from the overcontrol of South Africa. So great was the government’s fear of frontier threats to its power that it neglected to measure the central political temperature in Luanda.

The city was deemed to be part of the safe MPLA territory which spoke Kimbundu in the rural hinterland and Portuguese in the urban creole heartland and where many people worshipped in Methodist chapels rather than in the Baptist chapels of the north or the Presbyterian chapels of the south. In the city, however, the expectations of independence were economically ambitious. Some of these plebeian expectations lost some of their luster, however, when it was perceived that when the grey-beards of the party moved to Luanda from Brazzaville and Dar-es-Salaam they adopted the lifestyle of the departing colonials and took over settler assets—villas, yachts, and all. Much more serious, however, was the departure of the Portuguese petty merchant class. This led to a collapse of food production, transport, and distribution. The socialist belief that bureaucrats could measure the needs of the market better than grocers rapidly proved a failure. When the colonial system collapsed peasants stopped growing maize commercially and 30,000 bags of it had to be flown in from Zambia to feed the city. The transport system had also suffered when some Angolan aircraft had been flown across the northern border and repainted in Congolese livery and many Portuguese pickup trucks had been driven south into Namibia when white Angolans loaded them with all their portable wealth and fled in July 1975. Other vehicles were abandoned and vandalized by departing colonials. The Neto government realized that a scapegoat was needed as the hungry city grew more restless and so the minister for internal trade was blamed for incompetence. The solution of training Black petty shopkeepers to replace the white bakers and tobacconists was not deemed ideologically acceptable but the alternative of establishing “people’s shops” did not meet the city’s needs either. The glorious celebrations which had followed the expel of the South African military columns in 1976 faded away as immediate domestic concerns came to bite.

Neto’s government sought a radical solution to the agricultural problem. In the north much colonial farming had been done by migrant laborers from the southern highlands. When decolonization led to a wholesale division between north and south the migrant workers fled back home. Neto’s solution was to send under-employed urban youths out into the provinces to harvest crops. Some urban youths, proudly wearing sharp trousers, were terrified of being sent into unknown bush country teaming with poisonous snakes and powerful witches. They saw themselves as a future ruling class and their aspiration was to remain in the city and gain a modern education. In this aspiration they found a supporter, and a hero, in Nito Alves, the young guerrilla from the Dembo forest. He became the most visible of Agostinho Neto’s rivals in the national power game.

Nito Alves, universally known as Nito, had been part of the virtually autonomous anticolonial campaign in the MPLA’s first military region. Their campaign had been so successful that planters had surrounded their houses with high wire fences and called on conscripts to patrol their woodland trails. In this autonomous military region Nito did not belong to the mainstream of party leaders who had lived in semi-comfortable exile in Brazzaville or Dar-es-Salaam. In September 1974, however, five months after Portugal’s quasi-fascist regime had been overthrown, Nito was invited to travel to Zambia and was appointed to the hundred-person central committee of the MPLA. He did not feel wholly comfortable in cosmopolitan company but when the leadership moved to Luanda, and towards independence, Nito was appointed minister for internal affairs. He found himself more at home when away from Luanda’s asphalt city center and cultivated friendships in the brick terraces of the lower-middle-class suburbs and in the shanty slums of the muddy musseques. Here he tried to meet the thrust for education by working towards the establishment of “action committees” where self-help did not have to rely on central government. There were women’s committees, youth committees, and trade union committees. Agostinho Neto, as state president, initially favored signs of dynamism but gradually became uncomfortable with their radicalism. He may even have suspected Nito of sabotaging his policy of packing Luanda youths off to the abandoned coffee groves of the north.

The pragmatism of Neto and the radicalism of Nito became polarized by October 1976. Nito was supported by the Black population of the city and the old guard, including a number of mixed-race leaders, accused him of racism. Racism, however, was not the essential threat which Nito presented to the regime. It was, rather, the dynamism of the multinational intellectuals which Nito introduced to the action committees. One of the most vibrant of these was a woman Marxist of Portuguese Indian descent. Sita Vales, who had been born in Cabinda in 1951, gave public lectures on Lenin while Nito himself taught his followers about the thoughts of Mao Tse-tung. The president turned from welcoming this vibrancy to seeking a political rhetoric with a single “correct” political line. He established a commission which was instructed to root out “factionalism” and report back to the party’s central committee in May 1977. The ten-person politburo, which guided party policy, turned against Nito and stripped him, as well as José van Dúnem, his young associate, of their membership of the central committee.

José van Dúnem had a background quite different from that of Nito. His remote family roots, and Dutch name, went back to a Jewish trading community in early 17th-century Luanda, and although the family soon became totally black it evolved, in effect, as part of the administrative and commercial bourgeoisie of colonial Angola. Gradually, however, this “creole” vanguard came to be perceived by colonial rulers not as an ally but as a threat, and once the colonial war had erupted José van Dúnem was packed off to the political prison of Saint Nicholas. In prison he associated with inmates who, when released, found that their ideas matched those of Nito Alves. When young José came out of prison, however, he was advised by Lúcio Lara, now the grand old man of the MPLA, to avoid all contact with Nito’s radical associates. His advice was to no avail, however, and soon the creole van Dúnem married the Indian Sita Vales. Gradually Neto and his closest associates, including the prime minister and the speaker of the parliament, began to suspect that Nito Alves and his associates might be plotting a coup. The evidence for this was contained in a radical document called the “Thirteen Theses” which Nito had drafted and which amounted to a root-and-branch criticism of Neto’s postcolonial policies.

In May 1977 the commission which had been appointed to investigate “factionalism” was due to publish its findings. It discovered that politics had indeed become polarized and radicals might decide that the only solution to popular despair was to mount a coup d’état to overthrow Neto’s government. The plotters hatched some of their secret plans under the public umbrella of a football club in Sambizanga. This was, incidentally, a lower-middle-class suburb in which a future president, José Eduardo dos Santos, had been born before the MPLA sent him to train as an engineer in the Soviet oil city of Baku. Although Sita Vales had gained great political experience as a communist youth leader in Portugal and although Nito had supporters across Angola from his days as the minister of the interior, the planning of the proposed coup proved to be so inept that it would have been farcical had it not been tragic.

The initial plan was to kidnap Neto as he entered the building of the old Luanda museum for a meeting of the central committee. News of this plot leaked, however, and twenty minutes before the president arrived the venue for the meeting was changed to a school building on the far side of town. The next stage of the plot required army participation, and the old guerrilla leader, “Immortal Monster,” who had been with Nito in the Dembo forest, was expected to lead troops onto the streets hoping to become minister of defense in a radical new regime. This plot also failed. In parallel with the intended kidnap, and the raising of a rebellious army regiment, Nito hoped that a march from the slums might bring a mob into the city. This prospective mob had been particularly incensed when government security forces had raided their homes to see who was hoarding scarce food and was thereby bringing the government into disrepute. Although some newspaper editors, and some radio voices, had been sympathetic to Nito’s radicalism, workers were far more cautious and they did not rally to the call. The coup thus went off at half-cock though not before eight of Neto’s senior associates, including the minister of finance, had been captured and murdered. Their bodies were dumped on a panoramic cliff overlooking Luanda Bay. While this was happening van Dúnem’s men managed to blow open Luanda’s main prison and, equally dramatically, seize the city’s wireless transmitter.

The reversal of the coup was as cruel as its inception. Neto had assumed that the Soviet Union would come to his rescue but during the morning of May 27, 1977, Moscow prevaricated—whether out of incompetence or because Russians half-thought that a new, more radical government might be better suited to their Africa policy. While Moscow hesitated Cuba pounced. The number of military vehicles available to either side in Luanda that morning was minimal but Cuba had four tanks with fuel and ammunition. Cuban commanders probably acted on their own initiative, but by 10 a.m. Neto managed to secure a phone line and telephoned Fidel Castro in Havana. Thereafter Cuban troops recaptured the radio station, but in their haste appear to have accidentally broadcast the news that the coup had failed in Cuban Spanish rather than in Angolan Portuguese. By then Mobutu of Congo had already given a public welcome to the fall of Neto and was therefore dismayed by the reversal of a coup which had overthrown his long-time enemy. Once the coup’s failure was obvious the repercussions were cruel and wide-ranging. Sita Vales hoped in vain that she would find sanctuary in the Soviet embassy, but she was captured and killed, as were both Nito and van Dúnem. The scale of the massacre which ensued cannot be readily measured but may have run to thousands. A committee of enquiry, “the chamber of tears,” was set up in which several distinguished intellectuals, including the writer Luandino, the novelist Pepetela, and the anthropologist Abranches, played a role in interviewing their peers for signs of treason.

Neto suffered from the stress of the coup, from the assassination of his colleagues, and from the repercussions of massacres which continued to reverberate for a generation after his own death. After the attempted coup Neto’s cancer progressed, and he was speculated to have calmed his nerves, and his physical pain, with an immoderate consumption of alcohol. Within two years he was flown to a Soviet hospital but the surgeons were unable to extend his life. Improbable rumors flew around Luanda suggesting that Russia was pleased to be rid of an awkward ally. How far Russia had a hand in selecting Neto’s Soviet-trained successor is unknown. Dos Santos, like Neto, had married a white wife and twenty years later his half-Russian daughter, Isabel dos Santos, played an important role in Angola’s financial politics and was later involved in many scandals of exploitation and corruption. Meanwhile the reverberations of May 27 continued to echo through Luanda society. When in 2003 a foreigner tried to enquire, during a meal in a restaurant, about the coup he was urgently told to keep quiet as walls still had ears belonging to the much-feared secret police. Young adults even hesitated to ask their parents where they had been hiding on May 27. The specter of the coup and its repercussions, resembling the horror of the urban massacres of February 1961, was re-emphasized in September 1992 when the failure of UNITA to win a general election, as half-promised by its American sponsors, led to another round of widespread urban killing. In that year, thirteen years after Neto’s death, MPLA militants again set about indiscriminately killing anyone in the city who might have been an opposition sympathizer. The legacy of Agostino Neto thus had tragic and lasting dimensions as well as the glorious memories of the night of November 11, 1975, when his forces, with Cuban advisers and Yugoslav guns, had kept the armies of both Congo–Zaire and Apartheid South Africa at bay. That night Portugal’s last colonial governor sailed for home. Before he died in Moscow in 1979, Neto’s career had come full circle. Amnesty, the civil rights organization which had first brought him to world attention as a prisoner of conscience, reported sadly that fifteen years later Neto’s supporters had adopted the same brutal police tactics towards MPLA opponents as the Portuguese had once practiced to deter Neto himself.

Discussion of the Literature

Local studies of Angola’s history were significantly handicapped by Portuguese colonial censorship, by the serious backlog of education which the colony faced, and by the negative attitude to free scholarship which followed the coup d’état of 1977 in Luanda. As a result, much of the research relating to Angola was conducted abroad, in the United States, Britain, France, and Brazil. For many years the Portuguese overseas archives, with all their relevant background files, were closed to the public. A dramatic overture occurred, however, when the archives of the PIDE were opened, and it was realized that police records relating to the war of independence were much more comprehensive than the records travelling guerrilla movements had been able to preserve. The other potential source of information about Neto’s years in the early independence movement was oral information. This naturally suffered from the problem that the informants wanted to put their own role, and that of their associates, in the best light during changing times. The matter was pithily put to a large conference of Angolan politicians and scholars such as French historian Christine Messiant: “Among ourselves even the past is always unpredictable.”

Further Reading

  • Birmingham, David. A Short History of Modern Angola. London: Hurst, 2015.
  • Bittencourt, Marcelo. Estamos Juntos: O MPLA e a Luta Anticolonial. 2 vols. Luanda, Angola: Kilombelombe, 2008.
  • CECA (Comissão para o Estudo das Campanhas de África). Resenha Histórico-Militar das Campanhas de África, 1961–1974. Lisbon, Portugal: Estado-Maior de Exercito, 1988.
  • Davidson, Basil. In the Eye of the Storm. London: Longman, 1972.
  • Jaime, Drummond, and Hélder Barber, eds. Depoimentos para a História Recente. Lisbon, Portugal: Self-published, 1999.
  • Lara, Lúcio. Um Amplo Movimento . . . Itinerário do MPLA Através de Documentos e Anotasções. Lunda, Democratic Republic of the Congo: Associação Tchiweka de Documentação, 1997.
  • Mabeko-Tali, Jean-Michel. O MPLA Perante si Próprio. 2 vols. Luanda, Angola: Editorial Nzira, 2001.
  • Marcum, John. The Angolan Revolution: The Anatomy of an Explosion, 1950–1962. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1969.
  • Marcum, John. Exile Politics and Guerrilla Warfare, 1962–1976. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1978.
  • Messiant, Christine. L’Angola colonial, histoire et société: Les prémisses du movement nationaliste. Basel, Switzerland: Schlettwein, 2006.
  • Messiant, Christine. L’Angola postcolonial. 2 vols. Paris: Karthala, 2008.
  • Neto, Agostinho. Sacred Hope: Poems. Luanda, Angola: African Writers Union, 1986.


  • 1. Agostino Neto, Sacred Hope (Luanda: Angola Writers Union, 1986), 30.

  • 2. Neto, op.cit pp. 106–108 written in the PIDE prison in Luanda in 1960.

  • 3. Jean-Michel Mabeko-Tali. O MPLA Perante si Próprio. 2 vols (Luanda, Angola: Editorial Nzira, 2001).

  • 4. Pepetala, Mayombe (London, African Writers Series, 1983).