The Poet and the Engineer: Forty Years of Angolan Independence

May 10, 2015   •   By Phillip Rothwell

Magnificent and Beggar Land

Ricardo Soares de Oliveira

In the Name of the People

Lara Pawson

THIS YEAR, 2015, marks 40 years since Angola became independent from Portugal. Famously, the last colonial governor, Leonel Cardoso, folded up the Portuguese flag, boarded a plane, and — lacking a unified independence movement with whom to leave the keys to his palace — bequeathed Angola to the Angolan people. Much blood was subsequently shed in their name.

A civil war began almost immediately, and continued with varying degrees of intensity and an evolving cast of protagonists. With help from Cuba in 1975, the then Marxist-leaning People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) seized Luanda, the nation’s capital, in the days following Portugal’s withdrawal. From there, the MPLA asserted its right to rule the whole Angolan nation. During the next two decades, there were times it controlled very little Angolan territory, beyond urban hubs. It was not until 2002, with help from Israel, that the MPLA regime finally killed the infamous leader of the UNITA rebels, Jonas Savimbi. Twenty-seven years after it had begun, one of the longest civil wars in Africa finally ended. The MPLA had scored a decisive military victory over its remaining political foe. This was an unusual way for an African post-independence conflict to end because it avoided the need for the opposing parties to reach a political accommodation.

In the years that followed, the MPLA leadership imposed a settlement almost entirely to its own benefit, controlling all the mechanisms of state power. From 2002 onward, the regime’s coffers were filled by rising oil prices and a peace dividend that enabled a greater exploitation of the country’s considerable natural resources.

Until the recent crash in oil prices, the government appeared to have turned the post-conflict country completely around, at least from a macroeconomic perspective. The Angolan economy had become one of the fastest-growing in the world, with a GDP in excess of US$120 billion in 2013. That apparent turnaround is the subject of Ricardo Soares de Oliveira’s Magnificent and Beggar Land: Angola Since the Civil War.

An associate professor in comparative politics and fellow of Saint Peter’s College, Oxford, Soares de Oliveira offers a fascinating account of the Machiavellian adaptability of the MPLA leadership. An organization that has changed many times, the MPLA began as an anticolonial rebellion against the Portuguese. It adopted a Marxist-Leninist ideology that made little sense in Angola’s predominantly rural reality. With the end of the Cold War, its leadership became devout paladins of rampant free markets in an age of super-capitalism. Soares de Oliveira provides a gripping case study of the MPLA’s continuous exercise of power over turbulent times of transition and, in particular, its hold on Angola today.

At the top of the MPLA, since 1979, is one of the world’s most enduring leaders, José Eduardo dos Santos. Dos Santos was not the obvious choice to succeed when Angola’s first president, Agostinho Neto, died in Moscow in 1979. As Soares de Oliveira points out, dos Santos was the typical compromise candidate, “young and good-looking and apparently none too smart.” His reputation for womanizing and his shyness lulled MPLA elders into a false sense of security. He turned out not to be the puppet they expected. He is now the third longest-ruling non-royal head of state in the world.

Soares de Oliveira draws on four years of observation of Angola and interviews of Angolans to describe how the MPLA has evolved since it crushed UNITA. Initially MPLA heavyweights were eager for a donors’ conference, at a time when oil revenues had not reached their subsequent heights. However, they always refused to accept conditions regarding transparency or limits on corrupt practices, and the conference was repeatedly postponed during the first three years after the end of the civil war. Eventually, dos Santos canceled it altogether in the knowledge that booming oil revenues — and the arrival of the Chinese with a less demanding human rights agenda — would allow him to refashion postwar Angola on his own terms, in what Soares de Oliveira terms a “spectacle of reconstruction.” Subsequently, in keeping with the MPLA’s high modernist project, airports, roads, hospitals, and shopping malls have all been built, not always in the most appropriate areas or to the best construction standards. As Soares de Oliveira repeatedly makes clear, these projects have benefited a restricted circle of influential MPLA supporters, particularly those closest to the president.

But Angola is not just the story of crass corruption. Soares de Oliveira has a particular skill in understanding how what begins as one thing can transmute into another — including how dos Santos the malleable puppet became dos Santos the almighty. He offers a detailed account of the aging president’s accumulation of nearly unchallengeable power. Pragmatic and strategic, dos Santos used the state of exception caused by the civil conflict to bring a “veritable parallel state under his personal control that came to encompass the country’s revenue-handling and coercive organizations.”

The bedrock of dos Santos’s power is Sonangol, the state oil company created in 1976. President Neto had originally granted the company the discretion to operate outside the confines of what was already an imploding planned economy. “How,” asks Soares de Oliveira, “could a self-defined Marxist-Leninist regime bring into being a company that not only flouted the basic tenets of socialism but also cavorted with American oil and consulting firms, all the while exerting the pivotal role in the otherwise stillborn postcolonial economy?” His answer is in part the individuals involved in Sonangol’s management. They were well connected, sharing the same social backgrounds as the MPLA leadership, and they gained Neto’s trust. When dos Santos — a Soviet-trained petroleum engineer — took power, he quickly realized the usefulness of ring-fencing Sonangol, insisting that it report directly to the presidency. Initially a wartime strategy that protected a well-managed cash-generating organization from being brought down by a malfunctioning state, it also served to give dos Santos personal control over four-fifths of government revenues. This enabled him to create a system of patronage and clientelism that continued and grew with the end of hostilities.

Soares de Oliveira is an astute observer of MPLA mores. He provides some of the best contextualizations and analyses of Angola’s ruling elites to date. Careful and measured, his portrait is nonetheless damning. He understands the historical forces at work in the fissures and factions that characterized the movement since its beginning, and never underestimates the formative legacy of Portuguese colonialism. At the same time, he has an eye for those moments of chance — like the circumstances surrounding dos Santos’s accession — that change that history forever. It is doubtful that President Neto’s huge personality, had his health permitted, could have lasted nearly as long as dos Santos’s “backstage” manner.


To many observers, Angola went wrong under dos Santos. The unbridled corruption, nepotism, and what Angolans term a “culture of fear” is blamed on a kleptocratic dos Santos, particularly as he operated following the end of the civil war. He stands in wan contrast to his charismatic predecessor, Neto. And yet, the truth, as always, is a little less clear cut.

A medic by training and a celebrated poet, Agostinho Neto was one of Amnesty International’s earliest prisoners of conscience in the 1960s. He inspired a generation of Western progressive intellectuals and journalists. They saw in him a leader and a hero. They translated and distributed his poetry. They deified him. They also, by and large, kept quiet about one of the darkest periods of his presidency, the aftermath of an apparent coup attempt led by a former member of the MPLA central committee, Nito Alves, on 27 May 1977 — an event known to Angolans as the vinte e sete.

The official MPLA line characterizes Nito Alves as a traitor aiming to destabilize the regime by exploiting racial divisions. But Lara Pawson’s In the Name of the People: Angola’s Forgotten Massacre presents a more complicated picture. Some of those interviewed by Pawson, a former BBC correspondent in Angola, for her book, assert that the events of the 27th were not a coup attempt at all, but began as a relatively small demonstration by MPLA supporters against the direction the party leadership was veering. Whatever the truth, the result was a purge within the MPLA that lasted several months and cost many lives. Angolans who had no interest in the movement’s ideological fault lines fell victim to the violence that ensued, and Angola’s “culture of fear” — a culture dos Santos could later count on to keep his critics in check — was born.

A few days earlier, the MPLA had expelled Nito Alves. One of the movement’s most capable figures, he had served in Neto’s government as minister of the interior. Most of the leadership around Neto was drawn from Luanda’s wealthy mestiço community or those who, under Portuguese colonial rule, had been “assimilated” — a category reserved for non-whites who passed demeaning tests proving their Europeanness, including sleeping in a bed, reading and writing in Portuguese, and professing the Christian faith. In contrast, Alves was from a peasant background. He had never left Angola, setting him apart from the cosmopolitanism of those supporting Neto, many of whom had spent much of the independence struggle in exile in Paris, Lisbon, Algiers, or Dar es Salaam. By the beginning of 1977, Alves had become sufficiently popular in poorer neighborhoods that the then Politburo recognized the appearance of two MPLAs: “one led by Neto, the other by Nito.”

As Pawson’s delving makes clear, racial and class tensions haunted this split within the MPLA. There was resentment against the number of whites and mestiços in Neto’s coterie. The president himself was married to a white Portuguese woman. He regularly condemned racism against all Angolans but failed to address Alves’s assertion that there would “only be true equality in Angola when white people were seen sweeping streets alongside blacks.” Neto feared black racism toward whites and mestiços would divide the country, and failed to address the legitimate concerns Alves articulated.

In fact, long before Alves rose to prominence, factionalism and complex racial politics had characterized the MPLA. Neto’s election as leader in 1962 resulted in the marginalization of one of the movement’s founders, the mestiço Viriato da Cruz, who was not black enough to be the movement’s figurehead. He would die unhappily in exile in China. In the early 1970s, major revolts against Neto’s authoritarian style laid bare divisions based on race and ethnicity. Yet Neto retained power until his death from cancer in 1979, propped up by Cuba.

During the 1950s and 1960s, when other independence movements on the continent identified with a broader idea of Africa, the MPLA leadership spoke of Angola, which to their mindset meant, and still means, little more than an urban Luanda gazing toward Europe. The mestiço and “assimilated” intellectuals who founded the MPLA accepted the Angolan nation as a product of Portuguese colonialism. They never challenged the territorial integrity of the borders drawn during the 19th-century European Scramble for Africa. At the same time, in the upper echelons of the MPLA, Angola was an urban concept — the rural parts of which were to be found on a map but not really experienced. The leadership had no sense of what to do with the country beyond the confines of its urban nodes. Even today, it remains an elitist urban movement with little real connection to the peasantry or concern for the poor. Alves never accepted that mindset.

Whether the vinte e sete was a failed coup attempt or a demonstration for change, a number of Agostinho Neto’s key supporters were killed that day in Sambizanga, a poor neighborhood in northern Luanda. The Neto faction seized on their deaths as a justification for reprisals. Neto’s rhetoric stoked the flames. As one woman whom Pawson interviews asserts: “He was the father of the nation! It was him who said there should be no pardons. Of course he knew what would happen! He was an educated man. A poet!” The crackdown on “factionalism” gave people the chance to settle scores against those they disliked. If we believe the testimonies Pawson collected, at least some of those killed had nothing to do with Alves at all.

Another man who bore a heavy responsibility for whipping up rhetoric against “factionalists” was Fernando Costa Andrade, also known as Ndunduma Wé Lépi (the Thunderer of Lépi). He was the son of a white Portuguese man and a mestiço woman. Like many around President Neto, as a young man Ndunduma was sent to Lisbon — the colonial capital — to study. By 1977, he was the director of independent Angola’s only functioning newspaper, Jornal de Angola. Ndunduma used his position to pen inflammatory articles against Alves’s “factionalism,” often repeating the phrase “bater no ferro quente” (strike while the iron is hot!), an ominous mantra that left little doubt that opponents were to be smashed. His detractors credit him with encouraging hatred against those suspected of supporting Alves, giving the green light to their massacre. They compare him with Rwanda’s Jean-Bosco Barayagwiza, the founder of the Milles Collines radio station, convicted for his part in genocide by the International Criminal Tribunal.

Pawson’s account of her interview with Ndunduma at his modest home in one of Luanda’s wealthier neighborhoods is a superlative feat. To get him to speak about what happened was quite an accomplishment since he had refused for years to discuss on the record the events of vinte e sete. Her narrative contextualization interspersed with Ndunduma’s interview paints a picture of a broken man unwilling to take responsibility for the power of his words.

Ndunduma claimed his conscience was clear. He narrowly missed being killed by those involved in the attempted coup, he said, and insinuated the reprisals were a measured response to the death of comrades in Sambizanga. President Neto knew the military was carrying out executions, and the newspaper director was clear his own role was merely to represent Neto. In fact, “striking while the iron was hot” was a paraphrase of what he had heard the president say. They were, he told Pawson before he died, not even his own words.

Along with two of Angola’s most prominent novelists, Manuel Rui (who wrote the lyrics of the national anthem) and Pepetela (the pen name of Artur Carlos Maurício Pestana dos Santos), Ndunduma was a member of a commission set up to “hear […] not to judge […] those who had been arrested and imprisoned.” Some believe the commission was responsible for sending many to their deaths. Ndunduma’s characterization of it is absurd in its banality. He claims nothing much happened. They did not pass any death sentences. They were only there to get important information out to the public. Bizarrely, they became “rather bored” after 10 or 12 days of listening to the condemned. Ndunduma was convinced the three of them had become scapegoats for the vinte e sete because of “a dose of racism” against whites and mestiços. Pawson wryly ponders the racial dynamics of a tribunal of two well-placed mestiços and a white man, two years after independence, judging — or “hearing from” — a stream of people facing execution who were overwhelmingly poor and black.

Pawson’s book is a search for the truth about what happened in Angola on 27 May 1977. Like all such searches, if honestly undertaken, no single truth is there to be found. Multiple versions emerge in the wide range of voices Pawson tracked down trying to understand the violence and Angola’s cultura do medo, or “culture of fear,” prevalent even today. She makes several uncomfortable discoveries that challenge her own presuppositions, including Cuba’s unsavory involvement in the affair and their apparent disagreement with the Soviets over which faction to support. The more Pawson digs, the more she concludes the events are still a very real trauma for Angolan society. What is shocking is that the vinte e sete was the MPLA killing members of the MPLA. At the time, the MPLA was seen as the great hope for the nation. It had promised liberation and a brighter future to the Angolan people. Yet, just 18 months into independence, it ruthlessly killed many of its own supporters.

Pawson’s prose is replete with candid reflections on the process of questioning prior assumptions, and she is refreshingly honest as she exposes her doubts about her undertaking. Her almost confessional tone aptly captures her sense of having misunderstood or been ignorant of a major part of the history of a country she thought she knew well. Her own leftist political outlook made her naturally sympathetic to what Neto’s MPLA stood for, at least in his rhetoric and poetry. We live with Pawson’s exasperation, horror, and anxiety. Her detailed observation of the minutiae uncovered by her investigation allows us to picture vividly each challenge she faces. Like a good novelist, she leads her reader as she travels across London, Lisbon, and Luanda to get to the bottom of what happened, and, she manages, to some extent, to offer some closure to those Angolans who remind her “this is not your history. It’s ours.”

One of Pawson’s main targets is a generation of Marxist writers who seemed to close their eyes to the events in Angola in 1977, as they fashioned a narrative of a faultless people’s liberation movement under attack by the forces of reaction. She holds them responsible for their failure to properly report the massacre of thousands, possibly tens of thousands. The historian Basil Davidson and journalists Michael Wolfers and Victoria Brittain (the former foreign editor of The Guardian newspaper) emerge in a less-than-flattering light. Pawson’s encounter with the last of these, recounted in her “Never Meet Your Heroes” chapter is an eye-opening episode for anyone who bought into the uncritically pro-MPLA vision of Angola prevalent in the last quarter of the 20th century. Brittain cuts their meeting short after Pawson challenges her assertion that Angolan exiles think the events of 1977 were “the worst thing that ever happened because they don’t know any better.” The recounting of encounters like this, the London counterpart to her Luanda meeting with Ndunduma, are where Pawson’s innovative methodology — mixing academic rigor, investigative journalism, and the prose of a non-omniscient detective-novel narrator — is most powerful. The unrelenting lack of repentance of certain MPLA-sympathizing writers who were either taken for a ride or complicit with Angola’s self-serving elites is juxtaposed with Pawson’s increasing willingness to question the pillars of what she had held to be self-evident truths about Angola.

Some readers — a certain class of social scientist is who I have in mind — will feel Pawson’s book hits all the wrong buttons. It refuses to nail down any answers about precisely what happened. She puts herself at the center of the plot. Her writing style is literary, at times almost poetic. Yet, for this reader at least, it is precisely these aesthetic characteristics that make In the Name of the People an important critique of the early years of the Angolan regime. Pawson comes across as sympathetic to the “poetry” of the MPLA. The literariness of her style and her conscious refusal to provide “answers” make her project an effective antidote to the all-knowing rhetoric of Neto and his supporters. Like many of us, she wanted to believe in what the MPLA symbolized: the aspirations of a people realized through independence and equality of opportunity. In this lazy and utopian understanding, we like to imagine that Angola, or rather the MPLA, went wrong with Neto’s successor, the bland engineer José Eduardo dos Santos, and those around him, whom the disillusioned Ndunduma dismisses as “a bunch of thieves.” But perhaps thieves are better than murderers?


Who knows what the future holds for Angola? At 72 years of age, dos Santos could be in power for another couple of decades — if he follows the example of Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe. Yet both Pawson and Soares de Oliveira suggest that might not be possible. Angola’s youth and socially disenfranchised are becoming restless. For those born after independence, the MPLA’s role in the departure of the Portuguese is ancient history, the stuff of myths. In the 1990s, dos Santos found the keys to the colonial governor’s residence Leonel Cardoso had left to the Angolan people, and moved the presidency into that plushly refurbished mansion. The president’s relocation symbolized the extent to which the MPLA leaders remain fixated on European styles and emblems of power — the very things Nito Alves called into question. For Soares de Oliveira, the regime’s “ongoing dynamic of exclusion” and the population’s continued perception of white and mestiço overrepresentation in high positions may be a recipe for the same class-based shanty-town mobilization witnessed on the vinte e sete. In such an event, the strategic engineer president — in contrast to the intransigent poet liberator — would be unlikely to stoop to the power of words to destroy his opponents. Nor is it likely that writers and academics beyond Angola’s borders — like Pawson and Soares de Oliveira — would today be silently complicit with any massacre.


Phillip Rothwell is King John II Professor of Portuguese at the University of Oxford and the author of A Canon of Empty Fathers: Paternity in Portuguese Narrative (2007) and A Postmodern Nationalist: Truth, Orality and Gender in the Work of Mia Couto (2004).