Angola: War of Independence

Introduction | Atrocities | Fatalities | Ending | Coding | Works Cited | Notes


The Portuguese arrived in present-day Angola in 1483. In the 17th and 18th century, Angola became a major Portuguese slave-trading area. The Portuguese government officially abolished the slave trade in 1836, and from 1885 to 1930 Portugal suppressed local resistance and consolidated its colonial control over the country. In 1951, Angola’s official status changed from colony to Portuguese overseas province. Groups of urban and educated Angolans in the 1940s and 1950s began forming socialist resistance groups that engaged in anti-state agitation.[i] The 1950s were largely characterized by state repression of suspected nationalists using arbitrary imprisonment and physical abuse.[ii]

The Angolan independence war broke out in March of 1961, when revolts on coffee plantations against forced labor and inhumane working conditions left thousands dead. Among the groups taking up arms for independence were Marxist People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA)[iii]; the National Front for the Liberation of Angola (FNLA), which was formed in 1958 and received financial and military support from the CIA, China and the Congolese government[iv]; and the Union of Angolan Peoples  (UPA) who launched their military actions from Zaire and merged with the FNLA in 1962. The Ovimundu-dominated UNITA movement only emerged in 1966. The pro-independence movements were riven by competition: for access to supplies, territory and popular support.[v] The Portuguese aggravated these divisions to further sow discord and forward their own goals.[vi]


There seems to be general agreement among scholars that the initial climax of violence occurred in the first half of 1961. At least 5,000 persons died in a massacre on 3 – 4 January 1961 carried out by Portuguese soldiers.[vii] In February 1961, Portuguese settlers took revenge on African Angolans in Luanda in retaliation for a failed MPLA attempt to free activists from a local prison. The settlers carried out nightly raids in the slums surrounding the white neighborhoods, leaving the bodies of their victims on the streets.[viii] In March 1961, after Angolan workers protested to demand better working conditions on labor plantations in the country’s north, the Portuguese military responded by bombing the regions of Icolo e Bengo and the Baia de Cassange, destroying 17 villages and killing nearly 20,000 civilians.[ix] Portuguese soldiers also moved overland, reportedly killing thousands of civilians. Various sources place the total number of deaths during the first eight months of 1961 at 8,000, 25, 000 and 50,000.[x]

In 1972-1973, Portugal once again launched a large-scale military operation that involved dropping napalm and defoliants on MPLA-controlled villages.[xi] However, Heywood suggests that in the years just before independence in 1975, violence between the two sides actually declined, as both came to recognize that a negotiated settlement was needed and attempted to win the support of the local population.[xii]

Nevertheless, a domestic coup within Portugal—the Carnation Revolution of April 25, 1974—put an end to its empire and thereby also terminated the Portuguese Colonial War in Angola. The conflict was devastating for the Portuguese economy, the anti-war sentiment in Portugal increased and the Portuguese armed forces increasingly felt that they could not defeat the relentless insurgence in the colonies.[xiii]

In Angola, the three movements, the MPLA, UNITA and the FNLA, capitalized on the Portuguese coup by opening negotiations with the new Portuguese authorities, leading to the Alvor Agreement of January 1975.[xiv] The agreement recognized all three liberation movements as the “sole legitimate representatives of the people of Angola,” and included an immediate ceasefire.[xv] The various Angolan factions, however, soon found new international backers as they competed to control the emerging state. Zaire, China and the US sent arms to the FNLA and UNITA, and the USSR and Cuba, which also sent soldiers, to the MPLA.[xvi] As Weigert demonstrates, the war became increasingly conventional between internationally aided forces in a race to control the capitol, Luanda. Fighting between FNLA and UNITA forces in Luanda’s slums left 700 dead in April 1975 alone.[xvii] The MPLA advanced with the aid of Cuban forces, and, the US decided to cease all military aid to the FNLA and UNITA in January 1976.[xviii]

Violence continued thereafter. As the MPLA and Cuban forces pushed UNITA and FNLA back, they then turned to put down an internal threat. On May 17, 1977, a faction of the ruling MPLA led by former MPLA minister Nito Alves rose up against the party leadership. The event characterized alternatively as a coup attempt or an anti-government protest, but regardless of how it is characterized, there is agreement that the MPLA-led government and Cuban troops conducted a massive crackdown on perceived opponents in 1977.[xix]

Complicating assessment of the civilian toll of the fighting was also the spill-over of the Namibian independence effort. The MPLA allowed an armed movement seeking independence of present-day Namibia from South Arica, SWAPO to operate on its territory and in May 1978, South Africa led a sorties into Angola, killing some 1,000 people.[xx] South African forces made several deep incursions into Angola during this time period (admitting to 14 actions in early 1981) and supported UNITA against MPLA.[xxi]


Last year of atrocities 1974, Est. 50,000.

The estimates of civilians killed during the Angolan war for independence vary widely, which can be partly explained by the fact that some scholars only take into account battle-deaths, whereas others include indirect deaths by disease and starvation (the overwhelming cause of civilian death).

  • Lower estimates:
    • 20,000 Angolans killed “in the first three months of the revolt.”[xxii]
    • Eckhardt (1996): 30,000 civilian war-related deaths.[xxiii]
    • Rummel (1997): low estimate of 30,000, a middle estimate of 55,000 and a high estimate of 90,000.[xxiv]
  • Higher estimates:
    • Clodfelter (2002): 75,000 African civilian dead between 1961-1974.[xxv]
    • Toft (2010): “Close to 70,000 people were killed during the course of the war.”[xxvi]
    • Brogan (1998): about 90,000 people killed between 1961-75.[xxvii]
    • Leitenberg (2003): 300,000 civilian deaths between 1961-75.[xxviii]
    • Bercovitch and Jackson (1997): >100,000 people killed (this number might include people civilian casualties from Mozambique and Guinea-Bissau).[xxix]

The PRIO dataset takes Clodfelter’s figures as the best estimate (his numbers also fall within Rummel’s range and mirror the findings of Brogan, Eckhardt and the Correlates of War dataset). Leitenberg’s figures appear as the clear outlier and seem to include all war-related deaths rather than only those deaths caused directly by violent conflict.[xxx]

Fatalities that occurred in relation to the post-Independence violence, according to Heywood, are estimated at 28,000 civilians killed in the fighting between the MPLA and Cuban troops on the one hand, and Alves’ supporters on the other. It is further estimated that 3,000 civilians disappeared.[xxxi] Heywood notes that up to 40,000 people were killed in the aftermath of the revolt.[xxxii] Brogan (1998) suggests a total of ca. 50,000 people were killed between 1975-1976.[xxxiii] Similarly, Clodfelder (2002) argues that during the period of conventional warfare between 1975-1976, 50,000 Angolans, “the majority of them non-combatants, were killed or died from starvation and disease caused by the war.”[xxxiv] However, there does not seem to be a clear estimate of the total number of civilian deaths immediately caused by state/insurgent violence (rather than indirect effects of conflict).


We identify the ending of the primary atrocity period in 1974 with the withdrawal of Portuguese forces.

Nonetheless, violence continued in 1977 and, given the paucity of data on civilian deaths throughout Angola’s recent history, especially in the late 1970s and 1980s, it is very difficult to say with any certainty when an absolute decline occurred. Qualitative studies of the period suggest that violence against Angolan civilians declined after the 1977 event, although the strongest evidence for this is not the appearance of data, but rather its absence—there are no well-documented high-scale killing incidents during these last few years of the 1970s and into the 1980s. However, lack of evidence is not the same thing as strong data documenting a decline. We remain cautious about this end date.

Further, given the cross-border incursion by South Africa, rapid build-up and international support for various armed movements, reports of large-scale military actions, the scale of violence against civilians, remains, at best, questionable during this period.

If there was a decline beginning in 1978, it was brought about by the solidification of lines of the soon-to-escalate civil war, UNITA’s momentary shift to lower-level actions—like sabotage and unconventional attacks in rural areas. Nonetheless, international involvement would intensify the civil war within years, this later period forms a separate case study.


The primary cause of the ending was a strategic shift within Portugal, which resulted in a leadership change. We code this as occurring due to the moderating impact of domestic actors (within Portugal) and international withdrawal. The secondary spike in 1977 did not constitute a new event for this study.

Works Cited

Bercovitch, Jacob and Richard Jackson. 1997. International Conflict: A Chronological Encyclopedia of Conflicts and Their Management. Washington: CQ Press.

Brogan, Patrick. World Conflicts: Where and Why They are Happening. Bloomsbury Publishing.

Clodfelter, Michael. 2002. Warfare and Armed Conflicts: A Statistical Reference to Casualty and Other Figures, 1500–2000. 2nd edition. Jefferson, NC: McFarland.

Eckhardt, William. 1996. “Wars and War-Related Deaths, 1900–1995,” in Ruth Leger Sivard, ed., World Military and Social Expenditures. Washington, DC: World Priorities.

Guimaraes, Fernando Andresen. 2001.The Origins of the Angolan Civil War: Foreign Intervention and Domestic Political Conflict. London: Palgrave MacMillan.

Heywood, Linda M. 2011.“Angola and the Violent Years 1975-2008: Civilian Casualties,” Portuguese Studies Review, Vol. 19, no. 1/2.

James III, W. Martin . 1992. A Political History of the Civil War in Angola: 1974 – 1990 Piscataway, NJ: Transaction Publishers.

Lacina, Bethany. 2009. “The PRIO Battle Deaths Dataset, 1946-2008, Version 3.0, Documentation of Coding Decisions,” International Peace Research Institute, Oslo, September.

Leitenberg, Milton . 2003. “Death in Wars and Conflicts Between 1945 and 2000,” Peace Studies Program Occasional Paper #29. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University.

Pawson, Lara . 2007. “The 27 May in Angola: A View from Below,” Relações Internacionais no. 14 (June), Instituto Português de Relações Internacionais.

Pawson, Lara. 2014. In the Name of the People: Angola’s Forgotten Massacre. New York: I.B. Tauris.

Rummel, R. J. 1997. Statistics of Democide: Genocide and Mass Murder Since 1900. Rutgers, NJ: Transaction Publishers. Available at:, Table 14.1.

Toft, Monica Duffy . 2010. Securing the Peace: The Durable Settlement of Civil WarsData Appendix. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Weigert, Stephen L. 2011. Angola: a Modern Military History, 1961-2002. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.


[i] Guimaraes 2001.

[ii] Heywood 2011, 315.

[iii] Heywood 2011, 153.

[iv] Toft 2010, 29.

[v] Weigert 2011, 53.

[vi] James 1992, 45.

[vii] Heywood, 316.

[viii] Heywood, 316.

[ix] Heywood, 315.

[x] Guimaraes, 53.

[xi] James 1992, 49.

[xii] Heywood, 318.

[xiii] Martin James III, 41.

[xiv] Heywood, 318.

[xv] Martin James III, 55.

[xvi] Weigert, 58.

[xvii] Heywood, 319.

[xviii] Weigert 63.

[xix] Lara Pawson 2007.

[xx] James, 147.

[xxi] James 150.

[xxii] James 1992, 43.

[xxiii] Eckhardt 1996, 17–19.

[xxiv] Rummel 1997.

[xxv] Clodfelter 2002.

[xxvi] Toft, 30.

[xxvii] Brogan 1998, 13.

[xxviii] Leitenberg 2003.

[xxix] Bercovitch and Jackson 1997, 101.

[xxx] Lacina 2009, 32-33.

[xxxi] Heywood, 320.

[xxxii] Heywood, 320.

[xxxiii] Brogan, 1998.

[xxxiv] Clodfelter 2002, 625-626.

This entry was posted in Africa, Strategic shift and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply