South of the equator on Africa’s Atlantic coastline, Angola borders the Republic of Congo in the north, Democratic Republic of Congo in the north and east, Zambia in the East, and Namibia in the south. Angola’s climate ranges from the tropical north, to its dry central plateaus and desert in the south. Angola’s tiny Cabinda province, in the northwest, is separated from the rest of Angola by a sliver of the Democratic Republic of Congo that follows the Congo River’s run to the sea. Cabinda is predominantly home to the Bakongo minority, and is also where the preponderance of the country’s oil wealth lies. In its northern and central areas, Angola has high quality diamonds: both easily accessible alluvial diamonds (found in riverbeds) and kimberlite pipes, exploitation of which requires industrial equipment. Desertification and deforestation have worsened soil erosion in the country, but Angola still has large swathes of arable land, much of which remains unused as a result of the long civil war, even though an estimated 70 per cent of Angolans are farmers.

It is thought that over two thousand years ago Bantu peoples migrating from the north largely displaced the original Khoisan hunter-gatherer population in what is today Angola. The country takes its name from the head of the former Mbundu kingdom of Ndongo that dates back at least as far as the sixteenth century, and whose king carried the title ‘Ngola’.

Greed and violence, often inspired by outside interests, have driven the history of Angola since Portuguese colonists first arrived in the area in 1483. Slaves, land, oil and diamonds have generated streams of wealth, enriching foreign and domestic elites, and provoking bloody conflicts. The manipulation of racial and ethnic fears and resentments helped to mobilize and direct the armed forces behind the violence. At the bottom were the indígenous, the officially undifferentiated mass of non-Westernized Africans. Above them, together with the White colonialists were thin strata of Europeanized assimilados (those Africans certified as Westernized) including mestiços (people of mixed African and European race). Living mainly in cities, they fulfilled intermediate roles in an economy based largely on the cheap labour of a rural unskilled lower class.

Portuguese rule ended officially in 1975, followed by 27-years of civil conflict fuelled by the Cold War until 1989, and continuing until 2002 on its own inertia amid a scramble for control of natural resources.

Main minorities and indigenous communities: Ovimbundu 4.5 million (37%), Mbundu (25%), Bakongo 1.7 million (14%), Lunda-Chokwe (8%), Nyaneka-Nkumbi (3%), Ambo (2%), Mestiço (2%), Herero (up to 0.5%), San 3,600 and Kwisi (up to 0.5%). (data: Ovimbundu, Mbundu, Bakongo, Mestiço – CIA World Factbook 2006 edition; Lunda-Chokwe,  Nyaneka-Nkumbi, Ambo, Herero (1998) –

Main languages: umBundu, kiMbundu, kiKongo, uChokwe, Portuguese (official)

Main religions: indigenous beliefs, Christianity

The majority of today’s Angolans are Bantu peoples, including the Ovimbundu, Mbundu, and Bakongo, while the San are descendents of the indigenous Khoisan people.

Traditionally a largely rural people of the central highlands, Ovimbundu migrated to the cities in large numbers in search of employment in the twentieth century.

The Mbundu are concentrated around Angola’s capital, Luanda, and the north-central provinces. While some Mbundu still speak kiMbundu, many among this minority speak Portuguese as a first language.

Spanning both sides of the Congo river, Bakongo people predominate in Angola’s impoverished but oil-rich north-west, including the Atlantic enclave of Cabinda. Bakongo are known as shrewd and energetic people, whether as organizers of businesses, syncretic churches, or political movements.

In south-western provinces are semi-nomadic cattle-keeping peoples, most of whom are Ambo, Nyaneka-Nkumbi (also known as Nyaneka-Humbe) or Herero.

Scattered bands of San and Kwisi peoples, who live chiefly by hunting, gathering and petty trade, continue their nomadic existence in the southernmost provinces.


The Europeanized ‘assimilados’ provided leadership to Angola’s nationalist movements in varying degrees. Broadly corresponding to the main ethno-linguistic clusters, these crystallized in the 1950s and 1960s in three blocs: the Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola (MPLA) assembled under mestiço and assimilado leadership with a strong following among Mbundu people of the centre-north, but also embracing smaller ethnic groups in the east and south; the Frente Nacional de Libertação de Angola (FNLA), formed under traditional and assimilado leadership and rooted almost exclusively among Bakongo people in the north-west; and União para a Independencia Total de Angola (UNITA), formed as an anti-mestiço movement with some younger assimilado leadership, drawing its main following among Ovimbundu people, the pre-eminent ethnic group of the central highlands.

At the time of the Portuguese withdrawal in 1975, a three-way tussle for power was in progress. Despite vigorous backing from the United States, abetted by Zaire and South Africa, the FNLA and UNITA lost out. The winner, the MPLA, took all. Its upper echelon – the nomenklatura – was composed disproportionately of mestiços, Whites, and much of the better-schooled Black African population. It became the party of a ‘state class’ reliant on multinational oil companies and Eastern bloc and Western suppliers of hardware and advice. At the urging of the Soviets, the MPLA chose not to revive the agrarian economy, and not to rely on the majority farming population, but rather to pursue rapid urban industrialization and feed the cities and wage-earners largely with imported food.

The Cold War largely fuelled the ensuing war that began in earnest around 1980. The world powers took sides, which then parroted their ideology. While the US-backed UNITA, the Soviet Union and Cuba pursued their brand of proxy warfare by backing the MPLA, whose vulnerabilities stemmed from its neglect of rural residents, compounded by long-standing ethnic and racial resentments. With the Cold War over and South African apartheid on the wane, Cuban and South African forces left Angola in 1989. But when the MPLA won elections called for under a 1991 peace agreement, UNITA rejected the results and returned to the battlefield. The 1994 Lusaka Protocol also proved unsuccessful, despite deployment of UN peacekeepers, and a 1997 government of national unity was also fleeting, as UNITA resumed the war again in 1998 and the UN withdrew its peacekeepers the following year. Savimbi’s erstwhile backers in the West grew weary of his role as spoiler. Fighting continued until 2002, when UNITA leader Jonas Savimbi was killed in the fighting-reputedly targeted with US, South African and Israeli assistance. A cease-fire was agreed shortly thereafter, with UNITA demobilizing to become a political party.

The MPLA government has long tried to curb centrifugal political tendencies by drawing discontented ethnic elites into well-oiled systems of clientelism, and by recruiting its armed forces from all ethnic groups. Radio and television broadcasts in national languages and programmes about local music and dance have drawn attention to local cultural expression. But this hardly adds up to ‘due regard for the legitimate interests of persons belonging to minorities’ (UN Declaration on Minorities, 1992, Article 5). The main ‘minority’ issues are deeply entangled with struggles among elites over state power and especially shares of state-controlled export revenues.

The gravest problems affecting members of minorities in Angola stem less from their minority status than from the tensions ultimately traceable to Western dependency on cheap oil and taste for diamonds, the divide between Angola’s people and their corrupt governing elites, and longstanding neglect of rural and diamond mining areas.

The 27-year war is thought to have cost the lives of up to two million people, and, along with government economic policy, transformed Angolan society. Whereas in 1970 about 85 per cent of the population lived in rural areas, by 2005 less than half lived there; lives of urban squalor were the lot of most Angolans. An estimated 10 million land-mines were left behind when the war was over, and millions of weapons still circulated in the hands of jobless and uprooted youth.

President Eduardo Dos Santos, in power since 1979, had declared that there would be elections in 2006. However, he has repeatedly delayed the vote and despite international pressure, a presidential commission announced in December 2006 that legislative elections would not be held until 2008 and presidential elections until 2009, or perhaps even later. Journalists face harassment and it remains a crime to defame the president. Although Angola’s constitution calls for a Constitutional Court, the government has never implemented this and an anaemic judiciary remains the object of political influence.


Minority based and advocacy organisations

Associação de Defesa dos Direitos Humanos (ADDHU) (Portugal)
Tel: + 351 21 386 9331

Associação Justiça, Paz e Democracia (AJPD)
[Association for Justice, Peace, and Democracy]

Forum of the Angolan Non-Governmental Organizations (FONGA)

Mulher, Paz e Desenvolvimento (MPD)

Iniciativa Angolana Antimilitarista para os Direitos Humanos

Organisação Pan Africana Das Mulheres (OPM)
[Pan African Women’s Organisation (PANO)]

The Working Group of Indigenous Minorities in Southern Africa (WIMSA) (Namibia)
Tel: + 264 61 244909

Sources and further reading


Birmingham, D., Frontline Nationalism in Angola and Mozambique, London, James Currey, 1992.

Global Witness: Time for Transparency: Coming Clean on Oil, Mining and Gas Revenues, London, 2004.

Hodges, Tony, Angola: Anatomy of an Oil State (African Issues), Indiana University Press, 2004.

Human Rights Watch: Coming Home: Return and Reintegration in Angola, New York, 2005.

Human Rights Watch: Still Not Fully Protected: Rights to Freedom of Expression and Information Under Angola’s New Press Law, New York, 2006.

International Crisis Group: Angola’s Choice: Reform or Regress, Luanda/Brussels, 2003.

Jamba, S., Patriots, London, Penguin, 1990.

Minter, W., Apartheid’s Contras: An Inquiry into the Roots of War in Angola and Mozambique, London, Zed Press, 1994.

Ad-Hoc Commission for Human Rights in Cabinda, Terror in Cabinda, 2002.

Human Rights Watch, Between War and Peace in Cabinda, New York, 2004.

IRIN News, Cabinda Web Special, 2003.

Refugees International, Forgotten People: Displaced Persons in Cabinda Province, Angola, Washington, 2005.

Refugees International, Forgotten People: The San of Southern Africa, Washington, 2004.

TROCAIRE/Angola, Working Group of Indigenous Minorities in Southern Africa and OCADEC, Where the First are Last: San Communities Fighting for Survival in Southern Angola, 2004.

Minorities and indigenous peoples in