Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Main languages: according to the 2014 Census, while the majority (71 per cent) of Angolans speak Portuguese – the only official language – at home, other languages spoken include Umbundu (23 per cent), Kikongo (8 per cent), Kimbundu (8 per cent), Chokwe (7 per cent), Nhaneca (3 per cent), Nganguela (3 per cent), Fiote (2 per cent), Kwanhama (2 per cent), Muhumbi (2 per cent), Luvale (1 per cent), others (4 per cent)
Main religions: indigenous beliefs, Christianity
Angola’s 2014 Census, the first since 1970, included information on language most used in the home, but not on ethnicity. Other sources indicate that Angola’s ethnic groups include Ovimbundu (37 per cent), Mbundu (25 per cent), Bakongo (13 per cent) and mestiço (2 per cent), Lunda-Chokwe (8 per cent), Nyaneka-Nkumbi (3 per cent), Ambo (2 per cent), Herero (up to 0.5 per cent), San 3,600 and Kwisi (up to 0.5 per cent). However, the international indigenous peoples’ rights organization IWGIA puts the number of indigenous people including San, Himba, Kwepe, Kuvale and Zwemba at around 25,000, amounting to 0.1 per cent of the total population, with San alone numbering between 5,000 and 14,000.
The majority of today’s Angolans are Bantu peoples, including Ovimbundu, Mbundu and Bakongo, while the San belong to 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 for being 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 communities of San and Kwisi peoples, which live chiefly by hunting, gathering and small-scale trade, continue their nomadic existence in the southernmost provinces. Some have settled in rural areas and taken up farming, while others can be found in urban areas.
The legacy of colonial rule is also reflected in the existence of Europeanized assimilados (those Africans classified as Westernized) including mestiços (people of mixed African and European ancestry). These different classifications played a role in Angola’s civil conflict: while the Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola (MPLA) was assembled under mestiço and assimilado leadership and the Frente Nacional de Libertação de Angola (FNLA) was formed under traditional and assimilado leadership, for example, União para a Independencia Total de Angola (UNITA) was formed as an anti-mestiço movement with some younger assimilado leadership.
Updated May 2020
Decades of conflict in Angola, first in the form of the anti-colonial insurgency beginning in the 1960s and then the brutal civil conflict that consumed the country from independence in 1975 until 2002, have left a legacy of poverty, inequality and political factionalism. While the violence was rooted in a range of factors, ethnic and regional divisions played a significant role, with the three main factions – the Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola (MPLA), the Frente Nacional de Libertação de Angola (FNLA) and União para a Independencia Total de Angola (UNITA) – all drawing on varying degrees of support and leadership from different regions and communities in the country. With a diverse population that includes Ovimbundu, Mbundu, Bakongo and a variety of other communities, including a mixed Portuguese-Angolan mestiço population and indigenous San, identity and geography continue to play a role in Angola’s politics. Nevertheless, notwithstanding the MPLA’s continued dominance of the government and increasing repression against human rights activists, journalists and political opposition members, the country has managed to avoid a return to civil conflict.
Angola also struggles with persistent corruption in its oil sector, a situation that has contributed to its governance challenges and entrenched the majority of Angolans in deep poverty, despite the billions of dollars in revenue generated every year through its extractive industries. This has had particularly negative impacts in Cabinda region, an area that comprises just a small fraction of Angolan territory but contains the majority of its oil. Despite this, however, the local Cabindan population have little in the way of development opportunities and like other Angolans have not benefitted from the country’s oil revenue. This has contributed to the continued insecurity in the area, even after the end of the civil conflict in 2002. Separatist violence has spiked on a number of occasions in recent years, including 2010 and 2016/17, when thousands of Angolan troops were brought into the region after a series of attacks on Angolan soldiers and the abduction of Chinese workers by armed separatists.
Angola does not officially recognize the indigenous peoples living in its territory, and as a result the discrimination these communities frequently experience in accessing health care, education and basic needs such as food and water remains unaddressed. Its indigenous population, including San, Himba, Kwepe, Kuvale and Zwemba, together are estimated at around 25,000 (0.1 per cent of the total population) and given their dependence on their traditional lands are especially vulnerable to environmental stresses such as drought. In addition, however, they also contend with the dispossession of their ancestral territory to accommodate tourism, logging and other developments, in the process devastating their way of life. Many were displaced to neighbouring countries such as Namibia, South Africa and Zambia during the civil conflict and have yet to return.
Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) have in the past carried out repeated tit-for-tat violent expulsions of thousands of each other’s nationals. Concern over Angola’s treatment of undocumented migrants has continued in recent years, with the UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants calling in 2016 for a national strategy to promote and protect their rights in the face of discrimination, harassment, intimidation, arbitrary detention and other abuses after expressing concerns at the detention and expulsion of foreigners, including refugees and asylum seekers. Beginning in October 2018, following an expulsion order by the Angolan government, at least 360,000 Congolese nationals crossed back into DRC, with many reportedly being subjected to violence, extortion and other human rights abuses.
South of the equator on Africa’s Atlantic coastline, Angola borders the Republic of Congo in the north, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) 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 DRC 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 2,000 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 indigenous communities, as well as 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 ancestry). Living mainly in cities, they fulfilled intermediate roles in an economy based largely on the cheap labour of a rural unskilled lower class.
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, Europeans and much of the educated middle class. 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 conflict 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. UNITA leader Jonas Savimbi’s erstwhile backers in the West grew weary of his role as spoiler. Fighting continued until 2002, when 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 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.
Since then, while the country has avoided a return to large-scale civil conflict and seen significant investment from China, the country has also witnessed growing corruption and a wider climate of political repression against activists and opponents of the government. Despite significant reserves of oil and diamonds, producing billions of dollars in public revenue each year, many Angolans remain mired in poverty while billions of dollars are believed to have been syphoned off by former President José Eduardo dos Santos during his decades of rule.
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. The MPLA’s President José Eduardo dos Santos, in power since 1979, continued to hold on to power while imposing increasing restrictions on the political opposition. Dos Santos finally stepped down from power in 2017.
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 proper respect for the rights of minorities and indigenous peoples. Key minority and indigenous 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 and indigenous communities in Angola stem at least in part 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.
Angola has consistently ranked low in UNDP’s Human Development Index. Since 2000, the country has made some progress in education, gross national income per capita and life expectancy. The global drop in oil prices has adversely affected Angola’s economy, already afflicted by severe inequalities, under-development of key sectors and lack of transparency around oil revenues.
Minority based and advocacy organisations
Associação de Defesa dos Direitos Humanos (ADDHU) (Portugal)
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
Organização Cristã de Apoio ao Desenvolvimento Comunitário (OCADEC)
Organisação Pan Africana Das Mulheres (OPM)
[Pan African Women’s Organisation (PANO)]
The Working Group of Indigenous Minorities in Southern Africa (WIMSA) (Namibia)
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