Vidal on Pearce, 'Political Identity and Conflict in Central Angola, 1975-2002'

Justin Pearce
Nuno Vidal

Justin Pearce. Political Identity and Conflict in Central Angola, 1975-2002. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015. 204 pp. $103.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-107-07964-9.

Reviewed by Nuno Vidal (Centro de Estudos Internacionais - ISCTE-IUL) Published on H-Luso-Africa (February, 2017) Commissioned by Philip J. Havik

This book deals with political identity, political legitimation, political affiliation, and political adherence in Angola’s central highlands in the postindependence period. It follows two main lines of sequential argument. The first contends that conflict is less an expression of preexisting grievances and identity differences than a mechanism that produces grievances and differences. The second supports two distinct and related discourses on independence/postindependence political identity and political legitimacy: one assigns political identity to individuals on the basis of the political-military control of an area (territorialization of identity); the other defines the legitimacy of a political movement in terms of the provision of health and education services and the guarantee of essential goods.

At the time of independence, most people in the central highlands saw the MPLA (Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola) and UNITA (União Nacional para a Independência Total de Angola) as two entities of the same nature, competing for popular allegiance, and neither a priori more worthy than the other. The creation and sustenance of ideas of grievance and identity became politically manipulated and neither movement, in its quest for hegemony, tolerated the expression of dissent, giving rise to two different and mutually exclusive versions of the Angolan nation. From independence onward, people’s reaction to the manipulation of grievance was influenced by such factors as people’s occupation, location, experience of events, and previous contact with different political ideas. For most of the interviewees of this study, their earliest political consciousness (awareness of being part of a wider nation) was constituted within the narratives of one or the other political movement and only a minority of interviewees had ever been in a position to listen to both sides and to make a choice according to their interests. People’s political identities and sometimes their beliefs changed as a result of their experience of events combined with their exposure to different political narratives throughout the conflict years.

The book is composed of nine chapters. Chapter 1 shows how the repressive character of the colonial state restricted the possibilities of anticolonial mobilization in the central highlands; a fierce struggle between movements for hegemony pushed the people to take sides. Chapter 2 describes the first experience of UNITA at instituting government in central-highlands cities at the end of 1975, while chapter 3 deals with the relationship established between people and the party-state under the MPLA government. Chapter 4 is concerned with the territorialization of political identity amid the forced movement of people on both sides of the conflict. Chapters 5 and 6 analyze UNITA’s strategies to establish a relationship with peasant communities in the central highlands and the attempt to legitimate its statehood and government aspirations with the creation of the city of Jamba in the Southeast during the 1980s. Chapters 7 and 8 deal with the changing context in 1992 whereby UNITA lost the material resources to sustain its legitimacy in the eyes of its followers. Chapter 9 holds that the war winner, MPLA, took advantage of its military victory and resources to support its hegemony and legitimacy on the same bases as established during the war.   

Chapter 1 starts by briefly recovering the recurrent theme in the literature of Angolan nationalism, the possible explanations for the late development of nationalist political activity in the central highlands, and considers the ambiguous position of the central highlands and its people in the creation of Angolan national identity. Despite the grievance caused by the political, social, and economic changes of the Estado Novo (1926-74) by the 1940s (land reform that saw million hectares transferred to Portuguese ownership), there was no political mobilization. This is explained here by the state’s repressive nature and the absence of political structures in which Africans could participate, thereby cementing the elite character of anticolonial thought and action in Angola. Complementarily, the post-1961 reforms had allowed for a less oppressive system, improving living conditions and thereby hampering political mobilization. Such an argument also serves to explain why between its foundation in 1966 and the Portuguese coup in 1974, UNITA remained in the bush of Moxico hundreds of kilometers from its political heartland. After the Portuguese Carnation Revolution of April 1974, the way in which the liberation movements engaged with Angolan society further contributed to determining the character of postcolonial politics in Angola, both in its regional differentiation and its elite character. During the years 1974 and 1975, political and military events determined, first, an association between political movements and territory, and second, the assignation of identity to people on the basis of the movement that controlled the territory where they lived (territorialization of political identity).

Chapter 2 shows that in 1974-75 UNITA nurtured a preference for urban-based state building but had to change its strategy as soon as it realized that the balance of military forces was at its disadvantage. As soon as UNITA was able to operate openly, after the signing of the cease-fire with the Portuguese authorities, it rapidly gathered a following among the educated people of towns and missions who began to see UNITA as a political realization of a nationalism rooted in the central highlands. UNITA’s leader, Jonas Savimbi, implemented a strategy that included both a class of skilled professionals who would contribute to UNITA’s project of building legitimacy through service provision and a class of farmers who would allow the movement to maintain a presence over much of rural Angola and support the movement with food. These tensions in UNITA’s character would persist throughout the conflict. In logical consequence to the argument that conflict is less an expression of preexisting grievances and identity differences than a mechanism that produces grievances and differences, this chapter ends up contending that modern identity dynamics essentially started at independence, also explaining why the book is centered on postindependence dynamics, insofar as political identity and conflict are concerned.

Chapter 3 shortly summarizes previous publications on the MPLA’s state making,[1] stressing the fact that it was essentially rooted in urban centers, with an all-encompassing discourse on the Angolan nation, rejecting references to ethnicity or race and defining citizenship linked to the MPLA-led state-building project. However, acceptance of the MPLA account of nationhood was contingent on people having an experience of a process of urban state building and being contained in a secure zone, where violence was seen as defensive. This contradiction between inclusivity and exclusivity shaped the attitude of state officials toward people who lived beyond the perimeter of the towns.

Chapter 4 explores the processes through which political identities were constituted and assigned at the margins of the state’s control, dealing with the contradictions of how these identities were established: on the one hand, political identities were assigned on the basis where one was; on the other, they had to be demonstrated by obeying and “collaborating.” Government discourse categorized people primarily on the basis of whether they were “government people” or “UNITA people.” Change of location could transform them into government people. The relationship between the government and people in its areas were based on the provision of goods, humanitarian assistance, and security, protecting them against an enemy that had to be feared. Nationalist ideology with which the MPLA sought legitimacy required the presence of UNITA as an enemy, whose foreign and colonial links the MPLA emphasized.

Chapter 5 considers the ways in which UNITA sought to build a political relationship with the people of the central highlands between 1976 and the peace process of the 1990s, disaggregating the idea of UNITA people, showing how UNITA discourses created different categories of identity within the areas it controlled, a distinction that has its origins in the dual strategy of elite and peasant mobilization discussed in chapter 2. A distinction is made here between three broad categories: UNITA’s leadership, the people who had accompanied UNITA’s columns that left the towns, and the peasant farmers who lived in the zones under UNITA’s attempted or effectively established control. The merging of political and military functions was characteristic of UNITA’s organization, much more than the MPLA. UNITA’s quest for legitimacy required it to present the MPLA as an alien enemy against which UNITA had to defend the people, also stimulating fear among the population, just like the MPLA did in relation to UNITA. Likewise, UNITA attempted to provide (at varying degrees, times, and places) basic health and education services, similarly to the MPLA. The relationship established by UNITA with rural people in the late 1970s and 1980s was based on consent as well as on force. In contrast to more active participants in UNITA’s work, peasant farmers seldom acknowledged UNITA to be inherently more worthy of their support than the MPLA or any other political movement. An interesting quotation from Savimbi in this chapter seems to contradict the previously stressed argument in the book regarding grievances and identity differences. UNITA’s leader is quoted saying that “You are trying to get a man to switch from thinking of himself as a Cuanhama to thinking of himself first as an Angolan, It’s very complicated,” proving that other dimensions of social identity, with political relevance, were in place before and despite the movements’ discourses, elites’ manipulation, and conflict.

Chapter 6 explains how the implementation of Jamba in southeastern Angola as some kind of a permanent capital served to sustain UNITA’s aspirations to legitimate statehood. UNITA tried to present Jamba as a modern, bureaucratic, and service-oriented state. However, the author stresses two areas of difference in the ways the MPLA and UNITA operated in the areas they controlled. The first has to do with the ways in which the two parties militarily and politically exploited the forced movement of people. As for the professional people, the MPLA and UNITA had similar intentions; both needed their skills to provide the services on which their political legitimacy depended. As for the villagers, while UNITA needed young men for the military life or to carry material, the MPLA wanted to secure that they were not with UNITA. The second difference follows Christine Messiant’s argument, maintaining that UNITA’s rule was more totalitarian than that of the MPLA.[2] The society governed by the MPLA in the cities was the heir to colonial society in its complexity, and social organization under the MPLA involved greater differentiation of social categories.

According to the author, the fact that Jamba was positioned as a conduit for foreign assistance (from the South African apartheid regime and the United States) did not prevent people from invoking it as a symbol of UNITA’s achievement. On the contrary, foreign connections were a symbol of UNITA’s legitimacy. The end of this chapter unintentionally reveals a major unexplored aspect of political legitimacy in this book. Contrary to what is argued, political legitimacy from the “people’s perspective” also had an external (international) dimension, proving that domestic and international dimensions are present in people’s perspectives of political legitimacy, something that did not start at independence.

Chapter 7 explains how the previous character of the conflict between a rural guerrilla movement and an urban state changed in 1993, after the failure of the electoral process and the resumption of armed conflict in 1992, thereby allowing UNITA to enter the cities for the first time since its retreat in 1976. When UNITA took control of such towns as Kuito and Huambo, it failed as an urban governing party. By the time it retreated from those cities in 1994, many of those who had retained sympathy for the movement after 1976 had changed their opinion once they had experienced the way in which UNITA governed the towns and treated the people who lived in them in the early 1990s. The author discusses situational shifts in political identity, concluding that in the countryside as in the cities, people’s responses to UNITA depended on their particular history of politicization by either or both of the political movements and on the pattern of military action and territorial occupation in the areas where they lived.

Chapter 8 examines local politics on rural parts of the central highlands from the elections until the end of the war in 2002. It demonstrates continuities in UNITA’s relationship with rural people in the central highlands from the 1980s to the 1990s. However, as the government regained the military initiative in the late 1990s, a weakened UNITA was no longer able to sustain its civilian functions and struggled to keep control of people by force alone, eroding its political legitimacy. The chapter concludes that people’s understanding of and responses to events in the last two years of the war are shaped by the same two distinct and related discourses on political identity and political legitimacy that characterize the preceding periods. The first assigns political identity to an individual on the basis of the political-military control of an area; the second defines the legitimacy of a political movement in terms of the provision of health and education services and the guarantee of essential goods.

Five broad and interrelated factors influenced how people interpreted and responded to their experience of the contestation of power during the years that followed the 1992 elections. First, people were affected by their prior ideological affiliation and second, by their closeness to or involvement in the MPLA-led state-building process; being related to the state structures meant a relationship with the party (both were closely identified). Third, they were influenced by the extent to which they were dependent on an urban economy, in which the MPLA was the most important investor, employer, and guarantor of livelihoods. Fourth, the dichotomy between town and countryside in ideational rather than economic terms was a factor; the discourse that linked political identity to geographical space merged with the discourse about the differences in style and capability between the MPLA and UNITA. Fifth, people were affected by the nature and circumstances of their encounters with UNITA and with the MPLA. Levels of deprivation and threat of arbitrary violence or punishment experienced during UNITA’s control of the cities changed the views of people who had previously been inclined toward UNITA on ideological grounds; when UNITA took control of the cities in 1993 it had no capacity to maintain order and to provide basic goods.

Chapter 9 argues that although the events of the 1990s changed how people in the central highlands perceived the MPLA and UNITA, people interpreted events in the 1990s on the same terms in which politics had been understood throughout the course of the war since before independence. On both sides of the civil war, each political elite leading the respective political group worked to convince people that it represented their interests, and each elite enjoyed some success in doing so. The ending of the war and the terms in which it occurred (with a military victory) created the conditions for a “single elite” to make its control hegemonic, branding its opponents as threats to a peaceful consensus that is then portrayed as the gift of the MPLA.

Given that political identity was so closely bound up with military control, the bringing of people into government-controlled areas made them “people of the government.” Had these people remained where they were, or even if they had been resettled as intact communities in government-controlled areas, this would have allowed the survival of communities whose common understanding of their place in Angolan history had been inherited from what they had learned from UNITA. Their subsequent dispersal to towns and villages throughout Angola made them an identifiable minority in communities where the hegemonic discourse was centered on the MPLA version. Moreover, in this chapter, the author states that his findings can also be useful to understand the rest of the country, saying that although the villages of the central highlands are clearly not representative of Angola, the understandings of politics based on the experience of the war persist also in the ideologies that are articulated at the national level and in the cities, even if not in the same way as in villages.

In sum, this book forms an interesting attempt to adapt Messiant’s dynamic perspective on conflict and identity in Angola on the central plateau, shifting away from the usual focus on the international, regional, ethno-linguistic, and ideological dimensions of the conflict. In an original manner, it tries to move away from the elites’ prism, focusing instead on “people’s” perspective. But contrary to Messiant, it limits the analytical timeframe to a shorter period (essentially postindependence). However, the book overemphasizes such analytical options while disregarding other broader sociological and historical dimensions as provided by Messiant and other authors.[3] Thus, we end up with the idea that the war, its legitimizing ideologies, politically manipulated identities, and dynamics were simply the work of elites and their foreign allies, imposed on the Angolan “people,” for whom the MPLA and UNITA were two entities of the same nature, competing for popular allegiance while neither was a priori more worthy than the other for “the people.”

The author deals with nationalism in the ways in which it was deployed as a political tool by UNITA and the MPLA and to the extent to which these politicized nationalisms shaped people’s national and political consciousness. He explains that he did not delve into those aspects of nationalism in the sense of a developing national consciousness that took place independently of the ideologies put forward by the rival nationalist movements. In a footnote, he refers to Marissa J. Moorman’s workIntonations: Asocial History of Music and Nation in Luanda, Angola, from 1945 to Recent Times (2008), which identifies cultural and nationalist tendencies that developed independently of the three political movements usually associated with Angolan nationalism.

In fact, those aspects of nationalism are absent from this book’s approach insofar as it delves into a specific region throughout a particular period and dimension (despite the author’s intention to extrapolate the findings to the rest of the country). However, it is difficult to discuss political identity and conflict in postindependence Angola while disregarding such processes. This is especially the case if one is trying to understand how people’s national and political consciousness was shaped, while at the same time aiming to fill the research gap on the internal dimension of militarized politics during this period. As commonly noted in Angola,[4] as well as in Moorman’s brilliantly studied cultural processes, the war (including the international dimension and involvement) and the army on both sides of the conflict (beyond the ideology associated with the two sides) also had a major—even though unintended—impact on such independent national consciousness processes and dynamics. Such processes and dynamics effectively occurred in parallel, and not in exclusion to several other dimensions of social identity that did not disappear (regional and ethno-linguistic).   

Even if we can all agree that the early literature on the Angolan conflict wrongly overemphasized ethno-linguistic and regional factors, we cannot simply move to the other extreme whereby these dimensions of social identity were mere political creations and manipulations of political elites, or consider that the essential of postindependence social identities started with the independence conflict (anticolonial and between movements). A quick read of Pepetela’s novels on the northern and eastern front, such as Mayombe (1980) and Geração da Utopia (1992), as well as several testimonies of guerrilla commanders (for example, interviews with Daniel Chipenda on the Angolan National Radio in 1991[5] and several MPLA political indoctrination documents on its guerrilla campaigns[6]) would reveal a very different perspective and expectations at the level of peasant communities and guerrilheiros of peasant origin. 

Besides the above quote from Savimbi, it is rather strange that not a single interviewee refers to ethno-linguistic-regional identities throughout the book. This should have raised the suspicion of the interviewer, rather than simply maintaining that such identities are manipulated by political elites for political purposes and that political identity and legitimacy are essentially related to where people were based and to the services and goods provided by each side. Interpretations of interviews and interviewees’ perspectives lack a methodological discussion taking into account the context in which such interviews took place, namely, the election year with an aggressive electoral campaign in the central highlands (2008) and the year after elections (2009), the first after the humiliating electoral defeat to the already militarily humiliated UNITA. These were the very first elections following twenty-seven years of civil war. Interviews undertaken within such an abnormal context would require some methodological discussion at the beginning of the book.

The interpretation provided does not render credit to the great complexity of social and political identities in Angolan history. The book has an overlapping and interchangeable use of ill-defined concepts, such as political identity, political affiliation, political adherence, and political legitimacy. The study of processes of political legitimation through the movements’ agency and the relationship between political movements and people in postindependence central highlands up to the end of the civil war would be a rather more adequate characterization of the book’s effective scope rather than political identity. Political identity is a much more complex reality for study in Angola and in the central highlands, requiring a deeper historically rooted approach, broader in chronological scope and socio-geographic dimensions (several dimensions of social identity and regional dynamics) and the use of sounder concepts. Historical processes of political identity (with more continuities than ruptures) cannot briefly start in the 1960s (or even in the 1950s) and even less with the 1974-75 dynamics as its modern foundation. Important hints were left by the anthropologist Ruy Duarte de Carvalho that imply going further back in the history of this region and its peoples and their relations with northeastern and southwestern peoples as well as their relationship with the Portuguese vis-à-vis the processes of creolization in the central North.[7]

Finally, a recurrent problem throughout the book concerns the lack of any demographic data, even approximate figures. The reader fails to get the slightest idea of approximate numbers or relative proportions of the different segments of people when the author refers to the peasants with UNITA, the skilled workers, the town dwellers, UNITA’s military and their families, UNITA’s demobilized soldiers and their families in quartering areas, etc. The preliminary results of the Angolan census, which were published in 2014, could have been mentioned as well as the official data provided by the Ministry of Defense, the Ministry of Interior, and the Ministry of Assistance and Social Reinsertion (MINARS) on UNITA’s demobilized soldiers, families, and “people” in quartering areas. An interesting study dealing with the demobilization process written by J. Gomes Porto, Imogen Parsons, and Chris Alden (From Soldiers to Citizens: The Social, Economic and Political Integration of UNITA Ex-Combatants [2007]) contains significant data and sources that could have been explored. It would also have been interesting to cross-check such data with the electoral registry in each central-highlands province and municipality in 2008 and the electoral results of each municipality and province as well as the numbers provided by the MPLA recruitment campaign in the central highlands throughout the electoral campaign of 2008. Similar data could have been obtained from the 2012 electoral process. A bibliography at the end of the book would also have been of much use to the reader.

This said, it is important to stress that Justin Pearce’s book is an important contribution to the relatively poorly studied Angolan central plateau’s political and military postindependence dynamics, having been able to conduct a rich and intensive program of interviews in that area, mainly in 2008 and 2009. His contribution and research efforts are most welcome, and this will certainly be a valuable reference to the study of Angola’s postindependence in the central highlands.


[1]. See Christine Messiant, 1961—L’Angola coloniale, histoire et société. Les prémisses du mouvement nationaliste (Paris and Basel: P. Schlettwein Publishing, 2006), based on Messiant’s PhD dissertation (1983); Christine Messiant, “Angola, les voies de l’ethnisation et de la décomposition. I: De la guerre à la paix (1975-1991),” Lusotopie 1 (1994): 155-210; Christine Messiant, “Transição para o multipartidarismo sem transição para a democracia. A economia política de Angola – sistema político formal e sistema político real, 1980-2004: A reconversão duma dominação hegemónica,” in O Processo de Transição para o Multipartidarismo em Angola, ed. Nuno Vidal and Justino Pinto de Andrade (Lisbon and Luanda: Universidade Católica de Angola and Universidade de Coimbra, 2006), 131-161; Jean-Michel Mabéko-Tali, “Dissidences et pouvoir d’etat: Le MPLA face a lui-même (1962–1977),” 2 vols. (PhD diss., Université de Paris 7, 1996) (This dissertation was published in Portuguese as Dissidência e Poder de Estado: O MPLA perante si próprio [1962-1977] [Luanda: Nzila, 2001]); and Nuno Vidal, “The Angolan Regime and the Move to Multiparty Politics,” in Angola: The Weight of History, ed. Patrick Chabal and Nuno Vidal (New York and London: Hurst and Columbia University Press, 2007), 124-174.  

[2]. Messiant, “Angola, les voies de l’ethnisation et de la décomposition.”

[3]. See David Birmingham, “Angola Revisited,” Journal of Southern African Studies 15 (1988): 1-14; David Birmingham, “Carnival at Luanda,” Journal of African History 29 (1988): 93-103; Marcelo Bittencourt, 'Estamos Juntos!’ O MPLA e a luta anticolonial (1961-1974), 2 vols. (Luanda: Kilombelombe, 2008); William Gervase Clarence-Smith, “Class Structure and Class Struggles in Angola in the 1970s,” Journal of Southern African Studies 7 (1980): 109-126; William Gervase Clarence-Smith, “Le problème ethnique en Angola,” in Les Ethnies ont une histoire, ed. Jean-Pierre Chrétien and Gérard Prunier (Paris: Karmale–AECT, 1989): 405-415; Franz Wilhelm Heimer, The Decolonization Conflict in Angola: An Essay in Political Sociology (Geneva: Institut Universitaire de Hautes Études Internationales, 1979); and Franz Wilhelm Heimer, “Formation Sociale, Developpement Economique et Option Socialiste en Angola,” Genève-Afrique 18 (1980): 31-43.

[4]. Ruy Duarte de Carvalho, O que não ficou por dizer… (Luanda: Chá de Caxinde, 2011).

[5]. The Angolan historian Maria da Conceição Neto did a remarkable and useful job transcribing these interviews and kindly made them available to the author.

[6]. Some of these documents can be found at the special collections archive at the SOAS library and at the British Library in London.

[7]. Ruy Duarte de Carvalho, Aviso à navegação (Luanda: INALD, 1997); Ruy Duarte de Carvalho, Os Kuvale na História, nas Guerras e nas Crises (Luanda: Nzila, 2002); and Ruy Duarte de Carvalho, “Figuras, figurões e figurantes na cena democrática Angolana - papéis, marcações e desempenhos,” in O Processo de Transição para o Multipartidarismo em Angola, 99-104.

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Citation: Nuno Vidal. Review of Pearce, Justin, Political Identity and Conflict in Central Angola, 1975-2002. H-Luso-Africa, H-Net Reviews. February, 2017. URL:

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