Angola’s Holden Roberto and Post-Violence Planning

Holden Roberto had founded in 1958 the Uniao des Populacoes de Angola (UPA) which became after 1961 the Frente Nacional de Libertacao de Angola (FNLA). It was basically a Bakongo organization although it stressed a trans-tribal ideology. 1960 was a key period for the Bakongo people who live in the area where the Congo river meets the Atlantic. The Bakongo are divided among three states: the Democratic Republic of Congo (ex-Zaire), Congo (Brazzaville) and Angola. Although divided into many separate tribes, the Bakongo speak a common language and claim a common ancestry. In 1960-1961, the Belgium and French Congos became independent with Joseph Kasavubu, a Bakongo cultural leader, becoming President of the former Belgium Congo. In the former French Congo, Bakongo leaders held important positions in the first independent government. There was a good deal of discussion among the Bakongo at the time of mutual cooperation and the possibility of re-creating the pre-colonial Bakongo Kingdom.

In Angola, there were Bakongo men who had worked in the French and Belgium colonies and who were inspired by the creation of political parties and the granting of independence. There were two tendencies among the Bakongo wanting independence from Portugal. One was the movement led by Holden Roberto which wanted an independent Angola and the other war the Frente de Libertacao do Enclave de Cabinda (FLEC) which wanted Cabinda to become an independent state although most members of the FLEC were also ethnic Bakongo

Holden Roberto had spent most of his life until 1958 in the Belgium Congo, where his father had gone to work. Holden had been active in Protestant youth movements and was influenced both by the Bakongo cultural revival and the start of political movements in the Congo. Angola, in his view, was asleep under the Portuguese dictatorship and needed both a cultural revival of the Bakongo and political movements. Thus, he returned to Angola where he was born and created a Bakongo cultural movement on the model of those in the Belgium Congo.

The Portuguese authorities did not want ethnic-based cultural revivals. The Portuguese had a policy of integration of mesticos (mixed White-Blacks) and a small number of Blacks into Portuguese culture through education. In order to block any discussion of independence, in 1962 all Angolans were declared Portuguese citizens and Angola a province of Portugal – no longer a colony. The Portuguese reforms came too late, and the early 1960s saw the beginning of the armed insurgencies which lasted until 1975 when Portugal withdrew from Africa after the 1974 end of its dictatorship.

The insurgencies in Angola were largely structured on ethnic-tribal lines, although each made claims to national, supra-tribal leadership. Holden Roberto took Jonas Savimbi, a member of the large Ovimbundu ethnic group of the southeast, but a fellow Protestant, as a symbol of the multi-tribal nature of his movement. Later, Jonas Savimbi (1934-2004) broke with Holden Roberto to found his own Uriao Nacional para a Independencia Total de Angola (UNITA) based on the Ovimbundu. The break between the two men came from Holden Roberto’s reluctance to move beyond his Bakongo base. Roberto hoped to gain support from the Bakongo in Zaire. He divorced his wife in order to make a "dynastic marriage " with the sister-in-law of Zaire’s Mobutu.

The third major insurgency was the Movimento Popular de Libertacao de Angola (MPLA) largely based on the mixed society of the capitol Luanda as well as on the neighboring ethnic group, the Mbundu. In the end, despite splits in the leadership, it was the MPLA which won out. Mobutu had withdrawn his support from Holden Roberto in exchange for financial accords with the MPLA. (1)

The death of Holden Roberto brings back memories of helping train Angolans in Europe in the 1960s and current efforts by the United Nations on post-violence planning. In 1967, I had been asked to help organize in Geneva a training session for Angolan students in Europe, members of the different independence movements. The students were in different countries and had little opportunity for face-to-face discussions. Ideological and ethnic differences were creating ever deeper divisions. The MPLA students had scholarships to the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Jonas Savimbi who later led UNITA had been a student of political science at the University of Lausanne until 1965 and had spent more of his time as a political organizer than reading textbooks. He often came to discuss with students at the institute in Geneva where I was teaching. Among my own students, there were a good number of Bakongo Angolans linked to Holden Roberto.

I had called upon Algerians who had become important civil servants in Algeria but who had spent some of the Algerian War years (1954-1962) in Switzerland and nearby France. They had the experience of taking over a governmental administration after a war when all the French civil servants had left. In nearly all the other transitions from French colony to independent state, plans had been made well in advance – at least since 1958 – and many French civil servants stayed on as technical assistants or advisors.

We could see that the transition in Angola would be the result of a violent struggle and that few, if any, Portuguese civil servants would stay on to advise on a smooth transition. In addition to the seminars given as part of the training course, the Angolans stayed up late at night to discuss among themselves. To what extent they were able to reach any common analysis or common positions, I do not know. Most of my Angolan students returned to Angola at Independence. Some were disappointed as I found them again in Geneva working for the United Nations or for NGOs.

I recall our training course as currently the United Nations and its newly created Peace-building Commission is stressing the need for post-violence planning. The process is often called, unfortunately, post-conflict planning. There is, usually, no end to conflicts; there is an end to armed violence. One needs to prepare seriously for such a post-violence period. These are often "uncharted waters". The conflicts which led to the violence continue. Individuals who have been fighting are not necessarily prepared to be administrators. One current example: despite the fact that large sections of south Sudan were already under the control of the south Sudan insurgency (SPLA), putting into place a civil administration in southern Sudan after the 2005 peace accord has been difficult and slower than expected. Thus there is the need to begin post-violence planning for Darfur even if we have no idea of how long violence will continue.

Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have a vital role in supporting societies emerging from conflicts. Greater analysis of the vast growth of NGO activity is needed. There is a need to improve the relations between NGOs and the UN system in post-violence reconstruction and reconciliation. There is a need to evaluate how to improve both political will and access to resources as well as planning relations to local NGOs. Thus, there is a need for NGOs to participate actively with the UN system in planning for post-violence efforts.

The post-Independence armed struggle for power in Angola prevented ecologically-sound development. The weak physical and human infrastructure was made weaker and the ideological and ethnic divisions prevented a common approach. It is not likely that prior planning would have overcome all these weaknesses nor healed all the wounds of war. However, planning and related training can build a framework in which positive action is possible.

(1)For a useful analysis of the Angolan insurgencies and the lead up to Independence see the two-volume history by John Marcum:

John Marcum. The Angolan Revolution: The Anatomy of an Explosion 1950-1962

John Marcum. The Angolan Revolution: Exile Politics and Guerrilla Warfare 1962-1976 (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press)

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Rene Wadlow is the Editor of and an NGO representative to the United Nations, Geneva.