Africa Notes: The Politics of Survival - UNITA in Angola - February 1983
February 18, 1983
In early 1976, the remnants of an ill-trained peasant army retreated into the vast wilderness of southeast Angola. Its rivals, spearheaded by a Soviet-armed Cuban expeditionary force, drove the army's several thousand disheveled soldiers into the sanctuary of a sparsely peopled savannah from which they had earlier waged a protracted, small-scale guerrilla war against Portuguese colonial rule. There, most observers expected the army slowly to disintegrate.
Over time, however, the world heard just often enough of ambush and sabotage by rusticated insurgents of the União Nacional para a Independência Total de Angola (UNITA) to know that they survived as a political and military force. In 1983, seven years after defeat in the 1975-76 war, UNITA leaders and guerrillas not only survive as a reality to be reckoned with inside Angola. They have become a significant factor in the complicated quest for an internationally sanctioned political settlement in Namibia.
What is this UNIT A that refused to die and instead continues to challenge the rule of its victorious rival, the Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola (MPLA)? An anti-communist "Cinderella" force for national liberation? A tribalist, racist movement whose Faustian leadership sold its soul to South Africa? To answer these and less tendentious questions, it may help to look behind partisan debate to the origins, character, and history of UNIT A.