Any ethnic group whose homeland is in another country dreams of independence. Now Scotland wants it after the UK elections, Reepublika Srpska in Bosnia wants it, Catalonia wants it, Kashmir wants it. What independence actually means is left to the prospective new country to work out for itself. The trouble is, they never do.
Most countries like to think that their problems are entirely their own, the product of the local situation, not pattern of a general pattern which afflicts newly independent countries. They also like to think they can become another Estonia – take advantage of the international situation, get accepted into NATO or the equivalent, improve living standards and never be heard of again.
But the model all wannabe independent states should look at is not even in Europe. More than any other state, Angola expresses in microcosm what all independent states will have to go through sooner or later. It isn’t a pretty sight, but it is the very sight the idea of independence consistently blinds people to. If you think you aren’t Angola, just wait.
No principles, no victory
Angola was a Portuguese colony until 1975. It fought a long war to gain this independence, and the country therefore sees it as a successful war of liberation against a foreign power.
All of this ignores the fact that the Portuguese were undefeated in the field and were not actually driven out of Angola. Independence was granted because Portugal overthrew its own government in a revolution led by left-wing army officers. These wanted nothing more to do with the war, and took advantage of longstanding public disquiet over the number of Portuguese being sent there to grant the African colonies independence as soon as possible.
There were also problems within Portugal about the expense of the colonial war. However the Portuguese economy grew rapidly throughout the war period. The country still had enough resources to counter the three main Angolan nationalist forces, despite the fact they were being funded by the Soviet Union, China and Israel.
Furthermore, the coup within Portugal was sparked by professional soldiers protesting against people from outside being promoted above them after a brief training course. It was not, in itself, anything to do with the war. In addition, most countries had long given up their own African colonies by 1974, but Portugal was still master in someone else’s home, and still had a 1930s style dictatorship at home when the rest of the world had moved on.
In the context of the time, giving up the colonies and gradually introducing democracy at home were manifestations of inexorable progress. They had nothing to do with Angolans having achieved anything, or having a right to self-determination. Indeed it could not be otherwise, with each nationalist force being sponsored by a foreign power who wanted Angola’s oil, though they hardly had any choice but to seek friends to finance their military operations.
Angola became independent simply because other powers wanted to break up the Portuguese Empire and Portugal underwent internal changes which were nothing to do with Angola. Angolan independence was not a cause other powers believed in. The same has been true in many subsequent independence conflicts, such as South Sudan, Kosovo and Chechnya. The new country gets its own borders, but that does not make it independent.
State building without a state
Of course the Portuguese withdrawal from Angola was followed by a civil war. At one point the Maoist UNITA, backed by China, looked on course to defeat the Marxist MPLA, backed by the Soviet Union and Cuba, and the FNLA, backed by a variety of Western and Eastern bloc countries. Then the Soviets and Cubans sent more resources and military advisers to the MPLA and secured the country for its favourites.
This period is portrayed as Angolans sorting out for themselves what sort of government they wanted. Of course, all the armed groups did what they wanted without consulting the Angolan people. It is very difficult for anyone to claim they are independent when their actions are dictated by whose gun is pointed at them.
Though the FNLA ceased to be a factor after 1975 the defeated UNITA continued to wage a guerrilla war until 2002, even after it had engaged with the political system by taking part in the country’s first multiparty elections in 1992. By this time it had abandoned Maoism and embraced a capitalist ideology in exchange for increasing US support. It also accepted significant support from apartheid-era South Africa, not an obvious position for a black nationalist leader.
Angola remains divided between the MPLA and UNITA – not successor political parties, but the same organisations which conducted the war. The MPLA has become the home of unreconstructed Marxist military advisers who no longer have another place in the world and UNITA is simply anyone who opposes them, whatever their position, as begging has replaced ideology and dependency has replaced even the desire for independence.
There are various nations who don’t have their own state whose causes are genuinely believed in – the Basques, for example, the Kurds, the indigenous peoples of Australia. They don’t have countries of their own precisely because the justice of having them is widely acknowledged. If other countries are prepared to make your independence a reality what you will be left with is a less accountable form of colonialism.
Into the ghetto
Former Kenyan nationalist leader Oginga Odinga liked to say that even if an independent Kenya is a mess it will be our mess and our problem. That is fine, provided you have the range of individuals needed to deal with the problem.
In colonial days countries usually do, as locals are educated and promoted within if they prove their loyalty. This was particularly true in Portuguese Angola, which was theoretically a “province” rather than a colony and where increasing numbers of professionals and even Portuguese Army troops were natives.
As in most such cases there was a political brain drain, with some of the most capable people choosing not to work for Portugal. However there was much less of a civilian brain drain: the perception that Angolans were inferior discouraged them from migrating to Portugal if they had the same Portuguese opportunities back home.
Even the negative aspects of colonial rule, of which there were many, sometimes gave opportunities to their victims. But now Angola is independent Angolans have a different problem. They are obliged to find their own identity in the world of work in order to earn a living.
In Portuguese times their difference from white Portuguese was a local difficulty, others could choose to see them as Portuguese. Now individual Angolans have to be something else, and where they come from is part of their qualification, a prism through which their skills are understood. So whether they like it or not they can only work doing what Angolans are believed to do, regardless of what their talents actually are.
Ghettoisation of employment afflicts many nationalities. For example, Greek Cypriots outside their homeland run food stores or cut hair if they can’t afford to get into shipping, that’s just the way it is. There was no Italian unemployment outside Italy during the Great Depression because Italians all worked for each other making ice cream and serving in Italian restaurants.
Angolans work in the oil industry. Foreign oil companies have been there for generations, have been obliged to use local labour and have thus concluded that Angolans work hard and skilfully. This was clearly a surprise to many of them, as this is presented as a discovery. No one doubted that Portuguese worked when their economy grew prior to Angola’s independence, but despite the fact the same individuals worked there after independence as they did before they have had to establish their credentials all over again.
If you are an Angolan who doesn’t fit in with the oil industry you have another option – if you are old enough. You can use the Portuguese passport that was not taken from you to present yourself to the world as Portuguese, albeit colonial Portuguese. In this way Angolans can still take advantage of the foreign domination they didn’t want, earn money elsewhere and send some home.
Such a practice does not represent independence of course, and it creates a greater brain drain than when Angola was a colony. But the realities of existence as an independent state have taken precedence above all other things. Had they not done, Angola would never have been given the international support to become independent in the first place.
Home sweet home if it’s someone else’s
Most of the countries which were formed after the breakup of the Soviet Union are worse off economically than they were in Soviet times. Most of them expected this, and even those who have improved since then miss some aspects of the Soviet-era system. But none of them want to give up their independence, and new places such as Chechnya, Ingushetia and Daghestan want to join the list of independent states.
Angola went through this process 40 years ago. This means most contemporary Angolans cannot recall the colonial days. They have no personal memory of that era, only the tales of a generation largely in exile or lost in fighting and the official line they have been brought up with. They should therefore be able to create a new state which doesn’t automatically fall into the old patterns. They haven’t been able to do so precisely because they can’t remember the past: they recognise their present condition as Angolan, whereas it remains colonialism in another form.
The main political parties in Angola are still the nationalist armies that fought the war. They have created a native ruling class but are as dependent on foreign support as ever. Involvement with the wartime past is still a plus point for the Angolan politician of today, and no one is interested in funding Angolans to develop alternative parties which reflect general strands of thinking rather than who some external actor wanted to win the civil war.
The residents of Scotland, Republika Srpska, Catalonia or Kashmir may think they have little in common with Angolans. So did those in most of the former Soviet Union and the rest of Africa. They have all ultimately found that they have fallen into the Angolan model because that is the only form of independence the great powers will allow: at their convenience, for their reasons, and as an alternative to actual independence. The roads may look different, but they all lead to the same place.
Seth Ferris, investigative journalist and political scientist, expert on Middle Eastern affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.