Yovanka Perdigao says that David Birmingham’s latest book is an excellent guide to those seeking an introduction to Angola’s history.
Angola has made the international headlines numerous times, whether through its abundant resources to more recent human rights violations and corruption scandals along with the Dos Santos family’ strong grip. However the country remains a mystery to the Anglophone world much like the rest of the Lusophone countries. Histories of its mythical Queen Nzinga, a fierce opponent to Portuguese dominance, to its bloody independence struggle followed by a 30-year civil war are at best what most know of Angola.
David Birmingham’s A Short History of Modern Angola demystifies this narrative. It is the perfect starting point for those unfamiliar with the country’s history. The book charts the southern African country’s past from Portugal’s imperial ambitions to the birth of modern Angola. Birmingham leads us through these historical developments using anecdotes from a host of diverse characters, therefore giving us an intimate feel of the country’s history. He also successfully ties the changing political landscape of Portugal and its European counterparts and its impact in Angola and neighbouring ex-colonies.
He excels in highlighting issues of race and class identities, whom despite their enormous impact on the Angolan nationalistic movements is too often disregarded in modern Angola. It should be noted that many white Portuguese settlers joined these movements such as the internationally acclaimed writer Pepetela.
The other side of this narrative, is that for many other Angolan white settlers and elites in Portugal the end of colonialism did not bode well with them. Salazar’s refusal to let go of Angola, his violent secret police, and the inhumane conditions of labour and subsequent famines precipitated black uprisings during the late 50s and 60s. This caused widespread panic in the white settler community who was unwilling to concede to an independent Angola that featured black leadership, this resulted in further violence. Birmingham narrates how the resulting independence movements such as the MPLA, FNLA, UNITA that emerged soon after receiving support from neighbouring African countries as well as the main actors of the Cold War. While some were American and Chinese backed, others were backed the Soviet Union’s support which led to the split and divisions and later competing interests in resources that brought a bitter 30 year old conflict.
Birmingham’s portrayal of Angola in the seventies and eighties is also to be commended. The chapter aptly named “The Struggle of the Seventies” explores in depth the conflict of ideologies between old and new generations between Luanda’s elites set during Angola and Congo’s many conflicts. The “Survival in the Eighties” chapter discusses the rise of dos Santos and the end of Jonas Savimbi’s UNITA.
The remaining chapters depicting the postwar period offers a glimpse into the disconnect between elites and the everyday people, a reality that Angola today meekly accepts. This is further reinforced through Birmingham’s portrayal of the predatory nature of Angola’s elite. Interestingly the current economic crisis is also featured in the last chapters of the book. The crisis, which was precipitated by mismanagement and a drop in oil revenues, coincided with an increase of political repression from President dos Santos. This is particularly relevant for those seeking to understand recent corruption scandals and the jailing of the 17 Angolan activists earlier this year.
Although one can see Birmingham’s book as too ambitious in trying to paint a complete picture of every historical phase, the title excuses it. The book is merely a guide to those seeking an introduction to Angola’s history. It should be seen as an opportunity to pursue further enquiry into the historical dynamics and connections, highlighted in the book, that continue to shape Angola’s present.
A Short History of Modern Angola. David Birmingham. 2015. Hurst Publishers.
Yovanka Paquete Perdigao is a writer inspired by issues of trauma, race and gender. She currently works as the Africa Research Institute’s Communications Officer.
The views expressed in this post are those of the authors and in no way reflect those of the Africa at LSE blog or the London School of Economics and Political Science.