Angola - Background information

Natural history
People and culture


Fortaleza de São Miguel, Angola by rosn123, ShutterstockThe Forteleza de São Miguel was built in 1576 by Luanda's founder, the Portuguese explorer Paulo Dias de Novais © rosn123, Shutterstock

Abridged from the History section in Angola: The Bradt Guide

Early independence movements

The first nationalist movement to demand independence – the Party of the United Struggle for Africans in Angola – emerged in 1953. A couple of years later in 1955, the Angolan Communist Party was formed and was followed by the MPLA (the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola) in around 1956 (the exact dates are unclear). The MPLA was made up of a number of smaller resistance movements and was later to become the dominant party, seizing power on independence and holding on to it to this day. The MPLA received support from the USSR and was led by Agostinho Neto from 1962 until his death in 1979. The second major movement, the FNLA (National Front for the Liberation of Angola) followed in 1961. Its leader was Holden Roberto (who was related by marriage to Mobutu Sésé Seko of Zaire). The movement was to later fracture because of Roberto’s refusal to merge his organisation with other independence groups and is now a spent political force. The last major player to emerge was UNITA (the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola) in around 1966. Post independence, UNITA waged a bloody war with the MPLA which only ended after the death of its leader, Jonas Savimbi, in 2002. Almost immediately afterwards, UNITA eschewed violence and turned to mainstream politics. However, popular support was lacking and the party was trounced in the elections of 2008.

There were three triggers that led to the commencement of a 30-year Armed Struggle (or Luta Armada in Portuguese); a major rebellion of cotton workers in Malanje in January 1961; an attempt to free political prisoners from a jail in Luanda in February of the same year; and the brutal repression and massacre by the Portuguese of thousands in the Baixa de Cassange region of the northeast where tens of thousands were killed or died of starvation. Many more fled the violence and sought refuge in Zaire. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s instability spread through the country and the independence groups organised themselves better, set up training camps, and sought foreign assistance and finances. Their fatal flaw, however, was that although they had a common purpose – the independence of Angola – they were completely unable to work together to achieve that aim.

Personal power came before the wider interest of independence and as a result, internal squabbling and tension between the various groups kept the insurgency at guerrilla level which the Portuguese army, with its superior firepower, was just about able to keep under control.

Natural history

Angolan colobus, Angola by tourpics_nt, ShutterstockThe Angolan colobus monkey is exclusively arboreal and able to jump up to 30m high © tourpics_nt, Shutterstock


Angola is home to at least 8,000 plant species, of which 1,260 are endemics – the second-highest level of endemicism in Africa. Almost half of the country, including the inland plateau areas of Moxico, Bié, Malanje and Lunda Norte, is covered by open tropical woodland or miombo. The remaining 30% of the country is covered in savannas or dry tropical woodlands; 5% of the inland plateau and the provinces of Huambo, Bié, Kwanza Sul and Huíla are covered in grassland and meadow; and about 2% of the country is tropical rainforest or maiombe. The maiombe forests spread from the Democratic Republic of Congo through to Cabinda and the Congo River Basin and contain rare tropical woods such as blackwood, ebony and sandalwood. Small pockets of rainforest still exist in Uíge and Lunda Norte, but they are under threat from agriculture and logging. Finally, the desert takes up less than 0.5% of the country and is confined to the Namibe Desert along the coast in the far southwest. Other types of vegetation include the Afro-montane forest that occurs only above 2,000m and the mopane woodlands – a dry area of woodland and savanna in Cuando Cubango and Cunene provinces. Mopane takes its name from a single-stemmed tree with distinctive butterfly shaped leaves.


Wildlife experts reckon that Angola is home to 275 mammal species, 78 amphibian species, 227 reptile species (of which 19 are endemic), 915 bird species and over 300 insect species. 

Travelling around the country you are very likely to see monkeys, many different birds, butterflies and crocodiles (lines of thorns on a riverbank or lakeside are a sure sign of crocodiles as villagers use them to keep the crocs away). Snakes and scorpions are common, especially in the south, though they are rarely seen as they scuttle away when they sense the vibration of human footsteps. 

People and culture

Himba girl, Angola by Eric LafforgueA Himba girl performs a traditional dance © Eric Lafforgue

Books and films

Angola has a rich literary tradition and an important genre has long been political poetry – the former president Agostinho Neto was a prolific poet. Sadly, few Angolan authors have had their works translated into English.

Music and dance

The musical highlight of the year is the annual Luanda Jazz Festival which takes place on the last weekend of July each year. Another festival to look out for is the Luanda Blue Fest, which looks set to become a regular annual fixture featuring national and international hip-hop and kuduru stars. 

Angolans take every opportunity to dance, and the louder the music, the better. During the war, entertainment venues, transport and money were in short supply so local, impromptu neighbourhood parties became popular as a means of escaping the daily drudge of life. The passion for loud parties continues today – as soon as you see gigantic loudspeakers being hoisted on to roof tops, reach for your industrial-strength ear plugs. Parties often continue well into the night, finishing after breakfast or even after lunch the following day. For those living nearby it can be musical torture as the thump-thump of the bass shakes houses and even penetrates the upper storeys of hotel rooms, making it utterly impossible to sleep.

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