Holden Roberto was the founder of the Frente Nacional de Libertação de Angola (FNLA; National Front for the Liberation of Angola), a militant political organization that played a major role in Angola's struggle for independence from Portugal from the 1950s to the 1970s. After achieving independence in 1975, Roberto's organization competed in an extended civil war that lasted until the major combatants formed a peace agreement in 2002. Roberto remained the leader of the FNLA until shortly before his death in 2007 and was posthumously acclaimed by leading members of the Angolan government as one of the most effective and important leaders in Angolan history.
Holden Roberto was born on January 12, 1923, in a portion of northern Angola known as Sao Salvador (now Mbanza Congo), which bordered the Belgian Congo (later Zaïre and then the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1960). Roberto's family was part of the Bakongo ethnic group, one of the region's largest ethnic groups comprising a population of over ten million throughout Angola and the modern-day Democratic Republic of Congo.
In 1925, Roberto's family immigrated to Léopoldville (now Kinshasa), the Belgian Congo, where Roberto's father, Garcia Roberto, worked as a Baptist minister while his mother, Joana Lala Nekaka, remained in the home to care for the couple's children. Roberto attended Baptist elementary and secondary schools and, after his graduation in 1940, took his first job working for the colonial ministry in Léopoldville.
Co-founded Angola's First Independence Movement
Angola had been under Portuguese control since the mid-seventeenth century, and in the 1950s Portugal changed the status of Angola from colonial territory to overseas province, a political decision intended to allow Portugal to maintain possession of the nation for an extended period. In 1951, Roberto decided to visit Angola. During his visit, he witnessed acts of violence perpetrated by Portuguese police on Angolan citizens. In later statements, Roberto claimed that his visit to his homeland convinced him to become involved in the independence movement.
In 1956, Roberto founded the União das Populações do Norte de Angola (UPNA; Union of the North Angolan Population), which was later renamed the União das Populações de Angola (UPA; Union of the Angolan Population). Roberto served as the head of the organization from 1960 to 1962, during which time he studied independence movements in other African nations. In 1958, Roberto attended a meeting of nationalist leaders in Ghana, during which he met with leaders from other African nations struggling for independence, including Patrice Lumumba of the Congo, who remained one of Roberto's closest friends and allies until Lumumba's assassination in 1961. In addition, Roberto gained strength for his organization by forming an alliance with fellow Angolan revolutionary Jonas Savimbi.
Though Roberto and Savimbi's UPNA is often cited as the nation's first independence movement, at the time of its foundation, the communist and socialist parties of Angola were also forming an alternative independence group, the Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola (MPLA; Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola), which advocated independence under a socialist system. The MPLA, under the leadership of writer and statesman Viriato da Cruz, struggled against the Portuguese government and against Roberto's faction, which advocated transition to a democratic government.
During the 1950s, Roberto met with representatives of the U.S. military and began to receive financial support from the U.S. government. The Angolan independence struggle became part of the wider cold war, in which the United States and other democratic nations supported pro-democracy factions in Africa, whereas China, the Soviet Union, and other communist/socialist nations supported pro-socialist factions.
Fought in the War of Independence
By 1960, Roberto had organized an army of guerrilla fighters. The following year, on February 4, 1961, Roberto and the guerrillas staged a raid against a colonial jail, which later became famous as the first military assault of the war for independence. Roberto continued with a more aggressive attack on colonial forces on March 15, wherein over five thousand militants attacked Portuguese settlements and government buildings.
In April of 1961, Roberto met with U.S. president John F. Kennedy to arrange further support from the United States and organize plans for the movement's future operations. Strengthened by international support, Roberto joined forces with the Partido Democrático and renamed the politically restructured organization as the FNLA. Roberto declared the FNLA as the legitimate successor to the colonial government in Angola and named himself as president with Savimbi serving as foreign minister.
From 1962 to 1964, Roberto and Savimbi led the FNLA against Portuguese forces in a series of guerilla battles throughout the northern portions of the nation. Some FNLA members, including Savimbi, were skeptical of Roberto's reliance on U.S. aid and encouraged him to lead the FNLA away from foreign support. Roberto believed that the success of his movement depended on his ability to maintain strategic political alliances. In 1962, he decided to divorce his first wife and marry the sister-in-law of Mobuto Sese Seko, thereby ensuring the Democratic Republic of Congo's support and obtaining additional troops and armaments for the FNLA. In 1963, Roberto's faction also began receiving military aid from the Israeli government after he traveled to Israel several times to meet with military and government leaders.
In 1964, Savimbi split with Roberto and the FNLA, accusing Roberto of becoming too closely involved with the United States, failing to expand the independence movement from the northern portions of the country, and focusing too heavily on the welfare of the Bakongo ethnic group at the expense of Angola's other ethnic minorities. Savimbi formed the União Nacional para a Independência Total de Angola (UNITA; National Union for the Total Independence of Angola), which became the most radical of Angola's independence organizations and received aid from the People's Republic of China, after Savimbi announced his intentions to install a communist government following independence.
The Portuguese government fought a three-tier struggle against UNITA, the MPLA, and the FNLA from the mid-1960s until the mid-1970s. In April of 1974, the Carnation Revolution took place in Portugal, during which the ruling authoritarian government was overthrown in a popular coup and after two years of transitional turmoil was replaced by a democratic-socialist system. The Portuguese revolution effectively ended the Angolan war for independence, as the transitional Portuguese government quickly negotiated agreements with the nation's former territories. On January 15, 1975, the Alvor Agreement was signed by Portuguese representatives and the leaders of the three independence groups, formally designating Angola as an independent nation. Under the terms of the agreement, UNITA, the MPLA, and the FNLA agreed to form a coalition government; however, during negotiations disagreements between the groups' leadership led to outbreaks of violence and by June of 1975 the conflict had escalated into civil war.
At a Glance …
Born Holden Roberto on January 12, 1923, in Sao Salvador, Angola; died on August 2, 2007, in Luanda, Angola; son of Garcia Roberto and Joana Lala Nekaka. Education: Attended Baptist missionary schools, 1936-40.
Career: União das Populações de Angola, president, 1960-62; Frente Nacional de Libertação de Angola, president, 1962-2007.
Fought in the Angolan Civil War
At the start of the civil war, UNITA and the MPLA were headquartered in Angola, whereas the FNLA was operating from the Democratic Republic of Congo, where Roberto utilized the Congolese military to supplement his forces. Roberto's refusal to move his headquarters to Angola was criticized by many of his allies as a strategic mistake. Though the FNLA had an initial military advantage in the strategically important city of Luanda, the MPLA gradually overcame FNLA forces in the city by drawing support from the local populace. By July of 1975, the FNLA was losing ground in locations across Angola.
Concerned that an MPLA victory would transform Angola into a communist country, the United States formed an alliance with UNITA and increased financial and military support for Roberto's FNLA. In addition, the U.S. and British governments began actively recruiting mercenaries to bolster FNLA forces. Several hundred British mercenaries joined the struggle in 1975 but, as the FNLA forces were largely outnumbered and without significant popular support, most of the mercenaries were killed or captured and executed by the MPLA. Despite U.S. aid, by the end of 1976 the FNLA was losing the struggle to the MPLA, and as a result, the United States, South Africa, and Britain made a strategic decision to concentrate military aid on Savimbi's UNITA faction.
As the FNLA lost foreign support, relations between Roberto and Mobuto deteriorated, and Roberto was forced to leave the Democratic Republic of Congo. In 1978, Roberto fled to Paris and declared the FNLA as a government in exile. The United States and South Africa continued to support UNITA against the MPLA, which was supported by Cuba and the Soviet Union. The civil war continued until 1991, when Savimbi and José Eduardo dos Santos of the MPLA met and signed the Bicesse Accords, an agreement that called for a transition to multiparty elections and a coalition socialist government.
Returned to Angola
Roberto returned to Angola in 1992, when several FNLA members took part in the first multiparty election. However, because of the FNLA's extended absence, the party received only 2 percent of the popular vote and placed five members in the nation's newly formed parliament. Refusing to take part in the government, Roberto became one of the most vocal critics of the MPLA.
Shortly after the 1992 election, Savimbi refused to acknowledge the presidential election, in which he was defeated by dos Santos, and led UNITA in an armed revolt against the government. Though Roberto declined to join UNITA or Savimbi, he also criticized dos Santos for corruption and mismanagement of economic resources. Violence between UNITA and the MPLA government continued for an additional decade, though occasionally this violence was punctuated by short-lived cease-fire agreements. Following Savimbi's death in February of 2002, the new leadership of UNITA was able to renew a peace agreement with the MPLA that lasted through 2007.
In the 1990s, the FNLA became divided along political and regional lines, with part of the organization remaining with Roberto, and the other part forming under the leadership of political activist Lucas Ngonda. Negotiations to reunite the party under a single leader repeatedly failed. In 2007, Roberto announced he was retiring from politics and bade the next generation of leaders to reunite the FNLA and attempt to transform the organization into a relevant force in Angolan politics.
Roberto was flown to Paris in 2007 to receive treatment for a heart condition. He recovered well enough to return to Luanda, but suffered a fatal heart attack on August 2, 2007. An August 9, 2007, news dispatch from the Africa News Service noted that President dos Santos praised Roberto as "one of the pioneers of the national liberation struggle, who has been an incentive to a generation of Angolans to follow the path of resistance and fight for the independence of Angola." At the time of his death, Roberto had reportedly been working to complete his memoirs, though the book was never finished.
"Angola's Agony," Wall Street Journal, March 30, 1984, p. 27.
Hauser, George M., No One Can Stop the Rain: Glimpses of Africa's Liberation Struggle, Pilgrim Press, 1989.
Marcum, John A., The Angolan Revolution, Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 1978.
Africa News Service, August 9, 2007.
Guardian (London, England), August 8, 2007.
The Independent (London, England), August 8, 2007.
Newsweek, January 26, 1976, p. 28.
New York Times, August 4, 2007.
Philadelphia Daily News, June 1, 1991.
The Times (London, England), August 13, 2007.
—Micah L. Issitt
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