Neto, António Agostinho 1922–1979
António Agostinho Neto 1922–1979
António Agostinho Neto became Angola’s first president in 1975, after one of the African continent’s bloodiest and most protracted wars for independence. As head of the Movimento Popular de Libertagao de Angola (MPLA) since the early 1960s, Neto, who died in 1979, led the struggle to break free from Portuguese colonial rule. Trained as a physician in Portugal as a young man, he was also a published poet whose Times of London obituary termed him “a man of outstanding intellectual abilities who took advantage of the opportunities offered by the colonial authorities to emerge as their principal opponent.”
Neto was born on September 17, 1922, in Icolo-e-Bengo, in what was then known as Portuguese West Africa. Icolo-e-Bengo was located in an area called Catete, near Luanda, the capital city of this southwestern African land. His family was of Mbundu heritage, descendants of a once powerful kingdom that was brutally suppressed in 1902 by the Portuguese, who had established a lucrative economic presence in the area that dated back to 1575. Neto’s father was a Methodist minister who headed a local church, and his mother taught at a kindergarten. In his teens, he was one of only a few African students admitted to the prestigious Liceu Salvador Carreia, a high school that educated the country’s Portuguese elite. After high school, with his hopes to become a physician temporarily set aside, he worked for the government health services beginning in 1944. In 1947 he was offered a Methodist scholarship to study in Portugal, and enrolled at the University of Coimbra. Once there, he joined a group of students from African countries who opposed the entrenched dictatorship of António de Oliveira Salazar in Portugal.
Unlike many European countries in the post-World War II era, Portugal held on to its African colonies like Angola and Mozambique. The Salazar socialist regime formally declared Angola an overseas province in 1951, and made plans for a massive industrialization of the country. It did, however, attempt to extend more political rights to some native-born Angolans, granting assimilado status to a select few, which would provide full citizenship rights once educational credentials were submitted and an income level attained. Neto would eventually become one of the assimilado, who made up just one percent of Angola’s six million blacks. But while still abroad, he began to write poetry that questioned Portuguese rule in Angola, and from there he took an increasing role in student demonstrations. He was jailed three times for participating in political rallies, but was so well-known that a group of Portuguese and African dissidents organized a petition drive for his release.
Neto earned a medical degree from the University of Lisbon in 1958, and returned to Angola with his Portuguese-born wife, Maria Eugenia da Silva. Outside Luanda, in the Museques slum area, he opened a medical practice in which, holding true to his political ideals, he treated all regardless of income. He also continued to write verse, and his first volume, Colectânea de Poemas, was published in 1961. Most of the poems were “despairing portraits of Africans under the colonial yoke,” noted a New York Times report by Michael T. Kaufman. Not surprisingly, the
Born on September 17, 1922, in Icolo-e-Bengo, Portuguese West Africa; died on September 10, 1979, in Moscow, Union of Soviet Socialist Republics; son of Agostinho Pedro (a clergyman) and Maria (a kindergarten teacher; maiden name, de Silva) Neto; married Maria Eugénia da Silva, 195B; children: one son, two daughters. Education: Attended University of Coimbra; University of Lisbon, MD, 1958. Politics: Marxist.
Career: Worked for Angolan government health services, 1944-47; poet and student activist in Lisbon and Coimbra, Portugal, 1950s; physician in Luanda, Angola, 1959-62; writer, 1961-79; Movimento Popular de Libertçäo de Angola, president, 1962-79; president of Angola, 1975-79.
poems landed him in trouble with colonial authorities, who declared them seditious, but Neto was already becoming a well-known figure in Luanda as well. Finally he was arrested at his office, and a crowd gathered in his home village. Soldiers fired when the crowd erupted, and some 30 people were killed. The incident was part of a much larger political foment that year, which the Portuguese harshly suppressed.
Neto was exiled to the Cape Verde Islands, and from there he was sent to Portugal, where he was placed under house arrest, before escaping to Morocco in 1962. He made his way to Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), and in its capital, Kinshasa, he became involved in an Angolan exile group that sought political sovereignty for the country. Marxist in tone, the MPLA dated back to 1956 and had become popular with many middle-class Angolans who had been educated abroad, like Neto. He was quickly elected to lead the party.
Neto went back into Angola, and led the MPLA for the next twelve years during its struggle to gain independence for the country. The group’s strategy involved guerrilla raids from outside the country by both MPLA units and those of the Front for the Liberation of Angola (FNLA). A third group, the Uniäo Nacional para a Independência Total de Angola (UNITA), emerged in 1966 to join the existing resistance movement. The leaders of all three groups, Neto included, sought help from Western and Communist nations, as well as other African countries, in order to obtain both funding and international sympathy for Angolans in their plight against Portuguese domination. Neto traveled to the Soviet Union in 1964, and to Cuba to seek assistance from the government of Communist leader Fidel Castro.
By the early 1970s, Portugal’s determination to hold onto Angola and other overseas provinces was forcing some 40 percent of its meager national budget into military expenditures. Widespread dissatisfaction inside Portugal itself finally helped end the Angolan war for independence, when a 1974 military coup in Lisbon brought down the dictatorship, and the new government declared a truce with the Angolan rebel groups. By late 1975, negotiations were concluded that finally granted Angola its independence, and the People’s Republic of Angola was declared at midnight on November 11, 1975. Neto was sworn in as the country’s first president on the same night.
Neto faced numerous obstacles in bringing peace to the newly independent country, ravaged after years of war that had decimated the countryside and cities. Within weeks, FNLA and UNITA forces had teamed up to fight the MPLA in what became a civil conflict that endured until 2002. Neto’s MPLA government was recognized by the international community, however, and in a historic step he managed to gain admittance for Angola to the United Nations in 1977. He continued to seek help from Cuba, and Angola became a Cold War battleground for a time, with Communist nations funding the MPLA and Western powers and South Africa’s apartheid government providing aid to the UNITA group.
Neto traveled once more to Moscow in 1979, to receive treatment for cancer. He died there on September 10, 1979. The sole volume of his poetry that has appeared in English translation is titled Sacred Hope.
Colectânea de Poemas (poems), Ediçäo da Casa dos Estudantes du Império, 1961.
Sagrada esperanca (poems), Livraria Sa da Costa Editora, 1974, published as Sacred Hope, Marga Holness trans., Tanzania Publishing, 1974.
Poemas de Angola, Superbancas, 1976.
Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2nd edition, Gale, 1998.
New York Times, December 23, 1975, p. 6; September 16, 1979, p. E3.
Times (London, England), January 11, 1977, p. 7; November 23, 1979, p. III.
“António Agostinho Neto,” Contemporary Authors Online, reproduced in Biography Resource Center, http://galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/BioRC (December 16, 2003).
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António Agostinho Neto
António Agostinho Neto
António Agostinho Neto (1922-1979) was a leading African intellectual and nationalist in the three decades following the close of World War II. A doctor and poet, he was also the president of the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola, directing the armed struggle within Angola against the Portuguese colonial rule, and the first president of the People's Republic of Angola.
António Agostinho Neto was born near the town of Catete, a short distance inland from Luanda, the Angolan capital, on September 17, 1922. As a boy his family lived in Luanda where his father was the pastor of a large Methodist church and his mother was a kindergarten teacher. He was one of the few Africans who received a secondary school education at the famous Silva Correia High School. Neto was quiet, reserved, competent, and a good student. He bought his school books and supplies by working part-time as a secretary for the Methodist bishop. Unable to study medicine as he wanted, Neto went to work for the government health services in Luanda from 1944 to 1947. He participated in the formation of cultural associations which were an expression of African nationalism at a time when political organizations were forbidden by the Portuguese authorities.
In 1947 Agostinho Neto received a scholarship from the Methodist church for medical studies, first at the University of Lisbon and then at Coimbra. Together with other African students, he took an active part in opposing the Salazar dictatorship in Portugal. He was arrested and imprisoned on three occasions for organizing petitions, joining in demonstrations, and writing poetry. (His poems mirrored the harsh conditions of African life under Portuguese colonialism and the longing of his people for freedom and justice.) Neto was now well-known as a leading African intellectual and nationalist, and some of the most famous international writers, artists, and liberal politicians petitioned for and secured his release. In 1958 he completed his medical studies, which had been interrupted by his imprisonment, and the next year returned to Angola with his Portuguese wife, Maria Eugenia.
Doctor, Writer, and Liberation Leader
Agostinho Neto was one of the few Angolans who had the education that would have allowed him to live a life of privilege and security. Instead, on his return to Luanda he started a medical practice where he welcomed all patients, however poor and whatever their background. At the same time he continued writing. One line of a poem expressed his belief in the inevitability of the victory of African nationalism with the words "No one can stop the rain."
He had hardly begun his work as a doctor when he was again arrested, in his consulting room. This action sparked off a demonstration in his home village. Thirty people were killed and many injured as Portuguese soldiers fired on the crowd. The Portuguese exiled Neto to the Cape Verde Islands and later sent him to Portugal, where he was first imprisoned and then kept under house arrest. In 1962 he and his wife and two small children escaped to Morocco and from there travelled to Léopoldville (now Kinshasa, Zaire).
Neto was now the most famous of the Angolan nationalist leaders, and in the same year he was elected as the president of the liberation movement, MPLA (Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola). For the next 12 years Neto directed the armed struggle of MPLA within Angola against Portuguese colonial rule. He travelled to Europe, the Soviet Union, and other African countries to rally support for his organization. During the 1960s several volumes of his poetry were published. Some were translated and published in other languages, including English. In 1974 a coup in Portugal toppled the Salazar dictatorship. Neto, as the head of MPLA, opened the negotiations with Portugal and with other Angolan liberation movements which led to the independence of Angola.
First Angolan President
On November 11, 1975, Neto was sworn in as the first president of the People's Republic of Angola. The problems of building a modern nation state on the ruins of an old colonial empire were immense. For example, illiteracy was about 85 percent; many trained Portuguese had left the country; and rival liberation movements supported by foreign powers refused to recognize the MPLA government and continued the war. Neto's compelling sense of duty to his people and country motivated him as it had done in his years as a student, as a doctor, and as a leader in exile. His own inclination was more to intellectual pursuits and a private life, but he continued to give Angola the strong leadership that it needed. He acted as a moderating influence within his government while remaining fully committed to building a socialist state. Agostinho Neto has deservedly been called "the father of modern Angola." His work was cut short by his death from cancer on September 10, 1979.
Some of Agostinho Neto's poems have been translated into English and published under the title Sacred Hope (1974). On general background, see Lawrence W. Henderson Angola: Five Centuries of Conflict (1979). Recommended on the role of Neto and MPLA in the liberation struggle is John Marcum, The Angolan Revolution, two volumes (1969 and 1978), and on events since independence see Michael Wolfers and Jane Bergerol, Angola in the Front Line (1983). □
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