Republic of Angola

POPULATION: 22.14 million (2014)

AREA: 481,351 sq. mi. (1,246,700 sq. km)

LANGUAGES: Portuguese (official); Bantu languages (at least 55)


PRINCIPAL RELIGIONS: Traditional 47%, Roman Catholic 38%, Protestant 15%

CITIES: Luanda (capital), 2,677,000 (2000 est.); Lobito, Benguela, Malanje, Huambo, Cabinda, Lubango

ANNUAL RAINFALL: Varies from 0 in southwestern coastal desert to 70 in. (1,780 mm) in extreme north

ECONOMY: GDP $131.4 billion (2014)


  • Agricultural: coffee, sisal, cotton, tobacco, sugarcane, bananas, manioc, corn, timber, fish, livestock
  • Manufacturing: food and beverage processing, textiles, cement, petroleum refining, fish processing, brewing, tobacco products.
  • Mining: petroleum, diamonds, iron ore, copper, feldspar, phosphates, gold, bauxite, uranium

GOVERNMENT: Independence from Portugal, 1975. President elected by universal suffrage. Governing bodies: 220-member Assembleia Nacional (elected), Council of Ministers appointed by President.


ARMED FORCES: 114,000 (2000 est.)

EDUCATION: Compulsory for ages 7–15; literacy rate 40%

Republic of Angola

The Republic of Angola is located on the southwestern coast of Africa on the Atlantic Ocean. This former colony of Portugal has had a tumultuous history since gaining independence in 1975. Torn by a long, bitter, and destructive civil war, the nation is still trying to find an end to that conflict.


Angola is the seventh largest country in Africa, with an area greater than Texas and California combined. A small part of the nation—a coastal area called CABINDA—is separated from the rest of Angola by a strip of territory belonging to the neighboring country of CONGO (KINSHASA). Rich in natural resources, Angola has great potential for industry and economic prosperity. However, since independence, frequent civil unrest has slowed Angola’s development.

The capital of Angola is Luanda, a coastal city that was once a major slave-trading port for the Portuguese. Although it boasts modern skyscrapers, an international airport, and a state-run university, Luanda has been severely damaged by the civil war. In addition, refugees fleeing the fighting in the countryside are crowding the city’s poorer sections and overwhelming public services.


Nearly two thirds of Angola consists of vast interior plateaus and highlands—including the Kongo Highlands, the Malanje Plateau, and the Central Highlands. These features average 3,150 to 4,430 feet in elevation, with some peaks as high as 8,465 feet. To the west of these areas, the land falls in a series of dramatic escarpments to a narrow coastal plain, cut by fertile river valleys and dotted with natural harbors. Most of Angola’s rivers start in the interior highlands and flow through the coastal plain to the sea. Only a few of these are navigable for any distance inland. Several rivers are tributaries of the CONGO RIVER and the ZAMBEZI RIVER. One of Angola’s major rivers, the Kubango, flows into the Okavango Swamp—a vast swampland in northern BOTSWANA.


With the exception of the temperate Central Highlands, Angola’s climate is primarily tropical. Rainfall in the tropical regions is seasonal, occurring mainly between October and May. Parts of southern and eastern Angola have a drier climate, and the southernmost part of the country borders the great KALAHARI DESERT. The Benguela Current—a cold, northward-flowing ocean current—brings both a dry climate and rich fishing grounds to Angola’s coastal region.

Vegetation and Wildlife

Much of Angola is covered with savanna. In the north these grasslands have scattered trees, while in the south the savanna consists of low, thorny shrubs. Dense rain forests are scattered through the northern half of the country, primarily in Cabinda. Angola once had more extensive rain forests, but since colonial times many have been cut down by the logging industry and to make way for agriculture. One of the few plants that survive in the desert regions of far southwestern Angola is the tumboa, an unusual plant with a very deep root and two wide 10-foot-long leaves that spread along the ground. The wildlife of Angola is typical of other grassland regions of Africa. Mammals include elephants, hippopotamuses, rhinoceroses, giraffes, zebras, wildebeests, leopards, lions, and various types of antelopes and monkeys. Angola is also home to many species of birds and a great variety of reptiles, including crocodiles. Among the most dangerous animal species in Angola is an insect—the tsetse fly, which carries diseases that harm both humans and livestock. Marine life thrives in the ocean off Angola’s coast, especially in the waters swept by the Benguela Current.

Agriculture, Forestry, and Fishing

Farming is the main economic activity in many areas of Angola. About 80 percent of the Angolan people are engaged in subsistence farming, in which families grow only enough food for their own use. One of the principal food crops is manioc (or cassava), a plant with thick, starchy roots that are cooked and eaten like potatoes. Other major crops include maize, potatoes, beans, millet (a type of grain), bananas, peanuts, rice, and wheat.

During the colonial period, Angola grew several profitable cash crops for export, including cotton and coffee. These commercial crops declined dramatically after independence as a result of changing economic policies and years of civil war. Nevertheless, crops such as tobacco, coffee, bananas, sisal, cocoa, sugarcane, and cotton are still grown commercially.

Subsistence farmers in Angola raise a variety of livestock, including sheep, goats, pigs, and poultry. Cattle raising is most successful in southern Angola, where the disease-spreading tsetse fly is less of a problem than in other areas of the country.

Forestry is concentrated in Cabinda, where the dense rain forests provide valuable lumber. Portuguese colonists developed a thriving fishing industry off the coast of Angola, which supplied fish for both export and local markets. However, after 1975, the local fish population shrank and Angola’s fishing industry became less significant.

Industry and Mining

Prior to independence, Angola enjoyed expanding industrial activity, especially manufacturing and construction. As with commercial agriculture, the upheavals following independence disrupted Angolan industry and caused it to decline.

Manufacturing in Angola today is focused on fulfilling domestic needs rather than on producing goods for export. The principal manufacturing activities are oil refining, food processing, brewing, textile making, and the production of construction materials. One major manufacturing center is the city of Luanda. The electricity needed to run Angolan industry comes from hydroelectric plants that harness the energy of the country’s great rivers.

Mining plays a very important role in Angola’s economy. The country’s principal exports are petroleum and diamonds. Petroleum alone, most coming from Cabinda, accounts for more than 90 percent of Angola’s export income. Although Angola’s iron mines have been inactive since 1975, the nation produces other minerals including phosphates, manganese, and copper. The country also has deposits of natural gas.


In ancient times, hunting and gathering societies inhabited the area that is now Angola. Sometime during the first millennium A.D. large migrations from other parts of southern Africa brought Bantu-speaking peoples to the region. These groups eventually established a number of independent, centralized kingdoms, the most important of which was the Kongo. Angola later took its name from another early kingdom, known as Ngola.

The Colonial Period

Portuguese explorers reached Angola in 1483. They traded with the inhabitants and worked to convert them to Christianity. Over the next few centuries Portugal became increasingly involved in the African SLAVE TRADE, and several Angolan kingdoms were eventually destroyed because they resisted SLAVERY. Portuguese settlers soon dominated the coast of Angola and organized the local economy around supplying slaves to Brazil, Portugal’s South American colony.

Portugal’s claims to rule the lands and people of Angola were officially recognized by other European governments in 1891. Then Portugal extended its authority beyond the coastal region of Angola. This expansion led to a dramatic growth in export products, primarily cash crops grown by Portuguese settlers. Some Angolan groups were fairly successful in competing economically with the Portuguese colonists. Nonetheless, all came under Portuguese control between 1890 and 1922.

The further extension of Portuguese colonial power in the early 1900s created great hardship for both Africans and Afro-Portuguese—people of both African and Portuguese ancestry. Many of these people were pushed out of the administrative and commercial activities they dominated in earlier years, and they had few opportunities to achieve economic success. As a result, nationalist movements emerged in Luanda and other coastal cities. Nationalist leaders spoke out against forced labor, racism, and other abuses, and called for Angolan independence.

When Angola officially became an overseas province of Portugal in 1951, the Angolan people faced more mistreatment by Portuguese authorities. Tensions mounted and led to a serious rebellion against Portuguese rule in 1961. This proved to be a turning point in Angola’s history, as increasing numbers of people were drawn into the struggle for independence. By the end of the 1960s several nationalist groups had launched guerrilla operations against the Portuguese government. Each group also competed for power.

An Independent Angola

Portugal yielded Angola its independence on November 11, 1975. However, it did not formally transfer power to any one of the competing nationalist groups. One group, the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), gained control of most of the country and founded a communist state called the People’s Republic of Angola in 1976.

Rivalries continued between the three main groups—the MPLA, FNLA (National Front for the Liberation of Angola), and UNITA (National Union for the Total Independence of Angola)—fueling a long and bitter civil war. Cold War politics contributed to the strife because the MPLA had support from the Soviet Union and Cuba, while UNITA had the backing of SOUTH AFRICA and the United States. In addition, the Angolan government was aiding the neighboring country of NAMIBIA in its fight for independence from South Africa. As Angola’s complex struggle dragged on, it hindered economic progress and efforts to move ahead with social programs.

Signs of hope for an end to the fighting appeared in the late 1980s. Talks between Angola, Cuba, South Africa, and the United States led to a series of agreements concerning Namibian independence and the withdrawal of Cuban troops that had been supporting the MPLA. When the last Cuban forces left Angola in 1991, peace finally seemed possible.

In 1990 the MPLA had voted to turn itself into a democratic party, establish a multiparty system, and create policies that gave individuals and companies a larger role in the economy. These changes led to the establishment of a new democratic government and to the birth of the Republic of Angola in 1992. Since 1979 Angolan politics have been dominated by two individuals—José Eduardo dos Santos, the nation’s president and MPLA leader, and Jonas Savimbi, the leader of UNITA.

Each enjoys support from different ethnic groups within the country. Despite the establishment of a democracy, progress in Angola has not come easily. The economy has been slow to develop and improve, and smuggling—mainly of diamonds—has caused great damage. Education and medical care are inadequate, malnutrition is widespread, and infant deaths are common. Moreover, the MPLA and UNITA continue to compete fiercely for control. Since 1992 fighting has broken out several times in various parts of the country, and a return to full-scale civil war remains a possibility. Even in times of relative peace, many Angolans are killed or injured by the millions of land mines still hidden in the ground.


The majority of Angolans are members of various Bantu-speaking groups, each with a distinctive culture and language. Other Angolans are of Portuguese or other European ancestry, and a few isolated bands of a Khoisan group known as the !Kung live in the remote southeastern corner of the country. Portuguese is the official language and is spoken by many Angolans. However, most groups also speak their own native languages.

As Bantu-speaking groups settled throughout present-day Angola, each formed a culture based on the particular type of environment in which they lived. The largest group is the Ovimbundu. They live mainly in the Central Highlands of Angola, where the climate is well suited to farming. Over time, the Ovimbundu have developed extensive agricultural communities with large populations. Those living in drier areas to the south raise cattle as well. Many Ovimbundu have migrated to the cities of Benguela, Lobito, and Luanda.

The second largest group in Angola, the Mbundu, dominates the capital city of Luanda and other coastal towns as well as the Malanje highlands to the east. The culture of the Mbundu has its roots in the ancient warrior state called Ngola. Among the many other groups in Angola are the Ngangela, Ovambo, and Chokwe.

Although some Angolans continue to follow traditional religions, most have adopted Christianity. Roman Catholicism is particularly well established among the Ovimbundu. Various Protestant faiths have strong followings among other Bantu groups.

Despite the influence of European culture and Christianity, most Angolan peoples still share certain Bantu traditions. Extended families are central to social life, polygamy is common, and ancestors are deeply respected. Forms of witchcraft are still practiced in many areas, even among people who have converted to Christianity. Another ancient tradition that survives today is Angola’s rich oral literature— stories that have been passed down for many generations.

The country’s rural inhabitants often follow the same traditions and ways of life their ancestors did. Others, especially city dwellers, have adopted more modern lifestyles. In every region and walk of life, Angolans retain long-standing ethnic loyalties and distinctions. The many differences that enrich Angola’s culture also continue to fuel the nation’s political unrest. (See also Bantu Peoples; Colonialism in Africa; Diseases; Ethnic Groups and Identity; Forests and ForestryIndependence Movements; Languages; Livestock Grazing; Minerals and Mining; Neto, Agostinho; Religion and Ritual.)