Angola’s veterans

Recent changes affect the daily lives of ex-combatants and other soldiers who struggle to reintegrate into society a decade after the end of the war.

Sao Martinho Dos Tigres, Angola.

In January 2016, João Lourenço, the then-Angolan Minister of National Defense, spoke at a ceremony honoring Angolan veterans and former combatants. At this event, Lourenço lauded the bravery of combatants and ex-combatants by cautioning the country to never forget the hard work done by veterans, because Angolans “would not be here were it not for the patriotic citizens who gave the ultimate sacrifice to defend the country.”

Angola’s modern history is laced with conflict: 13 years of anti-colonial war (1961-1974) followed soon after by 27 years of civil war (1975-2002). The political scene after independence became one where peace, in the words of Achille Mbembe, was “more likely to take on the face of a ‘war without an end.’” While the Luena Peace Accords brought an end to the civil war, political wrangling between the governing Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola—Partido do Trabalho (MPLA) and the opposition parties, as well as stark socio-economic disparities between the rich and the poor, have contributed to a fragile yet peaceful postwar Angola.

Much has changed since Lourenço’s address to Angolan veterans. The biggest change was his election as president in 2018, taking over after the almost four-decade reign of José Eduardo Dos Santos. Many observers welcomed Lourenço, though feared that he would be a puppet of his predecessor. Lourenço moved swiftly to assert his autonomy and reassure the public of his commitment to fight the endemic culture of corruption. Since taking over the presidency, Lourenço’s agenda for a “New Angola” has involved reconstituting the executive branch, attempting to diversify the economy, and pulling the country out of an economic crisis that began in 2014. In 2018, eager to boost investor confidence and gain public support, the president sacked several high-ranking political and military officials who were implicated in massive corruption scandals during Dos Santos’ regime. Among the top generals who were sacked, but later given a second chance, was General Geraldo Sachipenga Nunda, the commander-in-chief of the Angolan Armed Forces (FAA). General Nunda currently serves as the Angolan ambassador to the United Kingdom.

But how do these recent changes affect the daily lives of ex-combatants and other soldiers who still need help reintegrating into civil society a decade after the end of the war? Do Angolan veterans see themselves as active participants in Lourenço’s New Angola? What does it take for veterans to make it in civilian life? Can the moral economy of veterans offer insights into the precarity, resilience, and agency of life after soldiering?

These questions are at the heart of John Spall’s latest book, Manhood, Morality and the Transformation of Angolan Society. The book focuses on ex-soldiers in the city of Huambo who fought for the MPLA regime between the mid-1970s and the 1990s, in the Forças Armadas Populares de Libertação de Angola (FAPLA).  Manhood, Morality and the Transformation of Angolan Society is a compelling ethnographic study of Angolan veterans. Putting former combatants at the center of his analysis, Spall explicitly engages with some of the more pressing debates in the scholarship on soldiering and masculinity in war veterans, notably the significance of understanding the complexity of veterans’ masculine identities through moral economy. The author moves away from binary conceptions separating veterans’ economic practices and morality. Instead, he posits that the moral economy of the veterans entails an entanglement of expectations, traditions, and values rooted in Angola’s complex history of colonialism and politics.

A moral economy approach offers a useful way of understanding ex-soldiers’ militarized masculinities after their disarmament and reintegration into civilian life. The central argument of the book is that ex-FAPLA combatants’ moral concerns were also rooted in the rich Umbundu cultural traditions, as some veterans were concerned with transformations in gender and intergenerational relations. For older veterans, for example, their postwar masculinities were linked to gaining respect and authority as breadwinners and wise elders. Since Umbundu traditions value wisdom and good judgement, senior veterans took these qualities much more seriously than their younger counterparts.

While all the chapters complement one another, chapters two, three, and four provide a cogent exploration of what Spall calls the veterans’ “life project”—the way men in Huambo performed distinct cultural styles of masculinity and expressed their moral visions of the future and aspirations for themselves. The in-depth interviews demonstrate how, in the face of growing wealth disparity, some men equated money with power and longed for economic prosperity and upward mobility. Despite rebounding oil prices in 2012, the MPLA leadership failed to place the country’s mineral wealth at the service of all Angolans. As a result, for some veterans the pride and lure of the middle class remains a dream. Other veterans, however, decried the ways consumerism and personal enrichment became more important than the value of fellow humans.

The book also reveals the significance of marriage and religion in shaping the postwar masculinities of ex-combatants. Some veterans insist on spiritual rather economic assimilation to build a sense of community and reintegrate into civilian life. According to one interviewee, church communities offered some men the respect many had longed for since their demobilization. While some fighters were respectfully welcomed back as heroes, others were eyed suspiciously and rejected by their communities. Thus, in most cases, gaining acceptance and public dignity depended on whether a man was married and could perform the role of a diligent breadwinner. Finding a wife (or wives) was a priority for most veterans. Marriage became an important factor in veterans’ readjustment to civilian life, and a way for them to reassert their masculine authority within the society.

The experience of service boosted veterans’ sense of entitlement to basic rights and national recognition. Often, military service elevated former FAPLA soldiers’ sense of themselves as people more capable of reclaiming their agency and demanding their recognition in the power-laden nationalist politics. Spall argues that gaining the status of “ex-combatant” or “veteran” became a way for ex-soldiers in Huambo to speak back to coastal power from the Planalto. Being recognized as an ex-FAPLA veteran however does not mean that veterans are blinded by their patriotism. Many ex-combatants see a vast chasm between MPLA’s wartime rhetoric and postwar reality. Far from glorifying their patriotism, testimonies of ex-FAPLA combatants reveal veterans’ refusal to identify with egregiously kleptocratic party elites and the current state of Angolan politics. The destruction and neglect of the rural agricultural economy and the marginalization of the poor, including of veterans in Huambo, has left a majority of the population vulnerable.

It is worth emphasizing that Angolan veterans cannot be treated as a homogeneous group. Some former fighters with access to political and economic capital thrived after the war while others still struggle immensely to readjust to civilian life. Thus, despite the Ministry of Former Combatants and Veterans efforts to recognize all veterans—and include them in the diversification of the economy through agricultural development— many ex-combatants from marginalized geopolitical areas, and who lack political clout within insularity of the MPLA party-state, continue to feel betrayed and ignored.

A decade after the end of 2009 UN-backed Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR) program, many FAPLA veterans still find themselves working as unskilled laborers in the informal economy, although some had hoped for better career and economic opportunities. One veteran explained the precarity of their lives, “We all have our own business, which is very difficult because it’s not like when you have a salary and you always know how much you’re going to get … [O]ur children’s work never stops and our work never stops, but we still have a lot of difficulty, up to today.” Veterans’ notwithstanding, the disillusionment with their socio-economic situation after the war, unmet expectations, and difficulties in resettling into civilian life hinder ex-combatants from fully participating in president Lourenço’s project of New Angola. Manhood, Morality and the Transformation of Angolan Society provides us with a timely reminder of how former fighters understand their own postwar experiences and nurture their ability to build social relationships.

Indeed, combatants and ex-combatants can become a major source of socio-economic stability in postwar societies. But in Angola today, and across Africa, crony capitalism, which is characterized by proximity to the ruling party elites, remains the biggest factor in personal enrichment and access to political and economic power of a few ex-combatants, even as many veterans are left marginalized, voiceless, and impoverished.

Further Reading