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People and the River



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Angola since European Settlement  

In the 15th century when the Portuguese first came to south-western Africa on their sea-route towards the Far East, the land that is now the country of Angola had a large number of distinct ethno-linguistic groups. They varied in size, level of economic development, and degree of political organisation, and were linked to each other through trade (Newitt 2007). Central Angola was home to the Ovimbundu constituting a variety of different Umbundu states. There were also several small Nyaneka-Khumbi groups in the region, and the area that is now southern Angola was dominated by Herero-speaking groups and Ovambo kingdoms which were largely dependent on the accumulation and distribution of cattle wealth.

Trade Relations

Beginning in the 15th century, Portugal entered into economic relations with some of the kingdoms found in the territory. Portuguese traders established business in the Atlantic trading ports of Luanda and Benguela and in the neighbouring river valleys. From here they undertook trading expeditions into the interior of the continent (Newitt 2007). However, relations were not always friendly and with time the Portuguese attacked and even conquered some of the region's kingdoms, but usually did not occupy or colonise them – until much later. In the second half of the 17th century, e.g., they defeated the Congo and Ndongo/Ngola kingdoms, the two large states in the north of the country. The powerful Bailundo kingdom in the northern highlands of central Angola was conquered two hundred years later, at the end of the 19th century.

People crossing a bridge around 1800.
Source: Dias de Carvalho / Tump 2010
( click to enlarge )

Imperialism and the Colonisation of the Hinterland

It was only in the second half of the 19th century that Europeans began to colonise the Angolan hinterland, including the Kunene River basin. In 1857 one of the first European inland settlements was founded by a German group on the Huíla plateau. Later, in 1881, 300 Boers reached the remote Huíla highlands, and in the late 1880s Portuguese Government-sponsored settlement schemes brought 1 500 Madeiran settlers to the plateau (Kuder and Möhlig 1994, Newitt 2007).

“Imperialistic” settlement politics by the Portuguese state truly began following the Berlin Conference in 1884/85. This conference saw the European powers divide Africa among themselves, establishing colonial frontiers throughout the continent. The lower reaches of the Kunene basin, however, were still not brought under control by the Portuguese administration. In the 1890's only a few colonial soldiers had been stationed in the remote south-west where the Portuguese military had a difficult task trying to subdue well armed indigenous armies (Bollig 1997).

Infrastructure Development

Under pressure to establish effective control of its colonies, the Portuguese government set themselves the objective of improving the inland infrastructure. In the early 20th century the construction of two railways (Benguela and Moçamedes/Namibe railways) began, connecting the coast with the inland highlands, where the Kunene River rises. This aimed at enabling the European settlement and economic exploitation of the central highlands and facilitating political and military control in the southern half of Angola. The colonisation of the Upper Kunene proceeded in parallel with the advancement of work on the two railways (Newitt 2007, Kuder and Möhlig 1994).

Following World War II (1945) the industrial production of textiles, cement and consumer goods as well as the cultivation of coffee, diamond mining, and oil production were promoted in the territory. As a consequence Angola had one of the most dynamic economies in Africa by the 1960s. State investments accelerated the further expansion of infrastructure, including in the Kunene River basin. The first comprehensive development plan for the entire Portuguese Empire (1953-1958) placed particular emphasis on the development of infrastructure and energy supplies for Angola and several large hydroelectric power plants were built. The first dam and electricity station in the Kunene River basin was built at Matala (Newitt 2007, Kuder and Möhlig 1994). The works were completed in 1954.

Former guard at Huambo train station.
Source: Tump 2007
( click to enlarge )
Houses destroyed during the civil war.
Source: Tump 2006
( click to enlarge )

Independence and the Civil War

National independence movements began gaining momentum across Africa in the 1950s and '60s. In Angola this saw the foundation of the MPLA and FNLA, with UNITA following later. The war of independence between the nationalist movements and the Portuguese began in 1961 and lasted until the withdrawal of Portuguese troops from Angola in 1975. The remaining power vacuum set the stage for 27 years of civil war between the rival independence movements with their different ethnic and ideological allegiances and the adverse interests of their patrons among the newly independent African states. Additionally they were being supported as proxy combatants as part of the Cold War: the MPLA was supported mainly by the USSR and Cuba, UNITA by the USA and South Africa, and the FNLA by Zaire and the protestant churches in the USA (Newitt 2007). The war finally ended in 2002 following the killing of UNITA leader Savimbi by government soldiers (MPLA). Industries and the educational system had collapsed, and the agricultural production had been hampered by armed conflict and landmines inducing a large scale famine across the country. The total death toll of Angola stood at one million and many more displaced or maimed (Ajayi 2006).

Parts of the Kunene River basin were badly affected, with Huambo amongst the most devastated parts of the country. Furthermore, much of the warfare in the basin was associated with the Namibian independence war between SWAPO and the South African Defence Force. Some parts of the basin, however, were not directly affected by either war. Lubango, Huíla´s capital, for instance, did not suffer any significant direct fighting or destruction, although the city did have to cope with the arrival of over 300 000 refugees escaping fighting in the surrounding province.

Recent Developments

In 2008, the MPLA, which unilaterally had proclaimed independence of the People's Republic of Angola on 11th November 1975 and had governed the country ever since then, was pronounced the winner of the first parliamentary elections after the civil war. The elections marked the end of the post-war period and legitimised an Angolan parliament as the representative body of the Angolan people. The peaceful conduction of the elections was seen as a positive sign (Kleine Büning and Oesterdiekhoff 2008). Other positive signs for a peaceful future of Angola can be seen in future power sharing arrangements among the varied ethnic groups, deconcentration and decentralisation of political and economic power, and a country-wide approach to sustainable development.




Explore the sub-basins of the Kunene River

Video Interviews about the integrated and transboundary management of the Kunene River basin

View a historical timeline of the Kunene basin countries, including water agreements & infrastructure

Video scenes about the limited access to water of the San in Kunene Province