New Books | War, manhood and Angolan society

Anthropologist John Spall examines how combat affected the gender, sexual relations and religious orientation of a generation of Angolans recruited to fight between 1975 and 2002.

This is a lightly edited excerpt of two sections of Manhood, Morality and the Transformation of Angolan Society: MPLA Veterans and Post-war Dynamics (James Currey, 2020) by John Spall.

Three veterans 

I was introduced to João on my first visit to the cidade market in Huambo’s city centre. João (born 1969, aged 42 in 2012) was one of the first two veterans I met there. His pitch was half of a concrete bench, the other half taken by his nephew, and was covered with meticulously arranged stacks of produce. On being told the purpose of my visit, he spoke to me animatedly, restlessly shifting his weight from foot to foot, laughing and emphatically denouncing the government’s failure to support veterans. He was short and broad, with close cropped hair, dressed simply in a T-shirt and suit trousers. Speaking quickly through a broad smile, he traded jokes with another seller called Vicente, the two of them apparently the unofficial representatives of their market section. João, unusually among the men I worked with, had remained in the army for most of the war, from 1985 until 2002, and so had come to work in informal commerce later than the others. He eschewed an explicitly churchgoing lifestyle and self-presentation. His efforts to perform a respectable senior masculinity while pursuing a lifestyle that was deemed incompatible with Christianity in important respects, illustrate some of the tensions, exacerbated by wartime social change, between ideas of “traditional” Umbundu masculine values, and the public morality of Christianity and associated ideas of urbanity and development. 

Vicente (born 1965, aged 47 in 2012), the veteran that I was introduced to along with João, was taller and more elegantly dressed, often in a leather jacket or big coat, a rotating selection of hats, and a toothpick in the corner of his mouth. He had spent less time in the army, joining in 1980 and leaving in 1992. He was gregarious and tactile, and proud of being known and liked by most people in the market and beyond, and of treating them with respect and brotherly love in keeping with his lifelong Roman Catholic faith. His religious outlook strongly shaped his life narrative and how he confronted the challenges of war and its aftermath, and had remained a more or less constant moral grounding for him throughout his life. Faith played a similar role for several of the veterans I worked with of Catholic or Congregationalist denominations, who were usually born into those denominations and followed them throughout their lives. Vicente’s love of candour brought him into conflict with the more secretive João, whose frequent, unexplained disappearances from the market would anger Vicente, and whose flouting of Christian morality made him a disreputable figure in the gossip of his market colleagues. Most of my conversations with João and Vicente happened beside their stalls, seated in plastic picnic chairs, as a mixture of one-to-one conversations and conversations with groups of their colleagues. I became friends with both of them, coming to know members of their families, and visiting them in contexts outside the market, such as Vicente’s church and home, and João’s home village. 

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I was introduced to the third veteran, Jamba (born 1963, aged 49 in 2012), when I first went to Alemanha market on the outskirts of Huambo, looking for veterans to talk to. A short and slightly portly man, his completely bald head was usually covered with a cap, and he dressed in football shirts, jeans and trainers. He was a prominent figure in the market and in his neighbourhood, known jokingly by some as “the President”: he was an eloquent man given to impromptu, often declamatory speeches for usually appreciative audiences. He considered his “work” to extend beyond the market to his engagement in his church and his work as a neighbourhood football coach and, during my time in Huambo, to helping me to understand the situation of civil war veterans in post-war Angolan society. He had demobilised earlier than most of the other men I worked with, having been recruited in 1977 and leaving in 1983 when he lost the lower part of one of his legs to a land mine. The conversations we had about his past life were sometimes conducted in an ad-hoc way at his market pitch, though several of our more in-depth conversations took place in a mostly deserted cafe shack behind his stall. Jamba was born into a nonreligious, “pagan” family, as he put it, but when confronted with a confluence of moral crises shortly after his demobilisation, he made a radical conversion to Seventh-day Adventism. This meant that, as with many of the other converts among these veterans, his struggles to avoid moral collapse and pursue a senior masculinity were largely conducted through an ongoing and conscious project of self-remaking that constituted a break with the morality of his upbringing. 

To summarise, each of these men is intended to represent both some of the complexity of individuals’ paths through the challenges of war, military service and their aftermath, and a broader “type” of masculine moral sensibility and navigation of the moral challenges of war. João represents the problems some veterans faced in trying to reconcile the demands of Umbundu “tradition” with the moral demands of life in post-war Huambo, Vicente the path of the lifelong believer in one of the two main mission churches, and Jamba the path of the religious convert to one of the smaller denominations.

Army life 

Very little social science research has been published on life in the Forças Armadas Populares de Libertação de Angola or the People’s Armed Forces for the Liberation of Angola (FAPLA). Two military histories have been published, but are principally concerned with issues of military strategy and organisation, rather than social dynamics within the military. After the end of the independence war and the defeat of União Nacional para a Independência Total de Angola or the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) and the Frente Nacional de Libertação de Angola or the National Front for the Liberation of Angola (FNLA), the challenge facing the FAPLA was the conversion from a guerrilla army into a regular one. Reforms intended to support this were instituted in 1976, with conscription into the FAPLA being introduced for Angolan citizens by law 2/76, updated in 1982 by law 12/82, the Lei General do Serviço Militar. It seems that in practice hardly any women were recruited after 1977. 

The FAPLA, then, was a male environment, which meant a mixing of men from all over Angola, thus constituting what David Birmingham calls one of the national institutions par excellence, in terms of creating bonds through a shared, arduous experience, and a sense of a national community. The FAPLA had grown to 120 000 troops by 1987, and several hundred thousand men had passed through its ranks by 1992. Christine Messiant noted that Umbundu soldiers formed the backbone of this army, and seem to have played an even more important role in it than they did in the colonial army, and in the same period Ovimbundu (men and some women) were becoming increasingly important in UNITA’s army (the FALA – Forças Armadas para a Libertação de Angola). This meant that the war often pitted people from the same families against each other, but despite the strong presence of Ovimbundu in the FAPLA, they were principally considered by northerners to be submissive to UNITA. Certain hierarchies developed in the FAPLA, with the higher ranks coming to be dominated by northerners. As fighting became fiercer, supplies often became scarcer, and even essential supplies were diverted from the front line by corruption. Disillusionment consequently grew during the 1980s, and desertions increased.

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FAPLA soldiers often had an antagonistic relationship with civilians, over whom they were often able to wield considerable power. While relations between civilians and soldiers varied according to region, civilians were targeted by both armed movements in this period with many thousands being killed and, in particular, large numbers of women subjected to sexual violence by soldiers. MPLA and UNITA soldiers both took predatory attitudes to women in conquered areas in the 1980s, in a period when HIV/Aids began to spread rapidly. Families are said to have responded to this threat by encouraging their daughters to marry younger and extending the breastfeeding period of their children in the hope of discouraging sexual assault by soldiers. 

João had spent longer in the FAPLA than most of the other men I worked with, only demobilising in 2002. João was recruited into the FAPLA at the age of 13, and describes his recruitment as “not voluntary”. Since both the government and UNITA would be trying to abduct adolescent boys, the only choice was which army to join. This was a common experience of FAPLA recruits: 63% of FAPLA veterans from the POEMA survey said that they were recruited non-voluntarily, either in response to a compulsory call up, or simply being snatched off the streets by a FAPLA recruitment party. João’s age at recruitment was towards the lower end of the scale for veterans in the survey, although 27% were recruited under the age of 18. After recruitment, João was eventually enrolled in training to be a paramedic. 

João emphasised some key topics when speaking of his time in the military, including the harsh discipline meted out by senior officers, the danger and fear experienced in combat, and the key tactics to surviving in battle. However, the major theme of his narration was that of the general immorality of soldiers’ conduct during the war, and his efforts to avoid committing certain moral transgressions that he considered particularly serious. In his account, these risked a moral disintegration from which he could not recover, and were also still the subject of particular moral censure in 2012. Part of the habitual immorality of soldiers’ conduct, he said, stemmed from the power they could exercise over civilians, which allowed them to steal with relative impunity. Food supplies in the FAPLA in the 1980s were quite adequate compared to civilian shortages, and many soldiers used this food as leverage over women, with whom it was exchanged for sex. João’s first child was born to a woman with whom he had a relationship on these terms when he was 19 years of age, a fact that he only recounted to me once we had known each other for almost a year. 

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He also spoke of the killing of enemy soldiers – in spite of being a paramedic, he also sometimes participated in frontline fighting: “You could have three or four friends, but after two or three battles, sometimes only you are left … So, when you go into combat, and you see them [the enemy]: ‘those are the ones that killed my friends’ … Anyone who says that he felt pity is a liar.” He considered these and other acts as morally dubious, but as being part and parcel of life as a soldier. However, João also struggled to avoid transgressions that he thought would take him beyond the pale. He occasionally mentioned that one such transgression was violent rape, but another that he addressed in more detail was that of killing civilians. He spoke of one occasion when he was ordered to kill four civilians, but seeing that they were “just peasants”, and were “innocent”, he took them away from his unit, fired four shots into the ground, and told them to hide until his unit had left the area: “You can not do it but … there was no way to say, ‘I’m not going to do that’, because if you say that, then it is you who will die. The others will be there waiting for you, to see how you did it … You have to show that you’re ready to do everything.” In this passage João speaks of exercising a similar kind of “tactical agency” that Honwana reports in the case of UNITA child soldiers, tacitly resisting orders from superiors while giving the appearance of compliance, to avoid committing acts that he found inexcusable and that would change him irrevocably. 

Vicente, like João, was also concerned with the harshness of military discipline and the morality of killing, but his narrative was strikingly different. When he was 16 he was walking home from school, and was grabbed off the street by a FAPLA recruiting team and sent for military training. After basic training he was selected for the rank of sergeant major, a higher rank than most of the veterans I worked with and one that he took great pride in, and he was sent for extra training to work in logistics. “Working in logistics was very complex. I passed into a very dangerous situation. [Soldiers] would eat and not be full, and they would come to me and say, ‘Sergeant major, give me something at least’, and I would give it to them without monitoring how quickly things would finish. One day I did the balance and saw that the food was finishing and there were still a lot of days to go [before resupply]. Like this you have a serious problem in your life … I gave out of the feeling [for others] that a man, a person has … So, I had to grab my money and go and replace what was gone – otherwise they would put me in prison or even kill me. … Until today people see me and say, ‘he was a sergeant major but he was a very good, peaceful man’.” 

He repeatedly emphasised his uncommon achievement in managing the feat of being “very nice” to his comrades, while respecting military discipline and pleasing his superiors. More importantly however, he expressed his relief at never having been sent to the front, fired a weapon or killed an enemy soldier. He was often nominated to go, but his “boss” would never allow it: “That’s why I can’t ever say that God was very distant. I really can’t. It’s better for me [now] to spend less time in the market and more time in church [a habit his colleagues had criticised him for].”

In Vicente’s narrative, then, he is concerned with the struggle to stay true to his moral code, but his story is a proud one, one of managing to successfully negotiate the pressures of military life through his own capacities and the “goodness” he felt towards his comrades; and through the protection of God, who prevented him from being sent to the front. 

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Jamba spoke less about his time in the army than the other two men, speaking of the war in general terms and only discussing his service when I asked specifically about it. He was the only one of the men I worked with who spoke of having been an active Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola or the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) supporter in his youth (although in the POEMA survey 30% of FAPLA veterans reported signing up for political reasons). He spoke of the story of Augusto Ngangula, mentioned by several veterans, a mythical figure whose biography was often cited in MPLA youth organisations in the late 1970s to encourage young men to sign up to the FAPLA. Ngangula was said to have been a young MPLA supporter during the colonial period who refused to disclose the location of an MPLA guerrilla base to the Portuguese and was murdered as a result. Jamba said that this had convinced him to “adhere to the military life” – to sign up to the FAPLA as part of the motorised infantry: 

“I swore loyalty to the flag. You had to swear to the flag when you were recruited. I swore for my fatherland, for the defence of my country and the integrity of Angolan territory, you had to swear … Even in that time, if you had fourth or fifth grade [of schooling]: driver; third or fourth grade: mechanic. And the others, who, with writing, can’t even sign their own name, go to the infantry … The others, in the artillery, are behind, the command is behind, the heavy weapons are behind. The tanks, they stay in a barrier with you, the infantry, it was called motorised infantry. You advance with the tanks. The first tanks of the enemy, it’s you who go against them first, so if they pass over, then it’s you that are passed over and who die first.”

The low status of less educated recruits is borne out by the POEMA survey data: the mean years of schooling for infantry veterans was 3.5; for rear guard specialisms and tank crews it was 4.58. As he spoke of the danger of death he was laughing mirthlessly and grimacing at the memory: emphasising both the fear of battles and a sort of dour pride that higher status recruits had a much easier time of it, while those considered lower status by the military were the ones taking the most risks and doing the most fighting. After some time, he became accustomed to the demands of battle and began to orient new recruits in the same process. In spite of the patriotism and courage that he also highlighted, he also spoke of how he had sold marijuana to his fellow soldiers, again emphasising the sinfulness of his life at that time. He was being considered for promotion when “this happened”, he said, rapping his knuckle on his prosthetic ankle.

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