The southwestern African nation of Angola suddenly hit the news this weekend when reports surfaced that the government had supposedly banned Islam and begun closing mosques nationwide. The country is rarely in the American media, and most Americans know little about it. Here’s a primer for catching up on the Republic of Angola.
Until Portugal began colonizing the area in the 15th century, the area that is now Angola was at various times part of the African kingdoms of Kongo and Mbunda. The Portuguese colonization of Angola was a slow affair, and Portugal did not establish political control of the whole territory until the early 20th century.
For much of the latter half of the 20th century, Angola was engaged in constant warfare. From 1961 to 1974, Angolans fought a guerrilla war of independence from Portugal that finally ended after a military coup in Portugal overthrew the dictatorship and the new leaders pulled out of Africa completely.
After its war for independence, Angola plunged into an often brutal civil war from 1975 to 2002. In a proxy war of the Cold War, the Soviet-backed People's Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) and the U.S.-backed National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) fought for decades for political control of the nation. Over the years, the war displaced more than a third of Angola’s population. After the death of its leader Jonas Savimbi in 2002, UNITA formally disbanded its armed forces, signaling an end to the civil war.
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After adopting a new constitution in 2010, Angola is currently a presidential republic, offering almost absolute power to President José Eduardo dos Santos, who has been in office since 1979. The president has power to appoint or dismiss virtually every government position save the vice president. The legislative branch, the National Assembly, is theoretically set to hold elections every four years, though it has only held such elections in 1992, 2008 and 2012. In 2012, 37 percent of voters turned in blank or invalid votes in protest of every party on the ballot.
Much of Angola’s wealth comes from oil and diamond mining. As a member of OPEC, Angola’s oil output has steadily increased since reaching political stability in 2002. The nation produces a nominal GDP of $128.8 billion, roughly equivalent to the U.S. state of Kansas. Its GDP per capita, however, stands at $5,873 per person, far lower than any U.S. state.
Angola is made up largely of local African ethnic groups, including Ovimbundu, Ambundu and Bakongo. Angola’s largest city by far is its capital Luanda, with a population of 2.8 million. It is the third-largest Portuguese speaking city in the world.
Though Angola has reportedly banned Islam, the religion has only a minor presence in Angola. A 2008 report from the Department of State states that Angola’s Muslim population only amounts to some 90,000 adherents, or about half of one percent of the population. Most of Angola’s Muslim population is not native to the area, but migrated from West Africa or Lebanon, reportedly leading many Angolans to negatively link Islam and illegal immigration.
The vast majority of Angolans are Christian. About half the nation is Catholic, while an additional 25 percent belong to African Christian denominations. Ten percent of the nation follows mainline Protestant traditions, and another 5 percent of the population attends various Brazilian evangelical churches. A small percentage of Angola’s rural population also practices traditional indigenous religion.