Angola: The Weight of History; L'Angola postcolonial: Guerre et paix sans democratization

In This Review

Angola: The Weight of History

By Patrick Chabal and Nuno Vidal, eds
Columbia University Press, 2007
256 pp. $50.00
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L'Angola postcolonial: Guerre et paix sans democratization

By Christine Messiant
Karthala, 2008
420 pp. $0.00
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Angola is woefully undercovered by both academics and journalists, in part because of its Portuguese heritage and in part because civil war and authoritarian politics have discouraged many observers from trying to get there. Yet, as Africa's second-biggest oil producer (after Nigeria), and given the very active diplomacy of the regime of José Eduardo dos Santos, which has intervened militarily in both Congos in the last decade, the country deserves more attention. These two books on postcolonial Angolan politics are thus welcome. They cover largely the same ground in accounts that emphasize historical factors and political sociology. The edited collection by Chabal and Vidal is shorter and more focused. An early chapter focuses on the legacies of Portuguese colonialism and the guerrilla war led by the now-ruling MPLA (the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola). The best chapters, those by Vidal and Tony Hodges, focus on the nature of the dos Santos regime: first, as it consolidated power after independence despite the long and brutal civil war with the guerrilla movement UNITA (the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola) and, second, as it advanced a superficial democratization of the regime after the civil war ended in 2002.

The book by the French scholar Messiant is a fascinating, if at times repetitive, set of loosely related essays she wrote before her untimely death in 2006. Extensive fieldwork in the region informs the essays, which provide perhaps the best history of the Angolan civil war and the evolution of the MPLA regime -- its internal dynamics and international diplomacy, its relationship to civil-society actors, and its use of the dynamics of the civil war to consolidate its power during the 1990s. Two excellent chapters focus on the complex relationship between the state and the church. In a country with an exceedingly weak civil society, where religious institutions have been uniquely allowed room to act in the public sphere, the role of the church has been critical.