Protagonists (Factions) of the Portuguese Colonial War

During the Portuguese Colonial War Portugal faced 27,000 insurgents spread across three theatres (Cann, 1997). The insurgents represented a wide range of, and often conflicting, liberation movements. Factions within a wider insurgency. I’ve only listed those that had armed forces in the field. Generally they fought in small groups; a force of 200 insurgents gathered in one place was rare.


Portugal was the first European nation to have a presence in Black Africa and were the last to leave.


The three liberation movements in Angola spent a lot of time fighting each other rather than the Portuguese (Abbott & Rodrigues, 1998). FNLA forces attacked MPLA groups crossing into northern Angola. The MPLA gave, via informants, the Portuguese information about the whereabouts of the FNLA. The MPLA also fought UNITA.


The UPA (União das Populações de Angola; “Union of the Populations of Angola”) was a non-marxist nationalist organisation (Abbott & Rodrigues, 1998; Cann, 1997). It had a tribal perspective as the leadership and members were predominantly from the Bakongo ethno-linguistic group – a group that occupied the area of the old Kingdom of Kongo (Angola, Belgium Congo, French Congo, and Cabinda).

Belgium Congo (Zaire) became independent in 1960 and from 30 Jun 1960 the new regime began to support the UPA including allowing them a radio station and training camp (Abbott & Rodrigues, 1998; Cann, 1997). The movement received support from Congo, Algeria and the US

A year after their defeat in the Mar 1961 revolt the UPA changed their name to FNLA (Frente Nacional de Libertaço de Angola; “National Front for the Liberation of Angola”) although they were often still referred to as UPA (Abbott & Rodrigues, 1998; Cann, 1997). Also in Mar 1962 they formed a government in exile called GRAE (Governo da República de Angola no Exílio; “Government of the Republic of Angola in Exile”).

The military wing was formed in Jun 1961 called ELNA (Exército de Libertação Nacional de Angola; “National Liberation Army of Angola”) (Abbott & Rodrigues, 1998; Cann, 1997). They built up a large force in the Congo and Zaire. In the early 1960s it reached a peak of 6,200 men. The leadership was unwilling, however, to commit these forces back in Angola so the men mostly stayed in their camp at Kinkuzu. Morale declined and in 1972 they mutinied. The Zairian army intervened and took over training.


The MPLA (Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola; “Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola”) was a group of radical Marxist intellectuals formed in 1956 (Abbott & Rodrigues, 1998; Cann, 1997). Their power base were the urbanised Angolans and some tribes; Abbott & Rodrigues say the Ovimbundu people; Canns says the Mbundu and Chokwe peoples. PIDE effectively suppressed the movement during the late 1950s. In the early 1960s hostility from the FNLA and the Congolese government meant that the MPLA armed forces where limited to the Angolan enclave of Cabinda. With Zambian independence in 1965 the MPLA gained access to Eastern Angola. Following a meeting with Che Guevara in 1965 the MPLA began to receive Cuban instructors and Soviet and East German supplies. They were initially based in Leopoldville, but moved to Brazzaville in 1963, and in 1966 the bulk of their forces moved to Lusaka in Zambia to open their ‘Eastern Offensive’. They had about 4,700 men from that time until 1974. During their ‘Eastern Offensive’ they set up two bases (‘Hanoi II’ and ‘Ho Chi Minh’). The ‘Agostinho Neto Trail’ kept them supplied from Tanzania and Zambia. After 1970 they started to get heavier Chinese supplies. By the end of 1970 they could form squadrons (esquadrões) of 100 – 150 men (Davidson, 1981). These included ‘artillery’ sections equipped with 60mm and 81mm mortars and 75mm recoilless rifles. The heavier weaponry allowed them to attack Portuguese posts.


In 1966 UNITA (União Nacionalpara a Independéncia Total de Angola; “National Union for the Total Independence of Angola”) broke away from the FNLA (Abbott & Rodrigues, 1998). Its power base was the Ovimbundu people in central Angola. They received Chinese support. They operated from Zambia until expelled in 1968. Following expulsion from Zambia in 1968 they had at most 500 active guerillas.


Portuguese Guinea had two main factions: PAIGC and FLING (Cann, 1997).


It is good [for all nationalist movements] to remember … that regardless of how similar are their struggles and their enemies to one another, national liberation and social revolution cannot be exported. They are… the products of local and national forces. While somewhat influenced by external factors, they are largely determined and tempered by the particular culture of a country’s people and its unique local characteristics

(Amilcar Cabral, quoted in Cann, 1997, p. 23)

Remember always that the people do not fight for ideas, for the things that only exist in the heads of individuals. The people fight and they accept the necessary sacrifices. but they do it in order to gain material advantages, to live in peace and to improve their lives, to experience progress, and to be able to guarantee a future to their children.

(Amilcar Cabral, quoted in Cann, 1997, p. 24)

The Marxist PAIGC (Partido Africano da Independência da Guiné e Cabo Verde; “African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde”) formed in 1956 under Amilcar Cabral (Abbott & Rodrigues, 1998; Cann, 1997). The ‘Pidjiguiti Massacre’ of 3 Aug 1959 turned the PAIGC militant. They commenced sabotage operations in 1961 and guerrilla warfare in 1963. By 1968 they controlled 2/3 of the land area and half the population. In 1973 a PAIGC member assassinated Cabral. They suffered internal friction between the mulatto Cape Verdean leadership and the African Guineans (Cann, 1997).


FLING (Frente de Luta pela Guiné; “Fighting Front for Guinea”) made a few raids from bases in Senegal in 1963 but wasn’t a major factor after that (Abbott & Rodrigues, 1998; Cann, 1997). One of the groups that formed FLING was MLG (Movement for the Liberation of Guinea) which drew its support primarily from Mandjaks living in Senegal (Chaliand, 1967).

From 25 Aug 1962 FLING’s military arm was called the National Liberation Army of Guine (Armée de Liberation Nacionale Guiné or ALNG; “National Liberation Army Guinea”)


Mozambique had three main liberation movements: FRELIMO, MANU, and COREMO.


FRELIMO (Frente Libertação de Moçambique; “Mozambique Liberation Front”) was created in 1962 from the combination of three existing liberation movements (Abbott & Rodrigues, 1998). They elected Eduardo Mondlane as their leader. Newly independent Tanganyika (later Tanzania) offered them sanctuary. Their main training camp was at Kongwa in southern Tanzania.

FRELIMO had two main objectives (Waring, 1962, p. 31, cited in Morris, 1974, p. 75):

  1. the total liquidation of Portuguese colonial domination in Mozambique, and of all the vestiges of colonialism and imperialism
  2. the conquest of immediate and complete independence of Mozambique (sic) and the construction of a developed, modern, prosperous and strong Mozambique

FRELIMO claimed to be non-tribal however they received support and men from only two major tribal groupings (Makondes, Nyanjas) and one lesser grouping (Yaos) (Morris, 1974). These were all located in the northeast plateau of Cabo Delgado and in Niassa. All three groupings had a history of conflict with the Portuguese however there were also some tensions between the groups. For example, the Nyanjas were Christian and the Yaos Muslim; I assume the Makondes were pagan. Over time there were many splinter groups although few managed to put men in the field. Much of the manpower, however, was from the Makonde people of northern Mozambique.

Initially FRELIMO debated three strategies: lightning attack on the capital, incite the peasants against the white settlers, and conduct a classic Communist protracted guerilla struggle (Abbott & Rodrigues, 1998). The latter strategy won out. They began sending men to train in Algeria in 1962 and began operations in Sep 1964 (Cann, 1997). Initially they tried to organize rising all over the country but without support from South Africa, Malawi and Rhodesia the southern and central fronts collapsed quickly. That left the route from Tanzania – FRELIMO had bases at Nashingwea, Kongwa, Bagamoyo and Tunduru – across the Rovuma River into the northern provinces of Cabo Delgado and Niassa (Morris, 1974).

Aside from Portuguese action the Makua people prevented FRELIMO expansion to the south due to their traditional hostility to the Makondes (Morris, 1974). The line between these ethnic groups was essentially the front line. South of Mueda, in Makua territory, the locals would not cooperate with FRELIMO forces. The FRELIMO platoons, for example, had to forage for their own food.

At the 2nd FRELIMO conference in 1968 the conservatives, from the Makonde people, were denied a separate Makonde state, were deserted by the Tanzanians, and expelled from FRELIMO (Abbott & Rodrigues, 1998). Faction fighting broke out; Makonde militiamen in Cabo Delgado fought the FPLM and killed at least one senior commander. Three months later the Makonde leader, Kavandame, went over to the Portuguese. Mondlane was shortly afterwards killed by a parcel bomb and was succeeded by Samora Machel – the guy who’d argued for a protracted guerrilla war.

After 1970 the FPLM used Zambia to open a new, southern, front in Tete (Abbott & Rodrigues, 1998). The Portuguese responded with Operation Gordian Knot in the north. None-the-less FRELIMO continued to push south along the Zambezi river. By 1973 the advanced guerrilla groups were operating near Beira. The regular units now had sufficient heavy weapons to attack Portuguese fortified post.


On 28 Aug 1964 the Khartoum based MANU (“Mozambique African National Union”) started sporadic attacks inside Mozambique (Morris, 1974).


COREMO (Comite Revolucionario de Mocambique; “Revolutionary Committee of Mozambique”) were a Chinese supported splinter group of FRELIMO formed in mid-1965 in Lusaka in Zambia (Abbott & Rodrigues, 1998; Morris, 1974). The second president, Paulo Gumane, was a personal friend of Zambian President Kaunda. According to the Portuguese General de Arriaga COREMO believed COREMO was merely a Chinese fallback should the Russian faction within FRELIMO begin to dominate over the Chinese faction. COREMO were big enough to put guerrilla forces into the field. Their bases were in Zambia; the main training base being Chipata. Their chosen area of operations was the Tete area and they had several staging posts along with Zambia-Mozambique border. They had 500 trained men of which 250-300 were in Mozambique at any one time. They generally avoided direct confrontation with the Portuguese and restricted themselves to building up a trained force, laying mines and occasionally, and generally unsuccessfully, escorting Pan African Congress (PAC) members headed for South Africa (a duty for which it received arms). As well as the Portuguese, COREMO also fought FRELIMO in Mozambique, Zambia and Tanzania.

Foreign Support

The insurgents were backed by a variety of countries and groups including, in no particular order, the USSR, East Germany, Cuba, China, North Vietnam, Organization of African Unity (OAU), Nigeria, Zambia, Zaire, Tanzania, Malawi, Algeria, Egypt, and Ethiopia (Venter, 1974b). All these are from the Communist, African and Arab block. But support also came from the USA, Israel, Sweden, Demark, Norway and World Council of Churches. The Netherlands may have sent support as well. The World Council of Churches and the Scandinavians sent non-military aid. Others, such as Israel and North Vietnam, provided instructors. the USA, China and the USSR provided military supplies.


Abbott, P. and Rodrigues, M. (1998). Modern African Wars 2: Angola and Mozambique 1961-74. Osprey.

Cann, J. P. (1997). Counterinsurgency in Africa: The Portuguese way of war 1961-1974. Hailer.

Chaliand, G. (1967). Armed Struggle in Africa: With the Guerrillas in “Portuguese” Guinea. New York: Monthly Review Press.

Guerra Colonial [Portuguese]

Morris, M. (1974). Armed Conflict in Southern Africa. Cape Town, South Africa: Jeremy Spence.

Waring, R. (1962). The Case for Portugal. Angola: A Symposium. Views of a Revolt, 30-46. Oxford University Press.

Venter, A. J. (1974b). The Zambesi Salient: Conflict in Southern Africa. Cape Town: Howard Timmins.

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