His name still resonates on the African continent and beyond, almost four decades after his death. He was an intellectual, physician, poet, patriot, freedom fighter and committed anti-imperialist. Agostinho Neto is rightly considered the father of modern Angola.
António Agostinho Neto became Angola’s first president in 1975, after one of the African continent’s bloodiest and most protracted wars for independence. As head of the Movimento Popular de Libertagao de Angola (MPLA) since the early 1960s, Neto, who died in 1979, led the struggle to break free from Portuguese colonial rule. Trained as a physician in Portugal as a young man, he was also a published poet whose Times of London obituary termed him “a man of outstanding intellectual abilities who took advantage of the opportunities offered by the colonial authorities to emerge as their principal opponent.”
Neto was born on September 17, 1922, in Icolo-e-Bengo, in what was then known as Portuguese West Africa. Icolo-e-Bengo was located in an area called Catete, near Luanda, the capital city of this southwestern African land. His family was of Mbundu heritage, descendants of a once powerful kingdom that was brutally suppressed in 1902 by the Portuguese, who had established a lucrative economic presence in the area that dated back to 1575. Neto’s father was a Methodist minister who headed a local church, and his mother taught at a kindergarten. In his teens, he was one of only a few African students admitted to the prestigious Liceu Salvador Carreia, a high school that educated the country’s Portuguese elite. After high school, with his hopes to become a physician temporarily set aside, he worked for the government health services beginning in 1944. In 1947 he was offered a Methodist scholarship to study in Portugal, and enrolled at the University of Coimbra. Once there, he joined a group of students from African countries who opposed the entrenched dictatorship of António de Oliveira Salazar in Portugal.
Unlike many European countries in the post-World War II era, Portugal held on to its African colonies like Angola and Mozambique. The Salazar socialist regime formally declared Angola an overseas province in 1951, and made plans for a massive industrialization of the country. It did, however, attempt to extend more political rights to some native-born Angolans, granting assimilado status to a select few, which would provide full citizenship rights once educational credentials were submitted and an income level attained. Neto would eventually become one of the assimilado, who made up just one percent of Angola’s six million blacks. But while still abroad, he began to write poetry that questioned Portuguese rule in Angola, and from there he took an increasing role in student demonstrations. He was jailed three times for participating in political rallies, but was so well-known that a group of Portuguese and African dissidents organized a petition drive for his release.
Neto earned a medical degree from the University of Lisbon in 1958, and returned to Angola with his Portuguese-born wife, Maria Eugenia da Silva. Outside Luanda, in the Museques slum area, he opened a medical practice in which, holding true to his political ideals, he treated all regardless of income. He also continued to write verse, and his first volume, Colectânea de Poemas, was published in 1961. Most of the poems were “despairing portraits of Africans under the colonial yoke,” noted a New York Times report by Michael T. Kaufman. Not surprisingly, the poems landed him in trouble with colonial authorities, who declared them seditious, but Neto was already becoming a well-known figure in Luanda as well. Finally he was arrested at his office, and a crowd gathered in his home village. Soldiers fired when the crowd erupted, and some 30 people were killed. The incident was part of a much larger political foment that year, which the Portuguese harshly suppressed.
Neto was exiled to the Cape Verde Islands, and from there he was sent to Portugal, where he was placed under house arrest, before escaping to Morocco in 1962. He made his way to Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), and in its capital, Kinshasa, he became involved in an Angolan exile group that sought political sovereignty for the country. Marxist in tone, the MPLA dated back to 1956 and had become popular with many middle-class Angolans who had been educated abroad, like Neto. He was quickly elected to lead the party.
Neto went back into Angola, and led the MPLA for the next twelve years during its struggle to gain independence for the country. The group’s strategy involved guerrilla raids from outside the country by both MPLA units and those of the Front for the Liberation of Angola (FNLA). A third group, the Uniäo Nacional para a Independência Total de Angola (UNITA), emerged in 1966 to join the existing resistance movement. The leaders of all three groups, Neto included, sought help from Western and Communist nations, as well as other African countries, in order to obtain both funding and international sympathy for Angolans in their plight against Portuguese domination. Neto traveled to the Soviet Union in 1964, and to Cuba to seek assistance from the government of Communist leader Fidel Castro.
By the early 1970s, Portugal’s determination to hold onto Angola and other overseas provinces was forcing some 40 percent of its meagre national budget into military expenditures. Widespread dissatisfaction inside Portugal itself finally helped end the Angolan war for independence, when a 1974 military coup in Lisbon brought down the dictatorship, and the new government declared a truce with the Angolan rebel groups. By late 1975, negotiations were concluded that finally granted Angola its independence, and the People’s Republic of Angola was declared at midnight on November 11, 1975. Neto was sworn in as the country’s first president on the same night.
Neto faced numerous obstacles in bringing peace to the newly independent country, ravaged after years of war that had decimated the countryside and cities. Within weeks, FNLA led by Holden Roberto and UNITA forces led by Jonas Savimbi had teamed up to fight the MPLA in what became a civil conflict that endured until 2002. Neto’s MPLA government was recognized by the international community, however, and in a historic step he managed to gain admittance for Angola to the United Nations in 1977. He continued to seek help from Cuba, and Angola became a Cold War battleground for a time, with Communist nations funding the MPLA and Western powers and South Africa’s apartheid government providing aid to the UNITA group.
Despite the obstacles placed before him, Neto’s compelling sense of duty to his people and country motivated him as it had done in his years as a student, doctor, and a leader in exile. His own inclination was more to intellectual pursuits and a private life, but he continued to give Angola the strong leadership that it needed. He acted as a moderating influence within his government while remaining fully committed to building a socialist state. The problems of building a modern nation state on the ruins of an old colonial empire were immense. Illiteracy was about 85 percent and many trained Portuguese had left the country, adding to his burdensome task. Added to this were the problems posed by UNITA and FNLA. Unfortunately, the great Angolan patriot would have his work cut short.
Neto travelled once more to Moscow in 1979, to receive treatment for cancer and would die there on September 10, 1979. He was seven days short of his 57th birthday.
The sole volume of Neto’s poetry that has appeared in English translation is titled Sacred Hope.