MPLA—Director of the Service for Radio and Telecommunications Minister of Industry and Energy Ambassador of Angola to Zimbabwe
Tor Sellström: Did you as a young MPLA student in Portugal have any contacts with the Nordic countries?
Alberto Ribeiro-Kabulu: In Portugal, we had a front organization called Casa dos Estudantes do Império, which had students from all the former Portuguese colonies, but the biggest group was from Angola. We organized ourselves underground and managed to leave Portugal in 1961, after the outbreak of the armed struggle in Angola. We were together with our comrades from Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau, Cape Verde and Goa. After passing through Paris, we went to Ghana, where we set up a new organization called the General Union of Students from Black Africa under Portuguese Colonial Domination (UGEAN). The first congress of UGEAN took place in Rabat, Morocco, in August-September 1961.
The first contacts that we had with student groups in the Nordic countries, Germany, France and so on was at that congress. From then on, support was extended to us as a student organization via the World Assembly of Youth (WAY) and the World University Service (WUS).
There was very strong solidarity at the level of the students. I got a scholarship from the West German Students’ Union to pursue university studies in Germany. I studied to become a telecommunications engineer. After I had finished my studies in Aachen, I worked in West Germany for three years with computers and in telecommunications before going to MPLA’s Eastern Front in Angola in 1968.
President Agostinho Neto twice came to see the Angolan students in Germany and when MPLA organized the Eastern Front many cadres joined from different parts of the world. Neto asked me to set up the telecommunications services for the liberation struggle. Of course, the first condition was to find suitable people. I asked Neto to give me all the MPLA students who had been under technical training all over the world. That is how people who had studied in the former Soviet Union and elsewhere came to my squadron. It was a military squadron, called the SRT—Service for Radio and Telecommunications.
Tor Sellström: I think that you had a petroleum engineer from the Soviet Union in your squadron, José Eduardo dos Santos, now President of Angola?
Alberto Ribeiro-Kabulu: Exactly. He and all the others who had been studying in the Communist countries. What was interesting was that my case was quite unusual, because I had graduated from a university in West Germany. It was Neto who insisted that I should have this responsibility, but in the days of the Cold War it had its limitations. I had no access to the Communist countries. I was not chosen for further training in the Soviet Union and I was only able to visit the socialist countries after our independence.
Tor Sellström: It illustrates Neto’s position in the bipolar world at the time?
Alberto Ribeiro-Kabulu: Yes. He was very independent, both in relation to thinking and in the way he was leading the struggle. He wanted to be at a comfortable distance to the countries that could help us militarily, that is the former socialist countries. Telecommunications was a very sensitive area, because it dealt with the codes and the secrets of the movement. We had fronts in Cabinda, in the Dembos region, in central and eastern Angola and offices on the other side of the continent, in Dar es Salaam. My first task was to organize a network of telecommunications so that we could talk from Dar es Salaam to Brazzaville, for instance, and from Brazzaville to the Eastern Front. Neto was always travelling, so this was crucial.
To know what was going on in the military structures of the enemy we also needed intelligence, and intelligence obviously comes from listening to the enemy. My first real cooperation with Sweden came through that. In around 1969, we had captured some radios from the Portuguese units in eastern Angola. They were very useful. I remember when they were brought to me. I immediately informed the MPLA leadership that we for the first time would be able to listen to the Portuguese and so we did. Later, we needed some supplies to change the frequencies. We then put the question to our friends from the Africa Groups in Sweden. That is how we came to know Hillevi and Lars Nilsson and the Swedish engineer who is still working with the Ministry of Defence in Luanda. We got very useful supplies from them.
Tor Sellström: So, you had early contacts with the Swedish solidarity movement even inside Angola?
Alberto Ribeiro-Kabulu: Yes. We asked them to provide a good telecommunications engineer who could work with us. To my surprise I met a very quiet person, but a brilliant engineer. He came to see us in Lusaka and immediately started to work with us. We assembled the radios which we captured from the enemy. The main reason for using technology from the Western countries was that it was used by the Portuguese. To understand what was going on and to get intelligence from listening to their radio emissions, we had to have access to that. The second reason was, obviously, that the Western technology was by far superior.
One of the first tools that we used from 1968 was audio-tapes. We went into combat with audio-tapes. For instance, when ya Henda died in action at Karipande everything was recorded on a Philips audio-tape. One of the solidarity groups which supplied us with the necessary equipment was the Swedish Africa Groups. Our reports were mostly made on small tapes. That was completely new in the 1960s. It was something that only came onto the market at that time.
We also had another early form of cooperation which was very sensitive. I was asked by President Neto to protect our communications network as much as I could, because we were talking all across Africa, from Dar es Salaam to Brazzaville. Neto was very clear on one aspect. He asked me to invent something new and not follow the roads given to our trainees in the socialist countries. Our people who went for training in the Soviet Union, Cuba and so on brought us some knowledge of codes and cryptography. But Neto told me: ‘Look, I don’t want to use this. Try to invent something new’. When I finished my masters degree in Germany I had been working with computers and I had gained some knowledge related to that. However, I needed books on cryptography and mathematics, which I got through the solidarity groups. It was a very useful and little known support, including from Lars and Hillevi. With books for this specific area, we created our own code.
Some of our friends were not at all happy with that. In particular, of course, the liaison officials from the socialist countries. They also wanted to know what was going on. But it was Neto’s clear position that ‘we have to keep our own secrets and we will use this system’. Until the end of the war we used our own codes. We also used the equipment we had captured in action against the Portuguese to control things. In this connection, one very interesting event comes to my mind. After the April 1974 revolution in Portugal, I talked to our leaders and said: ‘We are able to follow what is going on.’ Neto was keen to sign a cease-fire inside Angola, not outside the country. So we initiated contacts with the Portuguese through the very same radios that they had used against us. It was really amazing. The Portuguese were very surprised when we met for the cease-fire in Moxico, seeing that we had such a well organized service, not only with regard to communications, but also to intelligence. Again, it was not only through our own achievement, but very much that of the solidarity committees, in this case specifically in Sweden.
Finally, after signing the cease-fire with the Portuguese we came to Luanda. At that time, we had the transitional government. One day President Neto asked me to go with the head of security of the MPLA to meet a Portuguese officer in charge of military intelligence. He was very surprised to learn that we were not using the methods of codification used, for instance, by FRELIMO and the other liberation movements. He wanted to know the reason why...
This is a clear illustration of the fact that MPLA never was completely under the control of foreign military advisers, which was the policy of Neto. He was very independent-minded in relation to that. Even stubborn. Of course, during all these years from 1968 to 1974, he sometimes put me in a very uncomfortable situation. But it is gratifying to know that we really had our own resources and that we used them for the liberation struggle.
Tor Sellström: In 1969, the Swedish parliament paved the way for official support to the liberation movements. How did you view this development?
Alberto Ribeiro-Kabulu: Well, the Nordic countries knew that the sources of our struggle were genuine. They knew that from the early 1960s a group of real nationalists were fighting under the banner of MPLA and that it was a broad-based grouping, a front representing different tribes from different regions of the country and different classes, from students to sailors. From the lumpen proletariat to traditional chiefs.
In countries like Sweden, Denmark and Norway we had direct contacts with the civil society at the level of students and support committees. When I recall my personal ties with the Nordic countries—first of all with Sweden, Denmark and Norway—the support always began through the people, students, workers and trade-unionists. It was the civil society in those countries that channelled the message to their governments. In other cases, for instance in the socialist countries, the support came straight from the governments and from parties in one-party states. In the case of the Nordic countries, it first came through contacts from people to people. It was the civil society that was in touch with us. It made a big difference in relation to the support.
In addition, Neto was somehow seduced by Olof Palme, Sweden and the Nordic countries regarding the way that they understood the nationalist interest of their own countries, based on moral principles and independence in the divided bipolar world of the socialist and the capitalist blocs. He was seduced by that and also by the principles of social solidarity which were one of the bases of the Social Democratic Party in Sweden.
I recall a discussion between Neto and Olof Palme when Palme visited Angola with the Socialist International in 1977. At the time, the world was very polarized. It was during the worst days of the Cold War. Olof Palme told Agostinho Neto: ‘With your background, your attitudes and the way in which you have led the liberation struggle, I cannot believe that you are a Marxist.’ I think that it had some influence on Neto’s immediate actions. We had been confronted by the terrible force of apartheid South Africa. To survive as a nation we had had no choice but to look for help where it was available. However, after the meeting with Palme, Neto immediately started to work on an independent settlement, which would include the withdrawal of the Cuban forces and the independence of Namibia. The real beginning of UN Resolution 435—which was negotiated in 1978—was a drive from Neto to have a settlement without the participation of outside forces. An independent settlement of the conflicts in South Western Africa—including Angola and Namibia— without the constraints of the Cold War polarization. I believe that Palme’s advice was decisive in relation to this.
The death of Neto was very untimely. It was a sad event. He could have changed the course of history, because he had the blueprint for a solution. When I look back at some of the missions he gave me before his death in relation to the settlement of the conflict in Angola, to our problems with UNITA and to the contacts with the apartheid regime, the Cubans and the United States, I think that if he had had six months more of his life he could have implemented Resolution 435. Ten years thereafter we finally came to a settlement. In December 1988, we signed the agreement in New York. In the meantime we had lost ten years.
Tor Sellström: There was thus a close relationship between Olof Palme and Agostinho Neto?
Alberto Ribeiro-Kabulu: Yes. The neutrality of Sweden was very important for this relationship. We were looking for support outside the Cold War polarization and it could only come from the Nordic countries, as indeed it did.
Tor Sellström: Do you think that there were political or ideological conditions attached to the Swedish, or the Nordic, humanitarian support to MPLA?
Alberto Ribeiro-Kabulu: No, not at all. I also got the impression that the solidarity groups and the civil society in the Nordic countries—particularly in Sweden, but also in Denmark—were watchful in that context. They knew us very well. They had been with us in the liberated areas and they had played an important role for the official aid from the governments. Even if we sometimes faced constraints and limitations— for instance regarding four-wheel drive vehicles, which could be used for military purposes—the insistence of the solidarity movement always helped us to get things right.
Tor Sellström: After independence, the Nordic countries continued to support the liberation movements in Angola, particularly SWAPO and ANC. Was this discussed with the Nordic governments? How did you look upon this support?
Alberto Ribeiro-Kabulu: The Nordic support to ANC and SWAPO in Angola was very welcome and part of our contacts. In the case of SWAPO, the entire leadership was in Angola since our independence.
We were very generous to ANC and, particularly, to SWAPO. SWAPO had almost complete autonomy, for instance, in Kwanza Sul. We had a lot in common with our Namibian comrades-in-arms in SWAPO, including culture, language and ethnicity.
SWAPO really enjoyed a high level of autonomy. I recall when ya Toivo was released from prison. The South Africans tried to bribe him to remain in Windhoek, but he refused and came to Luanda. I got to know him in those days. I was impressed by his courage and determination. At that time, we discussed with SWAPO the possible security arrangements that we could provide for an independent Namibia. That is when SWAPO for the first time started to discuss membership of the Commonwealth. We gave them complete freedom to make contacts at the highest diplomatic level in Luanda to discuss the issue. In my personal view, the only possible umbrella against apartheid South Africa was the Commonwealth, because we could not provide the necessary protection and the guarantees for the survival of Namibia. Anyway, this is an indication of the high degree of independence that SWAPO had. They could work in Luanda as a government. They had access to our government, but they also had access to the diplomatic corps.
Tor Sellström: Did you coordinate policy at the United Nations with the Nordic countries?
Alberto Ribeiro-Kabulu: Oh, yes very much so. Martti Ahtisaari, for example, came to Angola many, many times to find out how to implement UN Resolution 435.