LUANDA, Feb 3 – Fifty years ago, on February 4 1961, Angolan nationalists tried to forcibly liberate colonial political prisoners in a date celebrated as the start of Angola\’s independence struggle.
But the anniversary is not unanimously recognised and has become a focus of division among the movements that went on to fight for freedom against the Portuguese colonial rule.
The day\’s official historical importance is enshrined in the opening bars of the national anthem: "Fatherland, we shall never forget the heroes of February 4. We honour the past and our history."
On this day at dawn, militants of the People\’s Liberation Movement of Angola (MPLA) dressed in black and armed with sticks, machetes and firearms attacked several prisons in Luanda to free opponents to colonialism.
The raids, which led to seven Portuguese police deaths and several dozen Angolan victims, were followed by violent repression and a 14-year war by three nationalist movements which ended more than four centuries of colonisation.
"The date of February 4, 1961, is as important to Angolans as the date of independence 11 November, 1975. One marks the beginning and the other the end of the liberation struggle," Antonio Bento Bembe, secretary of state for human rights told AFP.
But Portugal\’s departure did not signal peace for the south-western African nation.
In 1975, during the Cold War, a devastating 27 year civil conflict for power started among the three anti-colonial groups: the MPLA, the National Union for the Total Liberation of Angola (UNITA) and the National Liberation Front of Angola (FNLA).
The MPLA, founded in 1956, was backed by Cuba and the Soviet Union, UNITA by South Africa\’s apartheid regime and the United States, and the FNLA by president Mobutu in neighbouring Congo.
Now, opposition parties since a 2002 ceasefire, UNITA and the FNLA are aggrieved by the commemorations for February 4 which they did not participate in although they both went on to fight against the Portuguese.
"There\’s a big controversy that always arises when the date approaches," said Alicides Sakala of UNITA.
"It is a date for the MPLA. It\’s not a date for all the Angolan people, it does not include the three liberation movements."
February 4 is a landmark "of the national liberation struggle" but so are December 25, 1966, when UNITA first attacked a Portuguese vehicle or March 15, 1961 when the FNLA first rose up, in northern coffee plantations, he argued.
But the MPLA, which won more than 80 percent of the vote in parliamentary polls in September 2008, has imposed its version of history.
A new law passed in January will mark February 4 as the official beginning of the war of independence.