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Southern Africa Report Archive

This is a collection of newsflashes on Angola, taken from notes from the Angola Development Network. These are presented under the headings: The current situation, Dos Santos and company, Jonas Savimbi, Resources, Displacement of peoples. The article concludes with: "Hope always comes from the people, but the Angolan people are tired and intimidated by nearly 40 years of instability and ruthless political oppression from one side or the other." ... "Civil society has some potential to bring the country together if ever given the chance to do so." (jbv)

vol 14 no 4

NewsFlashes - Angola
Angola Development Network

Printable Version
Southern Africa Report

SAR, Vol 14 No 4, August 1999
Page 26


Contributions for these newsflashes come from Ian Ketchison, Jim Kirkwood, Joanne LeBert, Ian Spears.

1. The current situation

Veteran supporters of the long struggle for peace and justice in Angola are saying that any progress towards resolution has been set back by years, at least to the period of bloody fighting after the elections of 1992, but perhaps even to the days of debilitating guerrilla warfare and terrorism of the 1980s, before the Bicesse Accord in the early 1990s.

The countryside is emptying, and those who remain starve as crops are stolen by marauding troops or hungry rebels. Most flee to urban slums in any town big enough to be defended by Government forces. There they scrounge a bare living, almost entirely dependent on international aid and the charity of those who have a meagre salary and/or are family. They barter in skimpy local markets for very basic needs with anything they may have.

There is no clear military victory in sight. The upper hand is with UNITA at the moment and the government's armed forces (FAA) are on the defensive. No one is even mentioning negotiations -not likely at least for the next 18 months or so when, it is hoped, both sides may again accept the fact that no one can win outright. Both Savimbi and dos Santos are slow learners, however, and apparently devoid of any concept of serving the needs of people they have power over.

The government's on-going military difficulties are said to be particularly embarrassing. The MPLA had expected to regain control over Bailundo and Andulo from UNITA quickly when it began its December 1998 offensive. Now the government appears to have its back to the wall as it tries to recoup the positions that it lost so quickly to UNITA in the first weeks of fighting.

2. Dos Santos and company

While much of the reporting on this most recent return to war appears to be based on rumours and speculation, it is clear that the government is in trouble. Though it seems unlikely that UNITA will capture the capital, a number of reports since March have placed UNITA forces within a few dozen kilometres of Luanda. According to UNITA's Secretary General, Paulo Lukamba Gato, UNITA controls 70 percent of Angolan territory - a figure few objective observers would challenge. Indeed, the government's Chief of Staff, General Joao de Matos, recently accompanied a group of journalists to Cuito and reportedly gave an extraordinarily honest assessment of the government's current military predicament. He acknowledged that UNITA's offensive and defensive military capabilities had been vastly underestimated.

As noted, there appears to be little hope of an imminent negotiated settlement. Given the failure of both the Bicesse Accords and the Lusaka Protocol, it is difficult to imagine that the government would be willing to negotiate with Savimbi for a third time: it is no secret that the government would prefer to remove Savimbi from the equation once and for all.

Of course, both sides are heavily armed and the government continues to negotiate "signature bonuses" (payments on exploration licenses) with oil companies for potential offshore "deep-water" wells. Estimates of the revenue the government will be able to divert to arms purchases range from $500 million to $1.5 billion for this year alone.

UNITA had long warned the government that military offensives would be met with equal or superior military force. UNITA netted an estimated $2 4 billion over the last 4 years from smuggled Angolan diamonds and reportedly went on a recent arms buying spree that included tanks and heavy artillery. The new equipment allowed UNITA to defend its central highland cities of Andulo and Bailundo and to launch attacks on the provincial capitals of Cuito and Malanje. There were reports - albeit received with some scepticism - that UNITA had even acquired sophisticated jet fighters.

Current reports claim that the government is planning yet another major offensive - called Operation Cocimbo - in June against UNITA strongholds in the central highlands. While previous government efforts in December and March failed to capture UNITA headquarters in Andulo, officials hope that its troops will have greater mobility in the dry season, which began in mid-May, and be able to limit the rebels' access to food. The prospects for victory, however, are not promising: the morale of government troops remains low after the string of recent military defeats. Most soldiers are conscripts. Moreover, government troops have been spread thin fighting along three fronts: Angola, Congo-Brazzaville and Congo-Kinshasa. There is speculation that the government is again seeking foreign military expertise to compensate for its deficiencies, though the government has denied accusations that it recruited Cuban troops to bolster its military strength.

President Jose Eduardo dos Santos must be feeling pressure for a military victory. There are even reports that speculate on the President's future political demise. Dos Santos fired his prime minister in January, with the statement that "from now on there will be a change in the method and style of government." He took the post himself and hired a "strong-arm general," Kundy Payama, to succeed him as Minister of Defense.

Indeed, if Savimbi and UNITA do not end dos Santos' career, his own government's incompetence might. In early May, the World Bank announced that it would no longer lend money to Angola unless critical economic reforms were implemented, citing corruption, dubious development policy and a dysfunctional economy (save for the oil sector). Other commentators have suggested that unless there is a military victory, ordinary Angolans will have little time for the governing MPLA, given that so much of Angola's wealth has been diverted from social needs to the war effort.

3. Jonas Savimbi

As for Savimbi, he undoubtedly exercises greater power during times of war than during times of peace - a fact that further undermines the likelihood of a negotiated settlement. One can only speculate on his current political objectives. Savimbi has never been keen on any sort of power-sharing arrangement. True (as noted above), most observers agree that even though he remains an enormous threat he is unlikely to capture Luanda. Yet UNITA's military strength must serve as a future reminder to the government of just how difficult it is to challenge Savimbi's authority in UNITA-held areas.

At the same time, UNITA has appeared, upon occasion, to have few friends left. The movement broke off relations with Portugal after the Portuguese foreign minister blamed Savimbi for the resumption of war, for example. And, at the end of March, foreign ministers from the Organization of African Unity condemned Savimbi and called for his isolation and for the implementation of UN sanctions against UNITA. Indeed, a year ago one could only admire the manner in which the Angolan government appeared to have surrounded itself with friends and allies, thus cutting UNITA off from potential arms suppliers and diamond dealers.

It has also seemed, however, that the seal is not quite watertight. The Angolan government maintains that Zambia, for example, has been a principal conduit allowing weapons and fuel oil into UNITA-held territory and diamonds out. This allegation has touched off a diplomatic row between Luanda and Lusaka. At one point, a report even suggested that the Angolan air force was set to launch attacks into Zambia until diplomatic pressure from the United States and France halted the operation.

In the meantime, the Government of Unity and National Reconciliation has been disbanded and some of its UNITA members have dispersed. Former Minister of Geology and Mines, Marcos Samondo, has been holed up in New York since "the government decided that I shouldn't continue at the Ministry for political reasons." The government does still include some of the breakaway group of UNITA dissidents known as UNITA-Renovada such as Jorge Valentim, but the faction's political support is uncertain at best.

4. Resources

Of course, it is impossible to discuss the ongoing conflict in Angola without mentioning the struggle to control the country's rich natural resources. Despite the very high rate of poverty and the absence of any form of functioning infrastructure, Angola contains some of the richest deposits of oil, gas, diamonds and other minerals on the whole continent: even after 30 years of almost uninterrupted conflict, Angola contains the potential to be one of the wealthiest countries in the region.

However, the unfortunate irony is that, instead of improving benefits and services for the country, Angola's resource wealth has played a direct role in perpetuating the conflict. As noted, both sides have relied upon these revenues to pay for their military operations, with the establishment and maintenance of control over resources a key strategic goal of both UNITA and the MPLA. On the one hand, the government controls nearly all of the country's oil producing areas and depends upon oil exports for more than 90 percent of its revenue while, on the other, UNITA's activities are almost entirely funded by its production and sale of diamonds.

Angola is the second largest producer of oil in sub-Saharan Africa after Nigeria. More than 90 percent of this oil is exported. The majority of the production comes from rich deep-water oil reserves located offshore in the northern region of Cabinda. The country's oil production has grown substantially in the last decade and now averages more than 750,000 barrels per day. Production is likely to double over the next five years, once the large deep-water oil reserves discovered in the mid1990s come on line.

Small wonder that the growth of Angola's oil industry has been such a tremendous boon for the Angolan government, with the International Monetary Fund estimating that Angola oil exports were worth $4.5 billion in 1997. In addition, recent reports have suggested that the Angolan government could raise an additional $1.5 billion this year from the sale of new drilling licenses and from loans issued against the country's future oil production.

While the government controls Angola's offshore oil industry, UNITA controls between 60 and 70 percent of its diamond production. Unlike oil production, which flows through official channels to Europe and the Americas, Angola's diamond trade, centred around the Northeastern province of Lunda Norte, occurs almost entirely on the black market. Despite a UN Security Council embargo against the export of "unofficial" diamonds from Angola, the country's high-quality diamonds make their way to the diamond markets of London and Antwerp. Estimates of the amount of money that UNITA has raised from diamond sales range from $500 million to $3 billion per year.

It is true that some firms which have been operating in Angola have either relocated or withdrawn entirely to avoid the violence - including the South African mining firm Anglo-American, the Canadian diamond mining firm Southern Era, and most recently, South Africa's Ocean Diamond Mining. It is nonetheless the case that the country's rich natural resources remain at the centre of its civil war.

5. Displacement of peoples

Hundreds of thousands of people have fled their homes in Angola in an effort to escape the ever-intensifying conflict. A reported 75,000 people have fled into the Democratic Republic of Congo since December 1998, 8,000 into Congo-Brazzaville and another 1,200 into Zambia since June 1998. Within Angola, the number displaced by the war is far greater. It is believed that 1.6 million of an estimated 11.6 million inhabitants are now refugees in their own country - roughly one in seven Angolans - the majority of whom are women and children. Moreover, between 780,000 and 882,000 (and possibly as many as one million) are thought to have been displaced since April 1998 alone. Luanda has received nearly a quarter of a million internally displaced persons in the past two months alone, and the provinces of Malanje and Huambo have seen large inflows compared to other regions.

Unfortunately, the displaced who sought refuge in the Central Highland cities of Huambo and Malanje or in Kuito are under siege and subjected to shelling and other threatening conditions, rendering humanitarian efforts all the more difficult. Over the last few months, UNITA has cut off and controlled strategic roads leading into these cities. Ambushes on lesser travelled roads in the region are increasingly common. This development has forced the World Food Programme to deliver desperately needed humanitarian supplies by air, particularly food items. The World Food Programme reported that its reliance on air delivery increased from 20 percent to 80-90 percent in six months. Their efforts to aid internally displaced persons and local residents, particularly in the Central Highlands, have been further jeopardized by the high cost of air transport, the limited capacity to transport bulky goods and frequent airport closures.

Food shortages and malnutrition threaten the internally displaced and the locals alike. Lack of access to the areas under siege, coupled with the abandonment of fields and the lack of access to affordable markets all contribute to the problem. The Southern African Development Community expects that maize output will fall by about 25 percent in 1999.

Moreover, as internally displaced persons move from rural areas into regional cities and from these cities to Luanda, they aggravate the already dire circumstances and threaten the survival mechanisms of their host populations. Not only is there a shortage of food, but the sheer number of internally displaced are thought to be placing the health of the host population at risk, particularly in the besieged towns of Kuito, Huambo and Malanje. Measles, malaria and tuberculosis are all on the rise as is wasting due to malnutrition. Luanda's musseques (slum areas) have been particularly hard hit by polio. In fact, Luanda is reporting the largest epidemic to hit Africa since 1995 among the country's displaced. Three hundred and two cases were reported in mid-April, and by early May the number had escalated to 733.

In short, the renewed conflict has caused renewed forced migration and dispossession on a large scale. Both these trends are further straining limited resources and survival strategies. The UN requires, at minimum, safe access to those internally displaced persons and communities most at risk in order to avoid greater loss of life and livelihood.

Self-evidently, this is something that can only be achieved through dialogue between the government and UNITA. In its absence, the international community is becoming ever more tired of the conflict and of the tremendous human needs it produces even as millions are spent on armaments and as millionaires are being freshly minted among military and political elites. The UN in particular is demoralized (some say disgraced) by its failure here - though many of its humanitarian programmes remain in place in government areas.

Ray of hope?

Hope always comes from the people, but the Angolan people are tired and intimidated by nearly 40 years of instability and ruthless political oppression from one side or the other. Nonetheless, a group of 300 mothers in Cabinda did protest against conscription of all 21 year old males on April 21, for example. Four were arrested and the rest violently dispersed. The next day they protested again for the release of their colleagues and were successful. On International Women's Day, March 8, women marched through Luanda in support of the idea of "an Angola without war"; they then attended an ecumenical mass, swearing to uphold and defend the message: "love one another for the common good." Civil society has some potential to bring the country together if ever given the chance to do so.

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