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David Sogge reviews Alex Vines' book, "Peace Postponed, Angola since the Lusaka Protocol". `The history of the modern conquest of Angola is irrigated by the blood of the victims.' These words, written about the sanguinary 75 years of Portuguese wars of occupation in Angola up to 1926, could easily describe the country's recent past. Since 1975, half a million or more have died directly through armed aggression. Up to three times that number, mainly children, have perished through disease and other indirect causes. Once overwhelmingly a rural people, most Angolans today live precarious lives on the edge of towns and cities. After several false dawns, peace is a mirage. And there are no signs that this wretchedness will soon end. (jbv)

vol 14 no 2

Review: Hell on Earth
review by David Sogge

Printable Version
Southern Africa Report

SAR, Vol 14 No 2, March 1999
Page 28



David Sogge works as an analyst, based in Amsterdam, where he is a Fellow of the Transnational Institute. Representative of CUSO and SUCO in Mozambique from 1980 to 1983, he first began visiting Angola in 1985. Among his publications on the country is a 1992 book with an absurdly optimistic title Sustainable Peace: Angola's Recovery.

Alex Vines, Peace Postponed, Angola since the Lusaka Protocol. The Catholic Institute for International Relations (CIIR) London, September 1998. 32 pp. ISBN 1852872004

`The history of the modern conquest of Angola is irrigated by the blood of the victims'.

These words, written about the sanguinary 75 years of Portuguese wars of occupation in Angola up to 1926, could easily describe the country's recent past. Since 1975, half a million or more have died directly through armed aggression. Up to three times that number, mainly children, have perished through disease and other indirect causes. Once overwhelmingly a rural people, most Angolans today live precarious lives on the edge of towns and cities. After several false dawns, peace is a mirage. And there are no signs that this wretchedness will soon end.

Why has Angola become hell on earth? The chains of causation are long and complex. Put simply, Angolan dynamics pivot around two factors: First, the relentless Western, especially American, insistence on cheap petrol; second, the relentless but frustrated competition among Angolan politico-military elites for control over export revenues. These dynamics have driven a machine for human slaughter. Its essence is horribly banal: the lives of hundreds of thousands of Angolans have been sacrificed so that American Barbies and Kens can keep enjoying their motoring lifestyle.

In an important new publication, Alex Vines, a veteran British analyst of Mozambique and Angola, presents a compact yet wide-ranging overview of the state of play in today's Angola. The aim is not to expose and disentangle the roots of the country's agonies, but rather to chronicle and explain events since Angola entered its `third war' in October 1992. In 32 pages packed with facts and informed assessments, Vines focuses on the military and political battles, the UN's role, with special attention to its (in)action on human rights, and the emergence of Angolan NGOs and independent media.

The result is an indictment not only of Angola's political class, but also of the international bodies tasked with promoting peace and respect for human rights.

Vines begins by reviewing the country's post-colonial history. He quickly sketches its `second war' from 1975 to 1991. That conflict paralleled other anti-communist `rollback' wars taking place in the same period: Afghanistan, Cambodia, Nicaragua and Mozambique. Vines alludes to this when he notes that U.S. covert aid to Unita totalled about a quarter of a billion dollars between 1986 and 1991. This bankrolling in the name of freedom and democracy was second in size only to that given the mujahidin of Afghanistan, the precursors to today's ruling group of violent anti-democrats.

The 1975 - 91 war teased out and reinforced patterns of social, political and economic polarisation. These beset Angola to this day: MPLA versus Unita; city versus countryside; northern and peripheral ethnic groups versus Ovimbundu people rallying to appeals to ethnic chauvinism; offshore economy of oil and diamonds versus onshore economy and the internal market; elites accumulating via various rackets versus poor people using a wide variety of survival strategies.

Vines alludes to the hidden war economy, and to the competition among what are basically rival mafia networks: `The division of spoils has become the endgame in the Angolan conflict.' He leaves unexplored the hypothesis that interests in perpetuating highly profitable rackets on both sides are perhaps the greatest single obstacle to peace. From Bosnia to Sierra Leone to Colombia, wars like this are driven by organized greed. They operate at deep and invisible levels, but could not work without the collusion of international firms and their cartels. The system entrenches interests. For if real peace comes, the rules of accumulation will change. Then new claimants will have to be accommodated. For today's war profiteers, that is a disagreeable prospect.

Vines recounts the political episodes pushing the war forward. He concludes that, in the run-up to the 1992 elections, Savimbi's terrifying rhetoric stampeded voters - who were otherwise fed up with a corrupted and arrogant MPLA - into voting against him. Savimbi's US advisors had prepared him only for an electoral victory, not defeat. Because when defeat came, he took the country back to war with a vengeance. That triggered terrible reprisals, massive government re-armament, and a further 300 thousand dead by the end of 1994.

The booklet concentrates on events since the November 1994 signing of the Lusaka Protocol - Angola's second peace deal. It was brokered over many months and concluded (as in Bosnia, where the Serbs backed down) only after Unita had been coerced through force of arms. Vines shows how the belligerents rather promptly began the peace accord to wipe their boots. At the same time, UN-supervised peace-making went on as a bizarre pantomime. For since Lusaka, Angola has been a theatre of war, but also a stage of theatrical acts of `peace' alternating between tragedy and farce.

Instead of a cease fire, there were a series of major and minor flare-ups, with direct casualties in the tens of thousands. Instead of a demobilization of armies, there was a re-organization and re-grouping of fighting forces (and the addition of squads of private mercenaries.) Instead of real Unita soldiers being quartered in 15 UN-supervised camps, there were mainly stand-ins dragooned from among young men, the disabled, and cast-offs from Unita's fighting forces. Instead of real weapons being turned in, Unita handed over mainly old and unusable junk - eliciting a mere shrug of shoulders from the UN. Instead of disarmament, there was a massive re-armament on both sides (a subject Vines has investigated in depth). Instead of a systematic reduction of explosive mines, as popularized by Princess Diana, both sides have been planting more. Instead of the re-incorporation of all Angolan territory under a single Luanda-centred Government of National Unity (that has included Unita politicians and generals since 1997), the country remains divided into two nations, part of which responds only to orders from Unita headquarters in Bailundo - and in some peripheral zones things depend neither on Luanda or Bailundo, but rather the armed men who happen to be present. Instead of freedom of movement of people and goods - a great desideratum for ordinary Angolans wishing to trade, to go home, or to search for work - there are still armed roadblocks, effective captivity, and now widespread banditry to keep people where they are.

The efforts undertaken - a peace accord, a United Nations presence much heavier than in the period 1991 - 1992, trade and other sanctions, occasional arm-twisting by heavyweights from the Pentagon, State Department, IMF and others from Washington DC - were meant to drive a stake into the heart of the war, to kill it once and for all. But the monster refused to die. Years of international pressure have been a case of going-through-the-motions.

Vines summarises one of the many scripts the belligerents were supposed to have followed: a January 1998 agreement spelling out the steps to full and complete demilitarization of Unita, the granting of special status to Savimbi, and the extension of national Angolan administration into `Unita-land', up to and including its highland capital, Bailundo. All in vain. Savimbi has been under-estimated at every juncture. Certainly the scale of firepower at his disposal - demonstrated to great effect against government forces in December 1998 - and the world arms market that supplied it, have been consistently under-estimated.

Vines devotes a chapter to a subject on which he is also quite expert, the impotence of United Nations. He notes especially the motions it went through to monitor human rights abuses. Like other outside agencies, and the Angolan Ministry of Justice itself, the UN's Human Rights Unit in Angola has been deliberately kept ineffective so as not to upset the so-called peace process. Vines shows that this was another piece of theatre, and implies that the UN's lack of backbone has only worsened a pervasive climate of disrespect for basic civil rights, and a widespread culture of impunity. On a broader plane, he concludes: `In the end, despite repeated postponements combined with UN sanctions against Unita, it would appear that neither side is any longer susceptible to UN or outside pressure.'

In his closing third chapter, Vines considers the still narrow but growing space in civil society that has opened since 1989. In Angola, as in many other places, popular hopes, and increasing amounts of aid money, ride on nonprofit organizations and churches as relief agencies, and as resolvers of conflict. Vines rightly keeps his focus set at a wider angle to include trade unions and independent media - those whose vocations are not in the relief of suffering but in defending interests of members and in speaking truth to power. Due attention goes to Angolan organizations such as SINPROF, the embryonic trade union of teachers, and ADRA, one of the outstanding development NGOs in southern Africa.

Yet some important aspects of civil society are left under-illuminated. The role of churches is introduced, for example, with the observation that most churches have been built along major political fault lines. But that important idea is not pursued. Instead we find a chronicle of worthy efforts, some of which have been genuinely useful and a few even courageous. But the failings of churches go unmentioned, and appear to fall under a cloak of love. For in contrast to Mozambique, the overall church record in Angola has been marked by schisms, self-interest, and effective paralysis. Church action for peace is thus certainly no better - and given opportunities missed, is arguably worse - than most other foreign-supported institutions in the civil sector.

Vines also does not mention the rise of associations of business people. Such groupings now enjoy a commanding presence in civil society in Africa and elsewhere. Although the real power of business people may be exercised through informal circuits, the influence of their trade associations in setting agendas and steering public discourse in Angola should not be forgotten in the general jubilation about the rise of the `third sector'.

The omissions in this chapter do not, however, detract from its overall value. It offers intriguing information on flows of money from abroad, particularly those from at Washington, DC, to promote human rights, conflict resolution, and `good governance'. Vines rightly queries their logic and effectiveness.

There is a sharp synopsis of Angolan media, where propaganda battles are waged and where journalists face serious, even deadly, intimidation. Vines cites media censorship, together with lack of freedom in the movement of people and goods, as the two most fundamental immediate obstacles to the restoration of popular confidence in peace and in the future.

Vines concludes by calling, as does Amnesty International, for the establishment of an impartial human rights commission in Angola. International human rights organizations should moreover enjoy easier access to the country. And the UN, donors, and the government should promote civic education and reconciliation.

An international spotlight on Angola - particularly on Angolans struggling for civil, political, and social rights - can be crucial. For example, after a particularly brutal assault on the life of an Angolan trade union leader, the BBC broadcast news of the incident within 24 hours. That seemed to bring about a temporary halt to anti-trade union intimidation.

Other struggles may also soon need the protection of the international spotlight. Apart from seeking peace and freedom to move, Angolans are struggling for rights to land. As wealthy Angolans, with South African partners, acquire huge tracts of rural land and urban real estate, poor Angolans face dispossession. Such `free-market' processes produce far more victims than explosive mines. Yet asset-grabbing gets little attention from NGOs and the media.

Angolans are also struggling for freedom from domestic violence, a special theme of a new women's organization, noted by Vines. For these initiatives too they want and need monitoring and support from abroad. In contrast to many of the dozens of NGOs that have sprung up in response to donor demand for `partners', member-based groups like SINPROF don't want little project grants and a series of seminars about civil society - the thin soup of today's modern aid industry. They want something more nourishing. Perhaps the revival and re-invention of that old, disused idea: solidarity.

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