Southern Africa Report
SAR, Vol 14 No 1, December 1998
THE WAR MACHINES ... AGAIN
BY PIERRE BEAUDET
Pierre Beaudet is the Executive Director of Alternatives in Montreal.
Angola appears to be heading for a new war. Since August, both the Angolan government and UNITA have been preparing for what could be another bloody confrontation in a country which has suffered heavily over the last 25 years. Both internal and external (particularly regional) factors need to be analyzed in order to understand these current trends in the country.
The big regional shake-up
Take the regional picture first. A major earthquake rocked central Africa last year with the overthrow of the Mobutu dictatorship in Zaire. An extraordinary African coalition was built up around Angola in the west and Uganda and Rwanda in the east who, with the support of South Africa and several other central and southern African countries and with help provided by the United States, succeeded in pushing into power a new Zairian alliance, the Alliance des forces democratiques pour la liberation du Congo (AFDL). The Angolan army itself, as well as the famous Zairian "Katangueses" who had been located in Angola since the late 1970s, played a major role in the west and the south of Zaire while AFDL forces led by Ugandan and Rwandan elite troops pushed forward from the east until they took Kinshasa after a three month war. This temporary complementarity of activity expressed the need of both Angola and Uganda to secure their borders while eliminating Mobutu who had been a constant source of destabilization in the region. Later, in August 1997, Angolan forces pushed their offensive forward and succeeded again in terminating an unfriendly regime in Congo-Brazzaville, which had been supporting UNITA and dissident forces in the Cabinda enclave. By the end of 1997, the new regional dispensation appeared extremely positive for those who had initiated the big shake-up.
Internally in Zaire, however, the AFDL rapidly revealed itself as being what it had really been all along, a patch-up job bringing together a wide but totally incoherent spectrum of political interests. The new president, Laurent Desire Kabila soon proved unable to hold things together and new tensions developed. Thus, by the spring of 1998, Kabila wanted his eastern allies (Uganda and Rwanda, as well as the large numbers of Congolese Tutsi who had been important to his success) out of the picture. Soon discreet talks were being held between Uganda's Museveni and Angola's Dos Santos about getting rid of Kabila and imposing new faces in Kinshasa. Kabila himself moved rapidly, however, eliminating Rwandan officers from the army (including his own army commander and mastermind behind the overthrow of Mobutu, James Kabahre) even as anti-Uganda and anti-Rwanda opposition forces, with the tacit compliance of Kabila, intensified their actions using Congo as a rear base.
In July of this year, various political and military forces, with the tacit support of Uganda and Rwanda, again rebelled in the east and appeared ready to move towards the west much as the AFDL alliance had done a year before. But then an extraordinary new shift occurred. Kabila succeeded in bringing onto his side Angola (with the support of Zimbabwe and Namibia). Angolan forces moved swiftly to block the eastern offensive and save Kinshasa from a new take-over. Very angry words were exchanged with Uganda and Rwanda, and a major split appeared within SADC, with South Africa still siding with Uganda while also trying to play the role of broker of peace.
What motivated Luanda in this turnaround is still a matter of speculation. At first glance, domestic reasons seem most important in the sense that Luanda wanted to take advantage of Congolese tensions in order to move against UNITA's Congolese sanctuaries. Indeed, despite promises made when Mobutu was overthrown, UNITA had continued to maintain its bases and, moreover, its access to and from the Congo to transport goods into Angola and to export diamonds. Perhaps the entrance of Angolan troops on the side of Kabila can be seen, at least in part, as a pretext to move against UNITA directly.
And yet, why would Angola move with Kabila against Uganda, a country which has no special interest in supporting, directly or indirectly, UNITA? After all, an anti-Kabila rebellion supported by Uganda and Rwanda could have had the same effect, i.e., cleaning UNITA out of the western Congo. One rationale here could be Angola's own ambitions at the regional level. In many ways, the imposition of a regional deal under Museveni's guidance is feared in Luanda as possibly shifting the political centre of gravity in central and eastern Africa.
In any case, the Congo situation remains very volatile. The country is effectively split in two parts. The eastern rebels operating under the Rassemblement pour la democratie au Congo (RDC) and with effective Ugandan and Rwandan military control are well entrenched and even able to exert a great deal of pressure. Their taking of the eastern city of Kindu early in October is indicative of that. On the other hand, Kabila's forces are secure in the west, at least for the moment, because of Angolan-Zimbabwean protection (with the rest of Francophone Africa supportive but not really effective).
Secret talks are under way between Uganda and Angola to resolve this "technical problem," It appears that Museveni would be willing to give new guarantees to effectively dispose of UNITA once his allies are in power. If Angola buys that, the rebels will access Kinshasa relatively quickly (although this may also depend on the role Mugabe - whose own Zimbabwean troops have also come to Kabila's defense - chooses to play in the longer run). The calculation in Luanda is therefore that of balancing of short term military gains (against UNITA) versus long term political threats resulting from a new deal in Kinshasa where Museveni would certainly be the obvious king-maker and controller.
Of course, the important limitation in these calculations is that the Angolan government is thinking once again in purely military terms. The elimination of UNITA is seen in Luanda as strictly a military process and not as a political one (whatever its obvious military aspects) which has, ultimately, to be won politically or not at all. For whatever "deals" are made in the short term to isolate UNITA and cut off its access routes, will not be a substitute for the political engagement that the government will need to make with that movement as well as with other political and social forces inside the country in order to bring stability to Angola.
The war machines
Even if the Congolese business is far from over, the most recent developments have helped the Angolan government at least for the moment to put more pressure on UNITA. Over the last two years Luanda has been in a state of military preparedness, a move at least partially understandable when it became clear after November 1994 (when the peace process was put on the agenda again) that UNITA would not meet its obligations in the setting up of a government of national unity, or in demilitarization and the full integration of its forces into the national army (the FAA). All along, Jonas Savimbi made it clear that he was refusing the substance of peace by keeping away from Luanda. And, in the meantime, UNITA was consolidating its grip over the diamond-rich eastern and northern regions along the border with Congo. It was reported that diamond smuggling was generating over $600 million for UNITA, which helps explain its ability to maintain significant military forces. Later in 1997, UNITA forces moved on government-controlled zones.
In Luanda, such moves have strengthened the position of hard-liners like FAA commander Joao Matos who has always advocated the launching of a "war to the finish" against UNITA. Large-scale military purchases have been made by the government and paid for by loans based on future oil exports. In a context of renewed escalation several important clashes occurred, particularly in Kwanza Norte. In August, UNITA attacked UN food convoys. In late September, UNITA forces were closing in on Uige, the biggest city of the north. Moreover, faced with all this, the UN peacekeeping operation is a shambles, with its effective presence also negatively affected by the unexpected death of the UN special representative in Angola and by declining commitments from the international community to maintain UNAVEM and prevent the military build-up.
True, UNITA did suffer an important set back when most of its senior political officers based in Luanda, including top UNITA negotiator Jorge Valentim, defected and came out in support of the government. And in the latest SADC Summit in Mauritius, President Dos Santos called Savimbi a "criminal" and asked, with some positive response, southern Africa to support the government's efforts to end
the military stalemate. And yet, despite these reverses, Savimbi is far from finished. He commands the bulk of UNITA's armed forces including battle-hardened troops that were never demobilized despite the 1994 peace accords. In the past, Savimbi has always been able to extract himself from apparently inevitable defeats, so it remains unclear just what outcome might emerge from the current confrontation.
Moreover, the Angolan government is also unsure of its capacity to "go all the way" as General Matos would wish it to do. Many senior officers have expressed reservations about the prospect of a new and prolonged war in the inhospitable northern and eastern zones, and also about being bogged down in a prolonged stalemate in the Congo. An additional factor is the continuous social and economic crisis, particularly in large cities like Luanda and Huambo. Exhausted by years of neglect, the civilian population is clearly in a very dissenting mood, even if unable to express this through mass movements and mass actions. At best, in fact, the political base of the MPLA government remains extremely fragile.
Such a situation seems to lead to a kind of "lose-lose" scenario, with no side able to "resolve" the crisis one way or the other and with the people, in the end, as the biggest losers. But this merely prolongs a situation that has defined a suffering Angola for the past 25 years. How to explain the unending agony? Perhaps the chief cause, according to Angolan expert David Sogge, is the fact that the economic base on which both the government and UNITA are built has very little to do with the Angolan people. The off-shore oil with its yield of over $3 billion per year is appropriated by the government and feeds the FAA. On the other hand, UNITA lives off diamond smuggling. The immense profits are used by both sides to buy arms and hire mercenaries, with the Angolan people themselves rendered more or less dispensable.
In consequence, the lack of reciprocity between those who staff the two war machines and ordinary Angolans has created a situation where the basic needs of the population in terms of food security, health and education remain unmet. At the present moment, according to the UNDP, Angola is the second worst-off country in the world in terms of living conditions. In the meantime, the war economy remains profitable for a handful of military rulers on both sides, with no end in sight.
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