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In Victoria Brittain's article on the tragedy in Angola, she opens by saying: "President Eduardo Dos Santos finally got the White House invitation ... that signals the Angolan government's long-sought acceptance by the Clinton administration. But it has come too late, and after too much ambivalence about US attitudes to Jonas Savimbi and the rival power base he has created at Bailundo. More than ever Angola is on the brink of catastrophe, torn by unprecedented social crisis ..."

vol 11 no 2

Angola: It's not over
Victoria Brittain

Printable Version
Southern Africa Report

SAR, Vol 11, No 2, January 1996
Page 3
"Southern Africa"



Victoria Brittain of The Guardian is SAR's Angola correspondent.

President Eduardo Dos Santos finally got the White House invitation (on December 8) that signals the Angolan government's long-sought acceptance by the Clinton administration. But it has come too late, and after too much ambivalence about US attitudes to Jonas Savimbi and the rival power base he has created at Bailundo. More than ever Angola is on the brink of catastrophe, torn by unprecedented social crisis, its political direction lost, and the state virtually collapsed. The Unita general who warned in late 1992 that their movement was poised to turn the country into another Somalia if they did not win the election spoke more literally than anyone could have realized at the time.

The post-election war did not end with the Lusaka Protocol signed more than a year ago, and this recent period has been perhaps the most destructive of all the twenty years of war since independence in 1975. All this added to the legacies of under-development has left two generations of Angolans burned out from a struggle fired by overwhelming external forces. Unita, the proxy of those forces - South Africa and the Reaganite United States in particular - has survived its own profound internal crises over the last four years thanks to its patrons, and is still able to deny the government control over large swathes of the country.

The international community's long destructive relationship with Angola - from CIA-funded mercenaries in 1975 to full-scale South African invasions of the 1970s and 80s - has merely entered a new phase with the United Nations' myopic policies of the last three years. The Western strategy of appeasement of the Unita leader culminated in the offer of the Vice-Presidency to Jonas Savimbi. This did nothing to improve stability at home and externally it deepened confusion as Savimbi travelled to Europe and various African countries presenting himself as reconciled to his new role.

In fact. the key elements of the Lusaka agreement - sending home the mercenaries (mostly from Zaire and South Africa), releasing prisoners, effectively creating cantonment of Unita troops for disarmament and demobilization or integration into the army, allowing freedom of movement of the population throughout the country - have been delayed for months by Unita. Aid agencies working in many provinces of this vast country, which has been awash with arms for decades, report constant military tension and outbreaks of violence, often linked to the competition for food, but also over strategic points of territory. Recently the tension was vastly increased when the Unita Chief of Staff, Arlindo Chenda Pena `Ben Ben', claimed to have been the victim of an assassination attempt in Luanda and pulled out of talks at the Joint Commission and returned to Bailundo.

Despite the cease fire agreed at Lusaka last year and reinforced verbally in later meetings between the President and Savimbi, government military sources say that Unita has continued to receive large quantities of military supplies by both air and land, through Zaire. UN aid officials in the northern provinces say the deliveries are not even camouflaged and are an open secret within UNAVEM (the UN's peace monitoring force). The deployment of UNAVEM's 7,000 troop monitors has been repeatedly hindered by incidents with Unita.

In an interview earlier this year the army commander, General Joćo Matos warned that the government was in danger of being suffocated by Unita's waiting game which was producing an intolerable level of social tension. "Why does Unita prevent movement? The population can't go on living like this - they understood it in wartime, but now they want to cultivate, to engage in commerce - the strikes and criminality we see now are the manifestations of intolerable crisis." The General's picture of the situation on the ground contradicts the optimistic presentations of the UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros Ghali and his Special Representative in Angola, Alioune Blondin Beye, whom the General accuses of a very superficial analysis that has led them to "play with fire." "We can not go on pretending that all is well; the reality is not that. Twenty kilometres from here, ask the people if they see peace - they see deaths, mines, no peace."

It says much about the weakness of the Angolan political leaders who have sanctioned the time-wasting negotiations with Unita since late 1992, that none of them has publicly voiced misgivings about the UN's performance or the paralysed peace process. It may also reflect the fact that few of them leave Luanda to see the ravaged and isolated provincial capitals for themselves. If they do travel, it is usually abroad.

Meanwhile, the economic situation is so bad that for urban dwellers of every class the daily preoccupation is with having enough to eat. Inflation has rocketed daily ever since the war started again after the 1992 election. The fighting cut off most of the country from commerce, slashed agricultural production as three million or more people fled off the land to the cities, and virtually the entire industrial production base was destroyed in Unita's attacks on the towns in 1993. Strikes have recently hit almost every sector of the economy, including hospitals and schools in some provinces. In many places civil servants have not been paid for months. But even when they are paid, their wages are utterly inadequate after a series of huge devaluations, and everyone who works in the public sector must either have a second job or rely on the family network to survive. A university professor, for instance, earns $25 a month, a civil servant $3, a nurse $1. As a result the intellectual capital of the country is being lost as cadres desert the state sector for low level jobs in the aid industry where payment is dollar-linked and they can realistically expect to earn at least 100 times more. In a grave portent for the future, Luanda university is only functioning at minimal level with four out of six faculties closed or almost closed and the remaining teachers either part-timers with other jobs (especially lawyers), or foreigners brought in on international salaries that are a devastating drain on the country's education budget. A generation of intellectuals is being lost to the country and the next generation is not being developed. Last summer an Angolan student in Moscow committed suicide after his scholarship had not been paid for seven months and his petitions and hunger strikes outside the embassy produced no help or concern. It was a death that reflected the utter despair of even the most fortunate young.

Chianga, Angola's internationally known agricultural research institute on the outskirts of Huambo, is a symbol of how the intellectual future has been lost with the destruction of Unita's war compounded by neglect and incompetence from the government. Savimbi lived on the campus with a secure three-room underground bunker beneath his house, during the occupation of Huambo from 1993 to November last year. After he left, the research laboratories and offices were looted by government soldiers and then by a destitute population reduced to an economy based on theft. Last summer, the last valuables from Chianga, priceless original books from the library, appeared for sale in the market in Huambo.

The war, the liberalization of the economy imposed by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund in the late 1980s, and remarkable incompetence, have contributed to a wild capitalism here in the last year or so. The provinces of Lunda in the northeast on the Zaire border are anarchic. The country's diamonds are mined in industrial quantities by business interests from France, Britain and South Africa protected by shady military alliances that appear to have produced, in some places, a tacit division of the spoils between Unita and some elements (whether former or current it is impossible to know) of the government army. Ominously, in recent weeks Unita has gone on the offensive in several key areas in the Lundas.

In Luanda, the corruption of the political class and military officers (mostly no longer serving) is ostentatious. New restaurants and mushrooming construction in the capital contrast dramatically with the wild children in rags, amputees in old army uniforms, and naked mad men with open sores who roam the streets begging. Advertisements on radio and television offer the new bourgeoisie an escape from these realities with remodelled kitchens or holidays in South Africa. The crime wave in the capital is dramatic, and the corruption of the police is endemic, fostered by paltry salaries they can't live on.

Luanda is swollen with half a million refugees living in utter misery and growing impoverishment. There is little chance that, even if the cease fire holds and precarious peace begins, they would go back to the rural areas; research indicates that they have passed the cutoff point of two seasons missed from planting, which turns peasants into urban dwellers. Across the nation in what were their home towns and villages, the health service has collapsed. Epidemics of tuberculosis, malaria and sleeping sickness are rampant, according to the international non-governmental organizations that now carry almost the entire responsibility for health in the country. Provincial hospitals are graveyards with no medicines, no functioning water or electricity supplies. With extraordinary devotion a handful of Angolan doctors struggle on in the provinces, but with the blank eyes of trauma victims and a deep bitterness. Some Vietnamese doctors are also assigned to the provinces, but say they have no facilities to work.

These days you can find a young Angolan doctor working as a UN telephonist, teachers as drivers or interpreters. Twenty years of building national capacity have been destroyed by the government's inability to solve the crisis of salaries for professionals as the cost of living has soared. The crisis of cadres and the loss of social morality are the two most urgent questions facing civil society. But the near collapse of the MPLA as a party since the election has left the country without a framework for tackling anything so fundamental. The government both at national and provincial level, with a handful of exceptions, is busy doing business, and even petitions to the highest level about corruption and waste do not change even the most notorious faces in power. The country has got used to living in a state of cynicism and complete uncertainty. No plans for the future are made because no one believes in it.

The Angolan Armed Forces (FAA) in Angola today provides a contrast to this dismal picture and is becoming a new factor in the political equation. For the first time ever there is a non- political, professional army. The old government army, FAPLA, which grew out of the MPLA's guerrilla war against the Portuguese, was dismantled under the Bicesse agreement signed by the MPLA. It was considered a bitter betrayal by the Party that has not been forgotten. It also turned out to be a major political blunder for which President Dos Santos nearly lost power in the Unita offensive of 1993.

Today among the FAA's 100,000 men there are 3,000 who were incorporated from Unita after Bicesse; about a third of the top generals are ex-Unita. The rest constitute a new military class, the best of them highly competent and fired with the confidence of having successfully created an army in record time and in the offensive of late 1994 having beaten Unita back into the current 40% of the country. The use of South Africans for training was an emergency strategy in the bleak and dramatic situation in late 1992. Attempting to recruit Angolans who had fought with the South Africans, the army was approached by the now well-known business firm of Executive Outcomes, then supplying men to Unita. With remarkable pragmatism on both sides and at a considerable cost, 300 of them began to work with the FAA and have proved effective; 174 now remain on contract.

Last year's successful offensive gave the first hint of the new relationship evolving between the army and the MPLA, which though part of a multi-party government remains unquestionably dominant. Under pressure from the Americans to halt the offensive short of Huambo and sign the Lusaka Accord with its cease fire leaving Savimbi in his headquarters, the MPLA Central Committee voted to take the FAA advice and authorize the taking of the city. At the same time, on the northern front, the FAA retook the strategic town of Uige. Both urban areas are now islands in Unita areas, linked precariously by newly opened roads to the government-controlled coast. US influence, however, remains strong enough for them to have persuaded the President to end the offensive sooner than his army commanders - scenting military victory - believed was good military tactics. The price is the tense no war/no peace situation of today with Unita having used the reprieve to rebuild its army. "The past is history," says General Matos nine months later, "the question now is how to get a peace which will be for Angola, not just for Luanda, or Futungo (the presidential complex outside the city). There is plenty of room for manoeuvre politically, if the UN pressures Unita; if not, war is the last resort."

The impact of the FAA on the political scene has yet to develop, but the old actors: the MPLA, Unita, and the international community, are looking tired, bereft of ideas, and out of touch with a population at the end of its tether.

Unita was traumatized by the surprise loss of Huambo, and Bailundo, 60 kilometres to the north, is no substitute in terms of prestige. The July visit to him there of Dr. Boutros Ghali, after he refused to come to Luanda, citing fears for his safety, and the October visit by top US official George Moose, have however given it, and Savimbi himself, international status as a second, and alternative, power in the land. It is a measure of how far the attitudes of the international community have shifted away from the government since they won the election and Savimbi began his rebellion. In late 1992 an international mediation team from the Organization of African Unity, led by President Robert Mugabe, came to Angola, but never considered meeting Savimbi once he refused to reenter Luanda. Now almost every international aid agency works with Unita, accepts their refusal to allow Angolans from the government side to be part of aid teams, accepts having to negotiate every journey with Unita, frequently being refused access, always being prevented talking freely to the population. Unita's tight control over the 40% of the territory in which it is active has the same flavour of repression and paranoia that characterized Jamba, the pre-1992 headquarters in the southeast. Aid agency staff who lived through the Unita occupation of Huambo describe an organization with no capacity for civilian administration and no apparent interest in civilian structures. Huambo became a silent ghost town haunted by spies, secret police and denunciations. Survivors of Unita labour camps - mostly MPLA minor officials or educated cadres - describe a regime of beatings and starvation in which many people died, and from which they were released only after intervention from the Catholic church. An Angola in which Unita had a defining hand on the levers of power would be an even grimmer place than it is now.

The UN's strategy, beyond the lip service to peace and reconciliation, is not easy to discern. UN officials come and go on fairly short-term contracts and rare are those who look further than the propaganda value of selective road or bridge opening to a peace process officially on course. But in fact the UN has played the determining role in the post-election period: the elected government has fundamentally lost its sovereignty to a Joint Commission in which it has parity with Unita. And, worse, in the name of the peace process, and in response to US pressure, the government has been forced to over-rule its own army and prevent it from defending the country.

As in Bosnia, the UN presence has deeply confused the issue of the war. Peacekeepers can not, everyone now agrees, keep a peace which one, or both, warring parties do not want kept. By obscuring that, as the UN did in Angola in 1992 and thereafter, they invite a deepening of today's tragedy. The international community's promise of democracy to Angola through the elections of 1992 has been betrayed and transformed into a legitimation of the use of force by Unita. The forces which, from the dying days of Portuguese colonialism, sought to prevent Angola becoming the exception to Africa's post-independence neo-colonialism, have succeeded - at a terrible price. The most bitter betrayal though, to Angolans, came with President Nelson Mandela's reception of Savimbi earlier this year and his call for reconciliation, on the pattern of his own with Chief Buthelezi. Mandela was the symbol for whom Angola sacrificed tens of thousands of lives in the war to end apartheid in which Savimbi fought on the other side and has since changed neither his allies nor his ideological stand.

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