SAR, Vol 9, No 4, March 1994
GETTING AWAY WITH IT:
WHO'S BACKING SAVIMBI?
BY VICTORIA BRITTAIN
Victoria Brittain of the Guardian is SAR's Angola correspondent.
Sambizanga is Luanda's largest shanty town, a community of 100,000 people even before refugees in the last year began to swell the Angolan capital's population to double what it was five years ago. Sambizanga's dirt tracks are pitted with potholes, lined with heaps of stinking rubbish, and until recently, there were only three standpipes bringing water to the community.
This city within a city - where jobs, education, and health are increasingly the stuff of dreams - has long been a symbol of how South Africa's destabilization crushed Angola's hopes after independence. It is a symbol, too, of how the MPLA lost its way from the passion for social justice which spurred the war of liberation from the Portuguese, finally spawning a government acknowledged as corrupt and incompetent even by those who voted for it in 1992, worked for it for decades, and still fight for it because the alternative offered by Unita is so much worse. But Sambizanga also demonstrates the resilience and self-sufficiency of Angolans at the grassroots who over so many years sustained an inspirational myth for the rest of Africa by their resistance against the war fired by the US and South Africa.
The local clinic at Sambizanga is built round a courtyard where activistas from community groups do street theatre at lunch time - making people laugh, and think, about hygiene and health as they wait for the vaccinations that are the main work of this primary health clinic. Alan Cain of the Canadian-based Development Workshop (DW), which pays some of the activistas, and some key individuals from the collapsing state structures, have made this clinic a focus for a community that, against all the odds, has not collapsed. Maris Orchidea Saraiva, formerly with the Angolan Women's Organization (OMA) and now with DW, says never has she confronted a social situation so dire - malnutrition, abandoned children, refugees, mutilated mine victims and unemployment have brought needs on a scale that has defeated most of the international community in Angola. But despite the despair and tragedy which is the stuff of life in Sambizanga, this is a community where self-help development is vibrant - on a very small scale. A few kilometres down the road DW has a compound where six apprentices are making latrines slabs for sale in Sambizanga. Each youth, once he has mastered the skill, will go back to his community confident of making a living from a small latrine business, and he will be replaced by another apprentice.
The activistas all elected from their own communities, travel their areas making family visits to check health, cleanliness and sanitation habits. DW's original partner in Sambizanga was OMA, but now it is a patchwork of community groups that sprang up after the 1989 Freedom of Association law was changed. Cain, Orchidea and a small team of activistas meet weekly to discuss their work and the siting and progress of new standpipes being put into Sambizanga by DW water engineers, and to assign different activistas the unenviable tasks of liaising with the city water company and the rubbish collection authority.
These people and their community organizations provide a focus of pride and purpose. The dismantling of the state under the liberalization imposed by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank in the mid-1980s has left the vulnerable, like those who live in Sambizanga, prey to a savage capitalism they are ill-equipped to cope with. And since Unita returned to war in October 1992, it has been an urban war like no other phase of struggle in Angola. The collapse of the economy and agricultural production, plus the distortions of the black market in foreign currency, have hit the swollen populations of Luanda and Benguela hard. The violence on the streets, the frequent riots in the port and around food warehouses and the armies of tens of thousands of street children are signs of the social and economic catastrophe unleashed by the war and for which neither the government nor the international community has a survival strategy. Benguela has emergency soup kitchens run by Caritas, both cities have new hospital wards and overspill units for babies with advanced malnutrition, but such initiatives only touch the edges of need.
A recent World Food Programme policy paper that spells out the refusal to count these people among the estimated three million "war affected" is one expression of the United Nation's highly political, pro-Unita, post-election strategy that has compounded the complex humanitarian and political disaster. "The mission was confronted with requests that we consider these groups (the urban poor) to be `war-affected' for the purposes of emergency assessment. Had we done so, we would of course have added many hundreds of thousands of persons to our estimated caseloads in the Government of Angola (GOA) controlled areas. In the end, however, it was the opinion of the mission that this problem was in fact of a structural and GOA policy nature, and not one that donors would consider an appropriate or fundable part of an emergency programme."
The mission's terms of reference define "conflict affected persons" as including returnees (former refugees), the internally displaced, and those who reside in their communities but are unable to feed themselves due to destruction and confiscation of crops or because of restricted access to markets. A substantial part of the population of Luanda is certainly within those terms of reference. It might more fairly be argued that the population of Jamba, who do receive UN supplies are a "structural and policy" problem for Unita, but with the US dominating the UN operation, no one enters this political minefield publicly. "Uige, Cuito and Cuando Cubango are all getting massive UN food supplies, though the government is not fighting there and you could say Unita should be left to organize their civilian needs as they do their arms supplies," said one aid official. Under the same constraint, there has been remarkable little discussion of the UN aid operation to Cuito that began in October after a nine-month siege by Unita that reduced the town to conditions described as medieval by the first aid officials allowed in. They found, too, that, as the Angolan government had been reporting for weeks, between a third and half of the 100,000 population had died of hunger or shelling as Unita ruthlessly tightened the screws on a town that was the key to their strategy of seizing control of the central provinces of Huambo, Bie and Benguela.
Unita offered a cease fire around Cuito and aid flights were allowed in under a deal which gave Unita 50% of the UN aid. The food for the government side was for the 50,000 or so people trapped in the town. Unita has brought civilians from many kilometres away to collect supplies from their store under the eyes of television cameras and some UN supervision, but there can be little doubt that Unita's besieging army is the major beneficiary of the deal. Supplies of fuel for Unita have also been brought in on the UN planes.
In addition, in flat contradiction of the guarantees of the sovereignty of the government given by Unita in the Bicesse agreement and backed by the UN, Unita also was given an effective veto of who could go in or out of the town, only reachable through a Unita checkpoint between the airport and the town. Some international aid agency personnel have been refused entry by Unita. "I smelled a dead rat in this deal from the start," said one. "Unita were not interested in agencies they didn't already know and had relations with from earlier days." No Angolans were allowed either in or out by Unita, so a thousand seriously wounded people who the UN initially said it would evacuate were never flown out, and, as one experienced aid worker said, "they almost certainly all died."
The Cuito affair illustrates not only the power Unita has been gradually given by the international community, but also the independence foreign non-governmental organizations working in Unita areas have been given by the weak central government.
The UN is, according to Manuel Aranda da Silva, head of the UN humanitarian operation in Angola, trying very hard to mobilize NGOs to go to Cuito. For the UN, the NGOs are the only monitoring vehicle they have and the only executing bodies to fill the vacuum of adminstration in most of the country. For the Angolan government, unable to operate in 80% of its own territory, there is no choice but to accept the life-saving work done by the agencies.
But there is a political price to be paid and it is growing steeper by the week: Unita's increasing viability as an alternative administration. In addition, the obligatory silence about Unita's character, methods and capacity from the agencies working in its control zone and anxious to safeguard their staff, is obscuring what will be key elements in the political future of Angola.
A recent Amnesty report on UN peace-keeping around the world relates directly to this awkward question. The report poses an important challenge to the UN to observe world-wide the principle agreed in Bosnia that human rights violations should be reported publicly. The report breaks new ground in publicly criticizing the UN silence in Angola over Unita's violations of Bicesse in the pre-election period. Amnesty holds this silence partly to blame for Unita's contempt for the process and therefore important in the post-election period when the UN has in effect, with its humanitarian aid and its mobilizing of NGOs, rewarded Unita for the brutal sieges, the massive human rights violations inflicted on the areas taken over and the continuing military action despite repeated declarations of a cease fire.
A parallel appeasement has gone out in the political sphere where the long-drawn out Lusaka talks have provided the Security Council with an alibi for not strengthening sanctions. "Why should we sanction someone now in negotiations?" Alioune Blondin Beye asked me during an interview in Luanda in January. The Secretary General's Special Representative went on to say that he considered Savimbi, "a man of honour, a man whose word is his honour." In such a political context, UN silence over Unita's flagrant breaking of the toothless UN sanctions on arms and fuel supplies with regular flights into Uige, Gove, Jamba and several other airstrips under their control is not surprising. "It is completely impossible that the aid community does not know about this resupply, airports like Uige, for instance, are in regular use by UN planes bringing in food supplies for much of the northern region wholly controlled by Unita and supplied by truck out of Uige," said one army officer. "Of course everyone knows," said one western diplomat, "but no one here likes to buck US policy." US policy, with its roots in decades of support for Savimbi and the consensus among policy makers that he would win the election, has, over the last year, become ever more clearly UN policy.
The talks in Abijan in 1993 and Lusaka in 1993-94 (where the US sent their own Special Envoy, Paul Hare) reflected the policy spelt out in congressional hearings by such Angola experts as Chester Crocker: get a power-sharing deal for Savimbi, and along the way, gloss over Bicesse, the election result and the much-vaunted commitment to democracy.
The essential elements in the Lusaka talks, the details of which Mr. Beye insisted be kept confidential, were a UN force of "blue helmets" to oversee the withdrawal of Unita troops and the incorporation of some in the FAA and in the elite riot police; high cabinet posts and regional governorships for Unita; some special status for Savimbi. The pressures put on the government delegation included financial pressures from the IMF. The long-drawn out process has been the subject of total scepticism in Luanda where neither the Parliament, the Central Committee, the military nor the press had any insight into the concessions being demanded from, or given by, the President's negotiating team. Since the events of October and November 1992 when, in Luanda and Benguela, the government was saved from Unita's attempted coup by the thousands of volunteers who fought the pilot committees and the incoming armies hand to hand, supported only by riot police, it should be clear to even the most determined of US policy makers that it is politically impossible to propose bringing Savimbi back to Luanda.
However, the UN Secretary General's report to the Security Council on January 29, 1994 showed once again the dream world the UN has chosen to live in. While admitting that "the military situation continues to deteriorate," the report emphasized that "national reconciliation remains the primary objective of the peace process." Unita, Mr. Boutros Boutros Ghali stated, "has indicated its readiness to dismantle its military structure totally and become a purely political party." He urged its reintegration into government and state structures be achieved with flexibility and political will. In May 1991 in Bicesse, Unita made the same commitment. In the pre-election period, Unita was integrated into the army, while after the election it was offered government posts. For all those broken promises, Unita received no effective sanction, but instead, in return for 16 months of producing tens of thousands of deaths and destruction on a scale never seen here before, it has been given unprecedented international humanitarian aid and a de facto recognition of power based on military might.
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