The distant war in Angola

Hein Möllers

From the capital Luanda, it is barely two hours flight to Kuito, the metropolis of the central Angolan province Bie. Just a jump by plane. However, one feels like they are in another world on landing. A ruined landscape, since the city was bombarded in the spring of 1999 for weeks and came under artillery fire. There are bomb craters where Portuguese colonial style houses once stood. Children recite their lessons in the few schools that remain open, strangely enough left out by the bombing. Women trail from the refugee camps to the health stations like restless zombies, and on the way, wait outside the food stores. Confused and worn old women wear name ribbons on their wrists like new-borns so that they don't get lost. Almost all men are in uniform.

The only means of transportation is a jeep belonging to the humanitarian organisation World Food Programme (WFP), which the people pass on the way to the food storage. Nobody knows whether the storage will be enough to last until the rainy season when the runway becomes unusable.

People from all provinces stream to Kuito because there is a hospital here and there is emergency aid or simply protection from the extortions of the soldiers in a war in which the population are hunted and expelled from both sides. Over 100,000 refugees live in Kuito, as many as the city once had as inhabitants.

For years now the war in Angola has not been about parties and programmes. It is a bitter irony that it is from here that the fundamental changes in southern Africa began, in December 1988 when Angola and South Africa signed a ceasefire agreement in New York. One year after the withdrawal of the South Africans and Cubans from Angola, the path was paved for Namibia's independence. In 1990 in South Africa, the apartheid regime revised its politics and lifted the ban on the forbidden parties and released the political prisoners. In 1994, free, general elections followed.

The non-violent transitions of autocratic and dictatorial regimes in Zambia (1991) and Malawi (1994) are also closely related to the ceasefire of 1988, because this was the first expression of a change in global and regional politics. On the other side of the continent, in Mozambique, as in Angola, negotiations between the civil war parties began. They were brought to a conclusion with elections in 1994, which were followed by an improved economic situation in the country.

However, in 1992 the elections in Angola failed. The loser, Jonas Savimbi of the UNITA didn't acknowledge his defeat at the polls. Admittedly two years later, both sides, the reigning MPLA and the UNITA, signed a peace contract again in Lusaka in 1998. However the war continues regardless, the militaries have the power, and while old mines are cleared, new mines are laid. Every day 1,000 people die due to the war and the consequences of war, through mines, hunger and lack of medical supplies.

In Angola, where the process of change in southern Africa began, peace is still distant. The war that began as a liberation struggle in 1971, and with independence in 1975 turned into a war of rivalry between liberation organisations, continues, supported from allies in the East and West. It did not come to an end with the end of the Cold War. The basic patterns of social, political and economic polarisation, that originated in the period from 1975 to 1990, are still valid today: The MPLA against the UNITA, city against country, export oriented oil, and the diamond industry against the native farm and rural economy. The home market elites, that make a lot of money through shady deals, against an impoverished population, that uses a variety of strategies for survival.

As the war continues, however, it is more and more about just one thing: The division or acquisition of the loot has become the object of the Angolan war. The interests of the political elites of both sides, to continue with the extremely well paying deal have probably become the biggest individual obstacle to peace and national reconciliation.

The profits also finance the war that nurtures its masters. The government spends US$1million on the war every day. No figures are known for UNITA, but they are probably similar. As the government finances the war with petroleum, the UNITA finances it through diamonds from the north-east region of the country.

This all happens under the eyes of the international community, that doesn't show any serious political will to dry out the war. Even the weapons embargo of 1993 against the UNITA is not effectively controlled. The UNITA still receives extensive weapon deliveries from South Africa, the Republic and the DR. Congo, from Zambia and from Togo and Burkina Faso.

The government does not need to worry about supplies either. These businesses admittedly are not illegal, but they evade the spirit of the Lusaka accords and lead to dwindling trust in the peace process. The arms of the government troops come from Bulgaria, China, Israel, Ukraine and South Africa, from Belarus, and Brazil.

Russia too, one of the mediating powers in the so-called Troika, undermines its own credibility because it sells large quantities of heavy arms to the Angolan government. The Russian Federation has become the single most important weapon supplier. In February this year Spanish control authorities on the Canary Islands stopped a Ukrainian freighter carrying 636 tons of arms - from garnets to investigative tools - heading for Angola. It was declared as car parts. The arms had been ordered by the Angolan state company Simportex, from the Russian state business Rosvooruzheni, recently renamed Rosoboroneksport.

Portugal, also a Troika-member signed a military contract with Angola. Only the third partner, the USA, does not maintain any formal military relationships with Angola.

There are also hidden weapons purchases, financed from the oil deals.

As the oil price fell in 1998, drilling concession with a value of approximately US$870 million were sold to the oil-multinationals BP, Exxon and elf. In this situation only these big companies are technically and financially able to exploit the costly deep water projects. According to statements by the Angolan Secretary of State, the concessionary money was meant to be used "for the war". In April 2000 Angola and Slovakia signed an agreement on oil for arms. Six SU-22-bombers and T-72-tanks were among the purchases.

These weapons deals are only one indication of the disinterest of the international community in a solution to the conflict in Angola. The tragedy of the country cannot only be attributed to Angola's political class, to which victims and perpetrators alike belong, but also to the international agencies, that are responsible for peace building and the observance of human rights. The British Angola expert Alex Vines speaks of the United Nations peace building process as a grotesque pantomime. Since the Lusaka accords were signed, Angola would come close to a play about war, but at the same time it would offer the stage for theatrical files about "peace", that alternated between tragedy and farce. Under-equipped, both with staff and financially, the United Nations were unable to control the ceasefire process or to steer it. Just the contrary.

Instead of disarmament, new arms streamed into the country. Instead of actually disarming soldiers and transferring them to monitored camps, only support staff came who were recruited by force, merely young men, unfit and discarded. Instead of demobilising the armies step-by-step on both sides, the reorganisation and new grouping of fighting units occurred with the addition of private mercenary troops. Instead of subordinating the entire Angolan territory to the sovereignty of a transition government in Luanda, which should also have included UNITA politicians and generals, the country remains separated as two nations, of which one only obeys the commands of the military headquarters of the UNITA. On top of all this, on the outskirts things depend neither on the government in Luanda nor on the UNITA headquarters, but rather on armed men, who happen to be there. Instead of freedom of movement for people and goods, a basic prerequisite for the simple Angolans, who engage in trade, want to go home or are job-hunting, there are still armed street blockades and effective captivity, because the widespread bandits force people into immobility. Not even to mention the military skirmishes and the deadly minefields.

A democratic poll, a peace contract, a strong UN presence, sanctions, occasional accelerating of the thumbscrew through the Pentagon, that of the US-Foreign Office, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and other agencies in Washington - all this should withdraw the basis of the war, should once and for all end it. Admittedly until now in vain. The incompetence of the international community is especially visible in the monitoring of human right violations. It was conscious role, writes Vines, that the United Nations human rights department remained ineffective, in order not to endanger the so-called peace process. For him that is only another act that shows the lack of backbone in the United Nations, which worsened the already prevalent climate of disregard of civil rights as well as a widespread culture of impunity.

The matter-of-fact conclusion of Vines: "In the end it seems that despite repeated postponements, combined with UN sanctions against UNITA, no side is receptive to pressure from the United Nations or from elsewhere." The war in Angola has crossed the national borders long ago. Angolan troops have been in the DR. Congo since August 1998 to help the friendly head of state, Kabila. In the neighbouring Republic of Congo they brought a regime to power through a coup d'etat that is hostile to UNITA. With these interventions, they sought to control the supply routes to the UNITA.

From December 1999 until May 2000 the north of Namibia was a deployment area for Angolan troops against UNITA, with approval of the Namibian government. UNITA led vengeance attacks on Namibian settlements and army bases, cottages were set on fire and many villagers in the north fled southwards over the Botswanian border. Business life, only developed after independence in 1990, came to a halt, schools were closed. 7,000 people fled from the fights from southern Angola to central Namibia. Namibian troops intervened in the skirmishes on Angolan territory too.

Neighbouring Zambia also tried in vain to stay away from the inner-Angolan conflict. Over 180,000 Angolans found refuge there. "Many come mutilated from mines, some blind. Among them are many women and older people, who are no longer in any position to provide for themselves", the Zambian Secretary of State explained after an inspection of the border regions. UNITA units comb Zambia's border area again and again searching for young refugees suitable for fighting. The fights in Angola, like the ones in Congo, mark a worrying process of growing militarisation in southern Africa. A development, that, if it cannot be stopped soon, could convert all discussion of a regional development community and regional integration that began so hopefully, into wishful thinking. In Angola, the fights continue uncurtailed, shifting from conventional warfare to guerrilla tactics and downright positional wars. Every few months, new recruits get the call-up by radio. Approximately four million people of the approximate twelve million population are included directly in the war actions on a day to day basis.

In the meantime, two million are fleeing within the country and thousands have fled over the borders to neighbouring states.

One can hardly expect concessions or compromises from the leaders of either side; they profit too much from the war they maintain. As in many other countries, the population's hopes are now directed towards organisations of civil society, that are increasingly commenting more loudly. Towards churches, unions and independent media as sources of support to those suffering and as solvers of conflicts. A role they can play all the more easily, if they are acknowledged internationally.

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[translated by Mendez iTranslator ( and Andreas Speck]