Peasants do most of the dying in Angola: A war with no frontiers

Like some medieval saga, a Thirty Year War resumed in Angola last were week, a country that ought to be one of the jewels of the African continent. Three months after President Jose Eduardo dos Santos and rebel leader Jonas Savimbi came together for a celebrated handshake in Mobutu Sese Seko’s gaudy palace at Gbadolite in northern Zaire, they are at each other’s throats again. Fighting is raging everywhere. It never really stopped. Savimbi claims to have killed 1 000 government troops and lost 300 of his own. His figures may be exaggerated, but as always it is the peasant villagers who are doing most of the dying. 

I have spent the past week travelling through some of the central and southern provinces of Angola talking to mutilated survivors in the hospitals, where weary doctors perform the highest rate of amputations in the world, and watching babies found among the carnage being brought to overcrowded orphanges where equally weary nurses randomly make up surnames to give them some semblance of identity. It was a week in which Savimbi finally repudiated the Gbadolite handshake and made a counter-proposal of his own which Dos Santos said was a return to square one. Thus come January the Angolan war, which began as a war of independence against the Portuguese, will enter its thirtieth year. 

When the stars came together last December in a remarkable constellation of opportunities that led to the signing of a set of accords at the United Nations, it seemed as though peace was about to descend at last on the whole of south-western Mrica. Suddenly, each for their own quite different reasons, all the external participants in this orgy of death wanted out- the Russians, the Cubans and the South Africans, leaving the Americans to claim success for one of the most preposterous foreign policies ever applied anywhere, which was that the mandated territory of Namibia should not become independent until 50 000 Cuban soldiers left neighbouring Angola. So that improbable quartet sat down together to negotiate the peace accords and the Namibian independence process got under way. 

Now the South Africans have withdrawn to their bases, the Cubans are boarding ships in Luanda every week, and Namibia’s Swapo guerrillas are making their way home to vote for a government of their own next month All that remained was for the Russians and Americans to knock their respective Angolan clients’ heads together and this country could have peace, too. With the Cubans and South Africans gone, Dos Santos and Savimbi would be left to themselves and if the Russians and Americans threatened to cut off their arms supplies, they would have to do a deal. Gbadolite seemed to be that deal. So what went wrong? All that renamed was tor the Russians and Americans to knock their respective Angolan clients’ heads together and this country could have peace, too. 

With the Cubans and South Africans gone, Dos Santos and Savimbi would be left to themselves – and if the Russians and Americans threatened to cut off their arms supplies, they would have to do a deal. Gbadolite seemed to be that deal. So what went wrong? The first and most obvious target of blame is the broker of Gbadolite, Mobutu. It is being said of him that he was so eager to get the two sides to agree so that he could be acclaimed when he visited President George Bush in Washington the following week that he distorted the negotiating process. 

According to insiders at what was a summit of 18 African heads of state on June 22, Savimbi was in one room of the palace and the African presidents, including Dos Santos, were in another. As Mobutu shuttled between them, it is suggested, he may have led each side to believe that the other had made more concessons than he actually had made. What emerged was a hybrid agreement, half-public, half-unwritten understandings, that was a recipe for later disputation. The public half stated that there would be a ceasefire starting two days later, and an end to all foreign interference in Angola’s affairs. The unwritten part, kept within the club, one is told, to help Savimbi save face, stated that he had agreed to go into ”temporary and voluntary retirement” while a plan to bring about national reconciliation was implemented and members of his Unita movement were ”integrated into the institutions of Angola”. 

When a month later President Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia, who was chairman of the summit, disclosed these unwritten clauses Savimbi flatly denied that he had ever agreed to any such thing and announced that he was going back to war. Efforts to get Gbadolite back on track resulted in another summit of eight African leaders aboard Mobutu’s yacht on the Congo River on September 18. Dos Santos attended again, but despite urgings from Washington that he should go, Savimbi did not. Contemptuously he sent a press aide to represent him. The meeting redrafted the terms of the agreement and asked the leaders to sign it. Instead, Savimbi summoned a congress of Unita at his headquarters at Jamba, south-eastern Angola, and last Tuesday announced his own counter-proposal. 

This calls for an African peacekeeping force to supervise a new truce while negotiations begin between Unita and Dos Santos’s MPLA. It states that the negotiations should aim at the installation of a transitional government leading to national elections. It may sound reasonable to Westemers, especially the Americans who back Savimbi, but Western diplomats based here are unanimous that any thought of launching a multi-party democracy with free elections in this deeply divided society is utterly unrealistic. 

Peace, stability and a minimum level of national unity are necessary first week, – the proposal was not new: Savimbi has made it many times before and he must have known it was unacceptable. What it amounted to in fact was a rejection of the Organisation of African Unity’s peace-making efforts and a return to full-scale war. But there has to be more to such a breakdown than just bungled brokering by Mobutu. Randall Robinson, a black American lobbyist on African and Caribbean affairs who arrived here last Monday for talks with the Angolan government, smells dirty work in Washington. ”We have the leverage to bring Savimbi to the table and make him sit there until an agreement is reached,” Robinson says. ”If the administration does not do that, it means it does not really want reconciliation.” 

The reason, Robinson suggests, is that Angolan policy has become ”hostage to the right”. He points out that a group of far rightists in Congress, headed by Senator Dennis De Concini of Arizona, have made Savimbi their pet cause on the doubtful premise that he is a freedom fighter trying to liberate Angola from Marxist-Leninist oppression. He points out, too, that Lee Atwater, who managed Bush’s presidential campaign and is now chairman of the Republican Party, was a partner in the firm of Black, Manafort and Stone, who are Savimbi’s Washington lobbyists. That gives Savimbi a line into the White House and makes the administration amenable to his cause. 

”I think they encouraged Savimbi to back out of the Gbadolite deal because they hope that with the Cubans gone their man can fight on and win,” Robinson says. The black lobbyist hopes to change that. His organisation, Transafrica played a major role in mobilising American opinion in support of sanctions against South Africa in 1987, and now he plans to do the same on Angola. He invited Dos Santos to the United States later this month, where he has 36 congressmen lined up to meet him, and the Angolan President ac¬cepted. He will be the first president of a country not recognised by the United States to visit Washington, and Robinson said he would try to pressure Bush into meeting him. ”I’m going to build a public fire on this issue,” the black lobbyist promised. ”I’m going to make sure the right-wing influence is counter-balanced.” 

Meanwhile, life here grinds down. The war weariness is palpable. Eighty percent of Angola’s population was born after the war began and they have known nothing but blood and sweat and tears all their lives. It is a war without battle lines or frontiers: just two sides who stalk each other in the endless bush and sustain themselves by shooting up peasant villages and looting them of food and clothing. Government forces control the cities, but the countryside is a shifting killing ground of ambushes and landmines that has brought agriculture to a standstill and devastated the peasant population, millions of whom have flocked into the cities to live among the crumbling buildings and in sprawling shantytowns, where they scratch a living in an economy close to ruin. The air is heavy with exhaustion md apathy. Life has become an unwinnable struggle against hopeless. It has also become cheap. 

On my first evening here there was a burst of AK-47 gunfire outside the hotel and a man fell dead in the road. Two soldiers dragged his body away md threw it on the back of a truck. I do not know why they killed him. No one bothered to find out. –  Allister Sparks reports from Luanda

This article originally appeared in the Weekly Mail.


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