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Angola aids Congo to corral Unita

American and French interests contributed to the conflict in Congo (Brazzaville), report Chris Gordon in Luanda and Howard French in Abidjan

The Angolan invasion of Congo (Brazzaville), which helped bring down the government of Pascal Lissouba this week, is part of a determined move on a range of fronts to finally break the military power of Unita’s Jonas Savimbi, which has kept the country in a state of civil war for 20 years.

The Angolan government – no longer content to rely on United Nations-mediated negotiation alone to settle the conflict – is sealing off all its borders to the backers of Savimbi, which included Lissouba.

Both the Americans and the French, in the race to benefit from the huge oil wealth off the coast of Angola and Congo (Brazzaville), have turned a blind eye to Angolan intervention. Lissouba was elected president of Congo (Brazzaville) in 1992 in the country’s first democratic vote, replacing Denis Sassou-Nguesso, who stepped down.

Rebel forces gained full control of Brazzaville, the capital of the Congo Republic, on Wednesday and were on the verge of ending the country’s four-month civil war with a clear victory. Lissouba fled the capital and his whereabouts were not immediately known.

The rebels, loyal to former president Sassou-Nguesso, were backed by tanks and as many as 1 000 troops from Angola.

The sudden shift in the war came with Angola’s entry into the fighting in support of Sassou-Nguesso in recent weeks. He also had behind-the-scenes backing in arms and political support from France, which has major oil interests in the country, and from several of France’s other former African colonies.

During four months of the war, the capital has been devastated by spectacularly destructive artillery duels that gave neither side a significant advantage. Then, last weekend, the tide began shifting when Angolan MiG fighter jets flew over Brazzaville for the first time, bombing Lissouba’s positions.

The Angolan intervention comes with Unita at its most vulnerable. Since the extremely tense period in June and July this year, when a resumption of civil war seemed weeks away, there has been a dramatic turnaround in the peace process. The government at that point took control of part of the border region with Zaire, following the fall of another Savimbi backer, Mobutu Sese Seko, and some mining regions.

Since late last year when Laurent Kabila’s advance through Zaire began to change the regional balance, Unita’s land supply and smuggling routes have been progressively reduced. The loss of a major backer in Mobutu was a serious blow to Unita’s land supply lines. Flying sufficient fuel arms and supplies to sustain a war is an operation that Unita could not afford without external financial help.

Even an annual income of $600-million from diamonds would not sustain such a war for long – and war and sanctions would severely reduce Unita’s financial capacity.

The pressures on Unita are increasing as the Angolan government takes action. It is clear that Angola’s regional strategy is aimed at securing its borders against any potential backers of Unita. The government aided Kabila with fuel in his sweep across Zaire to capture Kinshasa, and Angolan government troops fought in Shaba against Unita troops backing Mobutu.

Mobutu had provided base camps and training facilities for Unita, as well as supply lines via Ngili airport and Kamina, which once hosted the main CIA base for destabilising Angola. Congo (Kinshasa) is still a route used by the South African “companies” – mainly ex-South African Defence Force – and also the diamond buyers who fly in to Luzamba once a month to buy the production.

Closing its borders to Unita’s external backers has been a major part of the Angolan government’s regional motivation in recent months. Angola is also trying to secure the Zambian and Namibian borders. Joint operations have been agreed along the borders with these countries in the past few weeks.

The real possibility of UN sanctions against Unita have brought major advances as Unita have surrendered towns to the government and begun to demobilise troops and hand in weapons.

But there remains uncertainty about Unita’s continued compliance with the peace accord and the memory of 1992 – when Savimbi took the country back into a cataclysmic conflict after losing the UN-supervised elections – has made the Angolans keen to leave nothing to chance.

The UN has held over the imposition of sanctions until the end of October, pending a report from the secretary general’s special representative in Angola, Alioune Blondin-Beye. A second set of sanctions was to be placed on Unita at the end of September if they failed to begin to demobilise their remaining troops and surrender occupied regions back to the state.

Unita’s response to the threat of sanctions was to begin demobilisation of its remaining troops – estimated at around 25 000 men although no one except Unita has the real figures. They also began the long- delayed handover of occupied areas, and agreed on a timetable for the handover of the remaining areas.

One key Unita town that surrendered – on September 29 at the eleventh hour – was the mining town of Cuango, a few kilometres from Unita’s mining centre of Luzamba. Diplomatic sources say an agreement was reached that Unita could remain in Luzamba and mine diamonds until the end of this year. They must then surrender the territory. Paulino Neto of Endiama, Angola’s diamond parastatal, was present at the handover of the town.

A handover process of the region is expected to take place over the next three months with government and UN representatives given access to the town, at least. No one is expecting the process to be simple; another tense period is expected before Unita will actually surrender its key areas, particularly its main bases of Andulo and Bailondo. What is most problematic in the peace process is that Unita has always existed as a military organisation, and has never surrendered that option, even during the election period.

Unita’s last real supply line was through Congo (Brazzaville), which has been one of Unita’s backers. At one point Congo (Brazzaville) was exporting more diamonds than it has in the ground – most of them believed to be Angolan and produced by Unita. The ending of Lissouba’s rule with the fall of Brazzaville on Wednesday marks another closure as the victory of an old ally of the Angola government – Sassou- Nguesso – takes power in the oil-rich state.

In the oil-producing province of Cabinda, Angola has also had to contend with a small separatist movement, Front for the Liberation of the Enclave of Cabinda, which has been an ally of Unita at different times and based itself in Congo (Brazzaville).

Interestingly, the United States in particular has stood back from the action. In Zaire, it actively backed the overthrow of its embarrassing ally Mobutu. It also refused consistently to commit itself to backing a UN-sponsored peacekeeping force for Congo (Brazzaville).

Effectively both the US and the the French have major oil interests. Major oil finds in Angola’s block 17, leased to the French exploration company Elf, should make the country one of the world’s most important producers of oil by 2020, according to speculative oil industry reports.

This is enough to ensure the interests of that huge consumer of oil, the US, in a rapidly stabilised Angola. The country’s estimated output in 1996 was about 720 000 barrels a day. Congo (Brazzaville)’s oil reserves make it the fourth-largest oil producer in Africa.

Lissouba fell out of France’s graces early in his presidency when he turned to the American oil company Occidental Petroleum for financial support for his government in exchange for significant amounts of future oil production.

The French oil company Elf Aquitaine recently began operating one of the world’s largest deep-water oil platforms off the coast of Pointe-Noire, and the Congo Republic accounts for a major part of the French company’s profits. Paris later forced Lissouba to cancel his contracts with Occidental Petroleum, but ever since has scarcely concealed its preference for Sassou-Nguesso.

According to widespread French press accounts, when Lissouba went to Paris last month to seek a hearing from Paris, French President Jacques Chirac refused to receive him, and told him that since his mandate had expired in August, after the fighting had begun, he was no longer considered president.

“France was still smarting from the defeat of Mobutu in Zaire,” said one African diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, of the fighting in the neighboring Congo Republic. “With all of the oil wealth in that little country, there was no way France was going to allow itself to lose Brazzaville too.” – New York Times and M&G correspondents

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