War resumes in Angola

Some four years after the UN successfully brokered a peace plan to end the bitter civil war in Angola, the conflict has re-ignited. George Koomson explains the background to this distressing development.

FOUR years after the United Nations brokered a deal to end civil war in Angola, the war has resumed in earnest. Declaring the peace deal officially dead, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan told the Security Council after the new outbreak of fighting that 'the events of the last few months have clearly proved that, for all intents and purposes, the peace process has collapsed.'

The restart of the war comes after months of mounting tension caused by repeated accord violations and skirmishes.

UN sources admit that the peace process had been stalled for months now. Most diplomats blame Dr Jonas Savimbi and his rebel movement UNITA (the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola), for refusing to hand over rebel-held territory to government control.

They say that instead, Savimbi opted for rearming his forces in violation of the peace accord signed between UNITA and the government in Lusaka, Zambia in November 1994.

The 1994 Lusaka peace accord between UNITA and the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) government provided for the demilitarisation of the rebel movement. In addition, it called for the restoration of state administration throughout the country, the conversion of UNITA radio into a non-partisan station and the transformation of UNITA itself into a true political party.

A government of national unity, created in April 1997 as a result of the Lusaka accord, quickly fell into disarray.

Savimbi, who was officially accorded the title of main opposition leader and granted various privileges, claimed he was too afraid to enter the capital Luanda and President dos Santos refused to hold face-to-face talks outside Angolan territory.

Just last December, the UN Security Council strongly criticised Savimbi, not for the first time, after holding an emergency meeting to discuss the deteriorating situation in Angola.

Savimbi's response has been to resume the war at full throttle. UNITA rebels went on the offensive in January by heavily shelling the key town of M'banza Congo, prior to capturing it on 25 January.


Media reports say the government's counter-offensive has already begun even as UNITA seeks to press home its advantage.

In taking over M'banza Congo and other northern towns, near the Congo border, UNITA clearly hoped to seize the initiative in the fighting.

The capture of the town threatens Luanda's plans to repatriate a section of its army currently backing the Kabila government in the Democratic Republic of Congo, back home over land.

Control of the strategic town also gives the rebels control of a large area from which they can launch attacks on the government's oil-producing areas.

Ninety per cent of the government's revenue comes from oil and M'banza Congo is the last major town on the road to the oil centre of Soyo, where US company Texaco has oil installations.

The town, which has an international airport, could also be used as a base to launch raids against government-owned diamond mines to the east of the city.

Again, the renewed fighting has put a question mark on the country's current oil boom. Oil experts projected that oil revenue from new finds in the country's virgin areas of the seabed could triple the country's export revenue. Currently, multinational oil companies are in Luanda, offering hundreds of millions of dollars in bids for exploration rights in the area.

Angola's substantial natural resources, ironically, have been at the source of the country's woes. But this has been worsened by the addition of sinister Cold War politics.

Of all of Portugal's five colonies in Africa, Angola was the richest in mineral resources. The Portuguese therefore did all they could to keep the country under their control, keeping the largest concentration of its army in Africa in the country to suppress the struggle for independence. This made the country's 13-year struggle for independence particularly violent.

As it felt its control threatened by the armed liberation movements, the then fascist regime in Portugal aligned with the apartheid regime in South Africa and sowed the seeds of the longest and most miserable civil war in Africa.

The armed struggle for independence begun in 1961. It was led by two liberation movements, the MPLA, made up of urban leftist intellectuals from the coastal cities, and the National Front for the Liberation of Angola (FNLA) led by Kimbundu people in the north.

UNITA surfaced in 1966 at a time when most African countries had become independent. Portuguese intelligence reports show that this was part of a Portuguese-cum-South African tactic to thwart the liberation effort.

It draws most of its supporters from the Ovimbundu ethnic group who live mostly in the central highlands. It claims to represent the 'real Africans', sons of the soil, living in the bush, fighting against a wealthy, cosmopolitan, better-educated urban elite. Many Ovimbundu were sent to pick coffee by the Portuguese, who saw them as harder workers, and there are still tensions between them and the light-skinned people, or mesticos, who make up a significant proportion of the urban population.

Till the leftist coup in Lisbon in 1974, the colonialists' tactic of divide-and-rule appeared to have worked to perfection as the liberation movements had to spend their energies fighting not only against the Portuguese colonialists but also among themselves.

Different backers

At independence in 1975, the three groups emerged with different backers. The MPLA was supported by the then USSR, Cuba and eastern European countries, while the two other groups - the FNLA and UNITA - were backed primarily by the USA, the West and South Africa.

The MPLA, which controlled most of the country including Luanda, was recognised as the legitimate government of the country by an overwhelming majority of UN members but it was immediately confronted with hostility from the West and invasion by the South African army.

Through a quickly executed counter-insurgency operation by the Cuban army, the South African invasion, condemned by the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) and the Non- Aligned Movement, was halted just short of Luanda.

Shortly after, the FNLA agreed to recognise the MPLA government and stop fighting but the South African regime maintained soldiers in the south of the country and, with the support of Western countries, ensured the continuation of the war through support for UNITA.

The fighting accelerated into high gear after the US extreme right's Ronald Reagan defeated the Jimmy Carter government in the 1976 Presidential elections and embarked upon the policy of confronting the 'evil empire' through proxy wars.

According to US sources, the US in the 1970s and 1980s gave up to $1 billion in covert aid, funnelled through the CIA to UNITA rebels.

The MPLA, on the other hand, enjoyed backing from Soviet Union money and Cuba, which at one time had a troop strength of 30,000 in Angola.

The war was brutal and devastating. Hundreds of thousands were maimed or killed. At least 1,532 minefields were planted in the country. And some 3.3 million Angolans were classified as displaced or war-affected.

As the Cold War wound down in the late 1980s, the United States, Russia, Portugal, and the UN all pushed for an end to the conflict. In 1991 the two sides signed a peace accord that included internationally monitored elections.

When the MPLA won the first round of the 1992 presidential elections and a slim majority in the legislature, Savimbi refused to take part in the run-off election. International observers rejected Savimbi's claim of rigged elections, calling the elections generally free and fair. But with his army intact, Savimbi resumed the war.

International isolation and loss of strategic areas led UNITA to accept the peace treaty but the rebel movement apparently only used this pause to rearm.

UN observers say UNITA frequently played for time by complying with requests at the last minute.

In the past six months, the Angolan government has attempted to isolate Jonas Savimbi and his 30,000-strong force politically. It ejected UNITA from the National Unity government for non-compliance with the terms of the Lusaka accord and supported the breaking away of the Renovada faction from UNITA's main grouping.

As the earth's riches were behind Portugal's desperate efforts to hold on to the country for good, so the continuation of the current conflict has been fuelled in great part by these same riches.

Despite the dramatic reduction in external funding for the rebels, diamonds are the answer to any funding problems they have. Angola's interior has some of the best diamond fields in the world - 80% are of the highest gem quality - and the diamonds can be extracted by divers and simple equipment.

From 1992-1997, UNITA ran the world's biggest diamond-smuggling operation - using the proceeds to buy arms.

Despite United Nations sanctions imposed on UNITA last year, the human rights group, Global Witness says international diamond dealers are continuing to trade with the rebels.

Some of the diamond fields were handed back to the government under the UN peace treaty. But as a sign of their intent to resume the war, UNITA rebels killed 11 workers in a raid on the Yetwene mine last November.

For the government, it is the oil boom that is funding its war effort. The government has controlled the oil fields for the last 20 years and with new oil fields being found at a faster rate off Angola's Atlantic coast, it shows no sign of running out of cash.


UNITA's surprising show of strength in the current fighting confirms fears by regional analysts that far from demobilising, UNITA maintained a significant fighting force and continued forced recruitment in territories it controlled.

And despite an earlier international embargo on fuel and armament sales to the rebels, UNITA managed to import up to 40 planeloads of petroleum and other supplies per week, according to the publication Africa Analysis.

The Angolan government recently accused Zambia of allowing its territory to be used for UNITA imports as well as offering logistical support to the rebel movement, a charge denied by Zambia.

Information available indicates that this war will be even more devastating. A report by the Secretary-General in August 1997 pointed out that new mines have been planted in UNITA territory. This was at a time when only 8% of the 1,532 minefields identified have been cleared.

The International Organisation of Migration (IOM), which was implementing the demobilisation assistance programme for UNITA, had in a report, drawn attention to donor concerns over the 'remobilisation' of demobilised soldiers.

News reports also say that a third of some 78,000 UNITA fighters who registered for demobilisation have 'disappeared'.

The UN itself was an early casualty of this latest outbreak of hostilities. In the last two months, the organisation has lost two of its chartered aircraft, along with about 23 passengers and crew members, including several peacekeepers. Other peace-keepers were also reportedly trapped in UNITA-controlled areas at the beginning of hostilities.

The UN set up a 7,500-member UN peacekeeping force, known as UNAVEM-III (UN Angola Verification Mission) in February 1995 to help monitor compliance with the Lusaka accord. Its mandate expired on 30 June 1997, when it was replaced by the scaled-down UN Observer Mission in Angola (MONUA).

There is still debate in the UN as to whether or not UN monitors should be completely withdrawn from Angola. Annan wants them out; the Security Council favours a reduced presence. The Angolan government, which says the UN allowed itself to be duped by UNITA, wants the world body to withdraw its remaining 700 UN peacekeepers from the country. Meanwhile, the OAU has not uttered a word about the current fighting.  (Third World Resurgence No. 103, March 1999)

George Koomson is the Editor of African Agenda, the Third World Network Africa Secretariat's bi-monthly publication. The Secretariat can be reached at P. O. Box 19452, Accra-North, Ghana. Tel. 233-21-306069 / 301064 / 302107; Fax: 233-21-311687/231688 /773857; email: /