Angola: war as a way of life

IssueMarch - May 2001
Feature by Rafael Marques

Nowadays, the Angolan war has become silent almost perfect for both the warmongers and the outsiders who profit from the death and destruction of the country. The Angolan war does not disturb public opinion any longer. It is an old and intractable affair. It causes indifference.

In a recent interview with the Catholic-run Radio Ecclesia, the Angolan minister of defence, Kundy Paihama, dismissed the civilian death toll of a rebel attack against the capital of the Northern province of Uíge. If people don't die of war, they die of sickness anyway, said the minister, to justify that in war a persons life counts for very little, if not nothing. Such a statement did not trigger any public outcry people are used to it. Angolan society is both structured as and revolves around a war system and a war mentality.

Conscription as class war

However, the first public signs of hope in changing this system appeared in January and February 1999 when a group of journalists denounced conscription as a discriminatory practice that sends only the children of the poor and unprivileged to the frontlines as cannon fodder. In consequence, four journalists were legally prosecuted and one beaten by a soldier.

During the same period, a group of 500 women took to the streets of the centre of the oil rich and secessionist-minded province of Cabinda [a tiny part of Angola separated from the rest by a small strip of land controlled by the DR Congo], to protest against the conscription of their children for a war they consider unjustifiable. As expected, the protesters were repressed. But after the demonstration only two young men volunteered to join the army. With timid steps, Angolan civil society is coming to terms with reality.

In June 1999 a group of people put out a peace manifesto that was signed by over 200 prominent members of Angolan civil society. It was attacked by the regime, which pressed some of the signatories to make public statements against the peace manifesto, as though they had been misled in signing it. However, the initiative has paved the way for a more progressive call for an internal and peaceful settlement of the war in Angola.

By the end of July 2001, the Catholic Church organised a Peace Congress that brought together the backbone of the fragile Angolan civil society. The call for a peaceful settlement and an internal solution involving civil society grew stronger and is now moving towards consensus among the people.

Credible representation

Nevertheless, the lack of credible and vocal leadership within civil society has long been the main factor hindering the raising of local and international awareness of the Angolan peoples plight. Both the government and the rebel movement have long been symbols of war and oppression. Yet both seem to be the only representatives of the Angolan people that are capable of influencing international diplomacy in how to address Angola. Thus, the interests of the people that are beyond the government and UNITAs claims are still faceless to the world. The Angolan conflict has been de-humanised over the years. The human, social and economic costs of the war have never been priority topics in the discussions on Angola. The cold war (1975-1989), the contesting of the general election results by Jonas Savimbi (1992-1994) and his lack of compliance with the Lusaka Protocol (1998 to date) are the international landmark arguments for the maintenance of war in the country.

Power struggle

In November 2000, the Angolan president, José Eduardo dos Santos, addressed the nation in celebration of 25 years of independence. The current perspectives are encouraging as, first, the great military victories recently achieved have neutralised completely any threat of power being seized by force, he said. President dos Santos also added that the military actions were confined to certain regions, at a low intensity, and that they could no longer hinder the reconstruction and development of the country. Dos Santos has been in power for 21 years, and so far his main objective in the war remains the same, to crush any scenario that challenges his power. On the other hand, for almost the same period of time, the UNITA rebel leader Jonas Savimbi has been fighting for the opposite, to seize power by force.

Showing no mercy

The casualties of the Angolan 40 year old war (including 25 years of civil war) continue to mount at the same level as 15 or 20 years ago. But while the Angolan war is internationally recognised as the bloodiest and most sophisticated of the African wars, official statistics claim just 500,000 dead. Following the outbreak of the current phase of the war in October 1992, the United Nations reckoned that during 1993 over a 1000 people were dying every day. Thus, over 360,000 people must have perished in that period alone. Both contenders have never shown any mercy for their own country and their own people.

Dos Santos would not declare war against UNITA, in December 1998, without the tacit backing of the United Nations, and of the international powerhouses that, at the time, believed in a surgical military victory against Jonas Savimbi. Dos Santos, in fact, waged war on the grounds that UNITA was not complying with the Peace Agreement signed in 1994 in Lusaka, Zambia, in which it was obliged to hand over all the territory it occupied to the state administration.

Waging war to foster peace

One of the points missed in such a strategy is that there was only a peace process because the parties had agreed that there was no military solution to end the conflict. So waging a war to foster the peace process was simply a grim joke. If the international intervention in the peace process was intended to end the war and bring about national reconciliation and democracy to the country, it has proved otherwise.

A case in point is the governments systematic violations of freedom of the press and of expression, as well as its scorn for the rule of law; they are evidence that what is at stake in Angola is not about the good of Angola and its people. On 31 January 2001, a government soldier from the Angolan Armed Forces (FAA), Francisco José Manuel, was executed in public, at an airstrip in the Southern Province of Cunene, for crashing the military vehicle he was driving. According to the soldiers wife, the chief of staff of the Operational Comand of Cunene, Colonel Álvaro António, gave the execution orders. His family witnessed the event as the firing squad emptied their machine guns into the soldier, ripping apart his body. Since Angola does not have a death penalty law, nor was the victim of such a brutal murder tried, one would think that the authorities would have to distance themselves from this deed. No, it is unnecessary for them to do so, as long as oil keeps pumping out to buy international diplomatic support. There was no outcry, nor any reaction from the United Nations Human Rights Mission in Angola.

Business as usual

Currently, the Angolan war is also being addressed as a business matter. Since September 1997, the trade of Angolan gems has come into the spotlight as a crucial matter in resolving the conflict. On 23 September 1997, a United Nations official told the South African paper the Star that if the government and UNITAs private talks over diamond spoils succeeded, then the normalisation of the country will happen immediately.

Sanctions were imposed against UNITA and mechanisms were put in place to cut UNITAs main source of revenues and force it back into compliance with the Lusaka Protocol. Whatever the effect of such efforts, the Angolans are in a far worse situation now than ever before.

A quarter of Angolas 12 million people have been displaced, while over a million and a half people desperately rely on international food aid. For the current school year, in the capital Luanda alone, the government has sent home over 40,000 children who were enrolled in the education system. War has never disturbed Luanda before. Most of the presidentially sanctioned reconstruction and development is carried out in Luanda. According to the Ministry of Education statistics, over 70% of Angolan children of school age are already out of the school system. UNICEF estimates that half of the Angolan population is below the age of 15. Since the release of the Global Witness Report on Angola, A Crude Awakening, in December 1999, the reputation of the oil industry in Angola has been tarnished and associated with the war. More recently, the government has been tainted with the revelations in French courts that it violated the international arms embargo in 1993 and 1994 by rearming itself, through murky oil deals.

A lack of transparency

Yet, nothing has changed. On 24 January 2001, a group of 25 leaders of a small political party, PADPA, staged a hunger strike in front of the presidential palace, to demand an explanation on the scandals. The Rapid Intervention Police tortured some of the demonstrators, arrested six of them, and threatened the president of the party, Carlos Leitão, with death. Once again, the government walked away, unaccountable for its brutality.

In Angola, there is very little thought paid by civil society to the role of diamonds and oil in fuelling the war, because both the government and UNITA have never been transparent or accountable for any national income. No matter what the international findings are, and whatever recommendations are made on the role of such riches in the Angolan war, for the majority of Angolans they will be little more than excuses used to justify the carnage. The core issue still to be addressed in the Angolan Problem is the right of the Angolan people to live in peace and enjoy human dignity.

If the time spent in searching for political and economic explanations to address the war was spent in building up and encouraging new voices within society, to express the peoples will, the Angolan conflict would no longer be a personal matter belonging to the warlords. It would take people into the streets to debate and discuss it. And that's how it should be.