Angola: two years after the end of decades of war

IssueMarch - May 2004
Comment by Jan Van Criekinge

Angola is one of the countries in the world that has been most affected by war and violence over the past four decades. The country lies devastated, its infrastructure destroyed, its citizens brutalised by four centuries of slavery, colonialism, war, bloody political conflict and corruption. The long guerrila war (since 1961) against Portuguese colonialism under the Salazar dictatorship did not even stop with independence in 1975.

Divided among three rival movements, MPLA, UNITA and FNLA--that represented different ethnic and social groups, each supported by different international powers in the Cold War--the country became a major victim of the ideological power struggle in Southern Africa. Even the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the apartheid system in South Africa did not bring peace any closer. Different efforts to broker peace agreements between the MPLA-government and the “guerrila rebels” of Savimbi's UNITA have failed over the last decade. The involvement of the United Nations resulted in a disastrous election campaign during 1992. Few recent wars have been as bitterly controversial both inside and outside the country. par>The conflict in Angola has also come at incredible cost. In this 27-year long civil war, which pitted the originally Marxist MPLA government against the “rebels” of UNITA, more than 1,000,000 people were killed, another four million displaced, and most of the country's rural and economical infrastructure - like bridges, roads and railways, virtually destroyed. No one knows for sure how many land-mines are still scattered across Angola, especially in the eastern provinces, but the country is believed to be one of the world's most heavily mined - a threat that will haunt its citizens for decades to come. Malnutrition and disease are widespread. The education system lies in ruins. At the end of 2003, United Nations figures estimated that over half a million Angolans would confront starvation if not assisted immediately by international food supplies.

Economic disparity

Participants at a recent international donor meeting for Angola in Geneva said donors would continue their support in key strategic areas, but international assistance would be dependent on increased efforts by the Dos Santos government, particularly towards greater transparency. There were also great fears that deepening economic disparity between the small number of extremely wealthy people and the poor majority of Angolans could lead to violent “ruptures” within society. John Rocha from the NGO Angola 2000 said that a recent survey conducted by his team had shown Angolans had high expectations of a “peace dividend” from the government with the end of the war. “It is no secret that a tiny elite have most of the wealth in the country. People are prepared to wait for some change in their daily lives but the government has to start delivering. If people do not see changes in the future there really is no telling what their reaction may be,” Rocha said.

On the other hand, a small but powerful elite around president Jose' Eduardo Dos Santos have made big profits from the war: the oil industry in particular is growing. Today Angola is the second oil exporting country of Sub-Saharan Africa. According to The Economist, Angola is “one of the fastest growing countries in Africa and will receive US$3.5 billion of investments from international oil companies”. However this picture is misleading, as it gives the impression that the Angolan economy as a whole is prospering. In essence all sectors are stagnant, except the oil and diamond business. But according to several reports by the Britain based NGO Global Witness, “a lack of transparency has encouraged massive official corruption, impoverishing people and obstructing the peace initiatives”. Additionally, there is “a major problem in the transparent use of growing oil revenues by the Angolan government, leaving a war-torn population with little benefit from massive expected foreign investments”.

However, as the war formally ended on 4 April 2002 with the signing of the Memorandum of Understanding between the two opposing parties, peace and the process of reconciliation seems quite sustainable in Angola (with the exception of the oil-rich province of the Cabinda enclave, where the FLEC is still fighting for independence). In this process grassroots groups and churches played a very important role. For instance, a report by Alex Vines highlights the important role that NGOs will need to play within an atmosphere characterised by “elite domination, using the almost perpetual state of war as an excuse”.

Development of civil society

Civil society as such did not really develop in Angola before the ruling MPLA party had renounced its monopoly on all social and political activity. Even today the civil society operates in an atmosphere where war has been used by the government to repress what it feels is against its interests.

For example, press freedom is guaranteed on paper, but the Angolan government has often been accused of censoring the independent media. Journalist Rafael Marques has been stopped from leaving the country several times and spent some time in prison after writing critical articles about the corruption of the presidency. The independent journalists that I met in Luanda (from Radio Ecclesia, and the weekly papers Folha 8 and Angolense) were all afraid of speaking very openly about the mismanagement and corruption at the higher levels of politics, military and the international business community as they feared prosecution and even personal threats.

But the independent press has not been the only victim in civil society. The government's attempts to silence those it deems a threat to its interests have also led to a lot of tension between the state and the churches. Especially in the southern provinces, where the question of land rights provokes sharp confrontations between former army generals (who have been able to illegally occupy large fazendas) and local farmers and nomadic pastoralists, and where the church is playing a great role in the struggle for social justice.

A local catholic priest, Padre Jacinto Pio Wacussanga, president of the radical human rights association ALSSA, has taken a leading role in defending the rights of the landless labourers against the “new” military landlords. Last year he and his colleagues received repeated death threats. But they are convinced of the strength of nonviolence as a means of changing society.

The independent media, human rights organisations and churches are helping to stabilise the peace so much desired by the great majority of the Angolan population. The consolidation of peace depends primarily on how the reconstruction process addresses the profound social divisions, political alienation from the one-party-state and its institutionalised corruption on all levels, and the poverty that sustained the war for so many years. The reconstruction should, in the first place, meet the needs of the millions of desperately poor people living in rural communities who, completely isolated from large urban and economic centres and confronted with the deadly consequences of widespread landmines in their daily lives, have so far seen too few tangible benefits of peace.

The resettlement of some four million displaced persons and war refugees continues to be a cause for some concern. But major confrontations have been avoided so far, due to the mediation of churches and other grassroots initiatives.

Women and children

One of the many initiatives taken by Angolan women is the peace group MPD (Mulheres, Paz e Desenvolvimento--Women, Peace and Development). In May 2000--even before the formal end of the war--the MPD launched an “Apelo de Mulheres para a Paz” (Women's Appeal for Peace) in which they asked all the parties involved in the war to immediately stop the brutal recruitment of soldiers. MPD's chair Cesinanda de Kerlan Xavier said that the appeal got lot of reaction in society at the time when the Dos Santos government was launching the “final total war for victory”. “As women and mothers we no longer wanted our sons and husbands taken away for a war that was destroying us all. We expressed the great desire for peace and development among the Angolan women.”

How many young girls were used by Angola's warring parties during its 27-year war is anyone's guess. Denial--by both sides--and fear of discrimination and stigma among former girl soldiers continue to stand in the way of any effort to come up with precise figures.

In the past both the government and the former rebel group, UNITA, have denied recruiting child soldiers. However, Human Rights Watch (HRW) has claimed that minors were widely used by both sides during the conflict. Conservative estimates put the number of children who bore arms for UNITA at 6,000. HRW has noted that the actual figure was probably much higher. The refusal to acknowledge the role played by child soldiers, especially girls, during Angola's hostilities has complicated efforts by aid groups to address the problem. Christian Children's Fund (CCF) in Angola is one of the few NGOs that has attempted to tackle the needs of children who participated in the war, but it says it has had to broaden the scope of its project to include all children, not only child soldiers.

What does the future hold?

International donor organisations have criticised Angola's alleged lack of fiscal transparency and continuing human rights abuses. Human Rights Watch has claimed in a new report (January 2004) that more than US$4 billion in state oil revenue “disappeared” from Angolan government coffers between 1997 and 2002, an amount roughly equal to the entire sum the government spent on all social programmes during the same period. According to HRW, “an estimated 900,000 Angolans are still internally displaced. Millions more have virtually no access to hospitals or schools, [and] according to United Nations estimates, almost half of Angola's 7.4 million children suffer from malnutrition.”

International agencies have to help millions of Angolans to survive, although Angola could be one of the richest countries in Africa if its wealth were used in a better way. Observers have pledged support for the demobilisation process and offered to help in further implementing the terms of the Lusaka Protocol, on which the peace agreement of April 2002 is based.

The large number of weapons which remain in private hands has also been noted as a threat to stability, with an estimated one third of the country's 14 million population armed. Most of the civilians had received the guns from the state to defend themselves in a “people's” defence against UNITA. At present the government, the new and democratically elected UNITA leadership, and international observers, are each calling for Angola to undertake a process of national reconciliation. But it still has a long way to go.