The battlefield death on February 22 of Jonas Savimbi marked the end of an era. With undiluted ambition, consistent ruthlessness and extraordinary skill in manipulating both friend and foe, he repeatedly dashed Angolan hopes for peace. Today almost 4 million Angolans have been displaced by war, and although Angola is potentially one of the richest countries in Africa, infant mortality is the second highest in the world. The United States must now help Angolans rebuild. That means both paying our fair share of the bill for reconstruction and insisting on transparency in the use of revenues Angola gains from US oil companies.
The United States has a particular obligation because it intervened decisively for war in the key period just before Angola’s independence in 1975. As has been long known to specialists and conclusively documented in a new book by historian Piero Gleijeses, US covert military action in Angola preceded rather than followed the arrival of Cuban troops. In the 1980s the United States again joined South Africa to build up Savimbi’s war machine.
Savimbi’s death removed the single greatest obstacle to peace. Three weeks later, the Angolan government declared a unilateral halt to offensive military actions, and a formal ceasefire was agreed to in early April. But the war has left generalized insecurity in the countryside that may well continue. The decades of conflict have also entrenched a climate of distrust throughout Angolan society.
These results come in part from Savimbi’s military strategy, which was to make Angola ungovernable. His forces systematically targeted civilians and cut the economic links between city and countryside. He also eliminated internal rivals he regarded as too open to peace. But Savimbi did not create the cleavages in Angolan society that he exploited. There is a profound gap between those who profit from Angola’s links to the world economy and those with little chance to do so. This division, more accurately described as regional and structural than ethnic in character, dates back to the colonial era. Since independence, Angola’s oil wealth combined with war has further reinforced inequality.
Paradoxically, the Angolan government has served as an unwitting ally of Savimbi. Relying on income from oil to feed the cities and to buy arms while leaving the interior to neglect, Luanda sealed the success of Savimbi’s strategy of dividing city from countryside. At the same time, Savimbi’s intransigence raised the credibility of the Luanda government. In the 1992 election campaign, for example, the ruling party won support from many Angolans who recoiled from Savimbi’s threats more than they resented the government’s failures.
The Angolan government has taken the first step with its unilateral truce, but more fundamental changes are also essential. Speaking in Washington on February 27 after he and Angolan President Eduardo dos Santos met George W. Bush, Mozambican President Joaquim Chissano listed some lessons learned from Mozambique’s experience. He stressed the need for a comprehensive peace-building process, including greater openness to dissent and to the connection between social and economic development and peace. President dos Santos’s peace plan acknowledges these points; however, acceptance of the need for voices from civil society and independent media has been slow and inconsistent.
The hardest tests will be outside Luanda. Delivering material benefits to these long-neglected areas will be critical, but humanitarian operations are stretched to the limit and badly underfunded. Here Angola’s international partners–governments, multilateral agencies, oil companies and nongovernmental organizations–have a role to play. The United States and others should quickly provide the remainder of the UN consolidated appeal for Angola for 2002, which as of mid-March had received only 10 percent of the $233 million required. They should also join Angolan civil society in insisting that the government commit its resources to schools, clinics and rebuilding the infrastructure, as well as to immediate humanitarian needs. Angola earns at least $3 billion each year from oil exports, but as much as a third disappears into a complex web of transactions among foreign companies and the Angolan elite.
It would be wrong to punish Angolans by holding up humanitarian relief, but there are other ways to exert pressure. Currently, the World Bank and the IMF are conducting a review of the oil sector with the stated goal of promoting transparency and accountability of oil revenues; this study should be concluded rapidly and made public both in Washington and Luanda. The issue of where the money goes and how to use it must be debated openly. Angolans will quickly be able to see whether the dividends of peace begin to flow. If that happens, this time peace will have a chance.