Mistakes in Angola
By JONATHAN POWER
In Zaire in the contest to succeed the dying president, Mobutu Sese Seko, we have in the capital Kinshasa, the ex-prime minister Etienne Tshisekedi, pulling out every stop to take over from his erstwhile boss. His charisma and organizational skills are formidable. Early this week he led a stunning strike which, for the breadth of a day, reduced the bustling, noisy, helter-skelter of life in the capital to an earie silence.
In the west is his rival for power, Laurent Kabila, who by force of arms has captured the most populous half of the country, taken over the diamond and copper mines, the main source of the country's wealth and is now advancing on Kinshasa.
This is reminiscent of how civil war began in neighboring Angola 20 years ago. That time the Russians took one side and the American CIA, under the orders of Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, the other. The ratcheting up of civil war by the Cold War antagonists ended up with one side, the MPLA, the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola, today the government, bringing in the Cubans and the other side, UNITA, the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola, bringing in the South Africans. The civil war so exhausted and drained the country that the World Bank concluded that ``there was no economic activity to measure."
In the end the Cubans fought the South Africans to a standstill. The Bush administration in Washington with the Gorbachev administration's help in Moscow arbitrated a peace agreement that got the South Africans and Cubans
removed, gave its blessing to the MPLA as the party of government and gave Jonas Savimbi's guerrillas of UNITA a role in the capital as the formal opposition. Last week the war was supposedly finally concluded after the inauguration of a government of national unity.
Yet Savimbi still holds back--thanks to his old friend, President Mobutu. Savimbi declined to attend last week's ceremony, though his representatives did. Instead, with Mobutu continuing as before to keep him well stocked in arms, he is deploying UNITA guerrillas against Kabila. To match this the official Angolan government has dispatched contingents of its army to Kabila's side.
Hence the ongoing ``murderous violence in the pregnant land of Africa,'' to quote the Portuguese novelist, Antonio Lota Antune who wrote so acutely about Angola's incommunicable image of war in his ``South of Nowhere.''
Zaire, thanks to the spirits who watch over Africa, no longer has to contend with superpower backers, but there remains a danger that it could end up with the U.S. on the side of Kabila and the French and the Belgians with their historically larger stakes in the old order in Zaire backing Tshisekedi. But even if the western powers decide to be sensible and cooperate the elements for another great African feud are all too clearly in place. These days, given the easy availability of arms, one doesn't need an official ``backer'' to get one's hands on murderous amounts.
If the lesson of Angola is don't start a civil war the lesson of the twentieth century is that ``most civil wars have only ended with the outright military victory of one side over the other.'' So writes Charles King in a study published this week by the International Institute for Strategic Studies. He goes on to observe that ``military victory in civil wars is often associated with widespread human rights abuses, atrocities, genocide, environmental degradation and a host of other ills which make reconstruction and political reconciliation especially difficult.''
His argument should be cold water for those outsiders who think anything could be gained by trying to tip the scales one way or another in the Zairean power struggle. The chance of success would be slim and the price of failure great. Once civil war starts it is extraordinarily difficult to stop and then, as Professor King observes, a negociated settlement, even if it can be reached, may be inherently unstable, as appears to be the case in Angola.
Thus now is the time for outsiders to stand back from partisanship and instead deploy their joint resources to broker a compromise before the rivals spill blood. They must throw their weight without reserve behind the rather clever UN arbitrator, Mohammed Sahnoun. An election where the contenders face off must be the common goal. Meanwhile, for a year or so a government of national unity is necessary to keep the country ticking over and to give time to organise an honest ballot.
Outsiders, principally America to begin with, pulled apart Angola's power sharing commitment to hold elections in 1975. It would be a tragedy to repeat that appalling mistake in Zaire today. Hopefully by now everyone should know better. But do they?
April 16, 1997, LONDON
Copyright © 1997 By JONATHAN POWER
and e-mail: JonatPower@aol.com
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