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Angola Returns To Full-Scale War In Post-Ballot Period

United Nations to reconsider its presence, as rebels strike key oil-producing areas

FOUR months after its first democratic elections, this oil-rich African nation is embroiled in a full-scale civil war marked by atrocities on both sides and waning international leverage and interest.

"It was never as bad as this, even at the height of the cold war," says a Western diplomat in Luanda, referring to the 16-year civil war that followed Angola's independence in 1975. "The extent of the destruction through recent fighting is staggering, and reports of escalating political assassinations are most disturbing."

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Angola's agony - eclipsed by the conflict in Bosnia, renewed hostilities between the United States and Iraq, and the US-led relief effort in Somalia - has long-term implications both for stability in southern Africa and democratization in Africa as a whole. Mozambique, for example, was to follow the same UN-sponsored transition path to democracy as Angola.

The UN Security Council is expected to meet next week to determine the fate of the 300-strong UN military and police observer mission whose mandate expires at the end of January.

The renewed fighting have strengthened the hard-liners in the ruling Popular Movement of the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) and widened the gap between hard-liners and moderates in the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA).

Diplomats and aid workers estimate that UNITA now controls 60 to 70 percent of the countryside - far more than during the civil war. Statistics are sketchy, but aid workers say 10,000 to 15,000 people have been killed in the past four months.

The cold-war confrontation here left bitterness and a massive arsenal of Soviet and US arms that the small UN mission was unable to defuse in the 18-month run-up to the September ballot.

"Before the [March 1991] cease-fire, the Angolan war was between the Soviets and Cubans on the one side, and the US and South Africa on the other," a UN official says. "The MPLA and UNITA had very little say. Today the motivation is completely different. The [MPLA] wants to prove that it is capable of administering the whole country in terms of the election mandate."

The election gave a clear parliamentary majority to the MPLA; President Jose Eduardo Dos Santos drew just under the required 50 percent of the presidential vote to avoid a runoff. UNITA leader Jonas Savimbi rejected the outcome, and UNITA renewed fighting.

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"The future is not promising," says UN special envoy Margaret Anstee, who has been criticized for the failed UN-monitored cease-fire and election process. "I don't see what can be done at the moment short of washing one's hands and walking out, and that would be very irresponsible and wrong," she says, adding that the parties ulitmately would have to resume talks. "Neither side can win a war and it will be lengthy."

Mrs. Anstee says escalating fighting has already resulted in the UN closing 41 of its observer missions around the country. She said the UN mandate - based on the March 1991 Bicesse accords - was "almost impossible" to implement because of the short time-frame and inadequate resources and authority: "I was unhappy about the mandate and the timetable from the beginning. But the UN was not a party to negotiating the Bicesse accords." She suggests that perhaps the UN should never have accepted the accords a s a mandate.

Government officials and rebel leaders continue to pay lip service to peace initiatives, but the cease-fire has totally collapsed. "There is little doubt that this conflict will be settled militarily," says a senior UN aid worker in Luanda, requesting anonymity.

The conflict entered a new phase this week as UNITA launched an offensive against key northwestern oil fields in Soyo. US and European oil companies, which control production in the area, evacuated foreign nationals Monday and closed operations amid the fighting.

In Cabinda, the oil-rich Angolan enclave which produces two-thirds of the country's oil, UNITA reportedly had called in its civilian supporters - a sign that the rebels are preparing to attack Chevron's (known as Cabinda Gulf in Angola) onshore headquarters.

Jean-Michel Muls, managing director of the Belgian-owned oil firm Fina, says he believes UNITA is holding captive 23 Fina employees, including 17 expatriates.

Angola's oil production, currently about 550,000 barrels per day, is the MPLA's main source of revenue - providing about $2 billion a year in foreign currency.

Intense fighting was reported yesterday in UNITA's central highland stronghold of Huambo and in Luena and Lubango. UNITA headquarters and Mr. Savimbi's home reportedly were destroyed in relentless bombing by government MIG jets Jan. 11-12, but MPLA forces appear to lack the necessary support to hold Huambo.

In two weeks of heavy fighting across the country, UNITA has been driven back from a dozen towns. They currently hold Mbanza-Congo in northern Zaire Province and Cuito Cuanavale in Cuando Cubango Province to the south.

UNITA also is waging a sustained attack against Menongue, the capital of Cuando Cubango Province, from which government forces could launch bombing raids on UNITA's bush headquarters at Jamba.

The rebels also control the key diamond diggings in the northeast which stand to yield an estimated $1.5 billion in revenue in the next seven years.

The US, which formerly sustained UNITA militarily with the help of South Africa, has long since achieved its objective of the withdrawal of Cuban forces from Angola and the imperatives of the cold-war era no longer apply.

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