The southern African nation of Angola will hold its first-ever elections Tuesday. The elections are likely to be without incident, but the prospects for genuine peace in this war-torn nation are far from certain.
On May 31, 1991, Jose Eduardo dos Santos of the governing Popular Liberation Movement of Angola (MPLA) and Jonas Savimbi of the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) signed the Angola peace accords in Lisbon that mandated the legislative and presidential elections.
While encouraging optimism that a generation of war might finally be over, aspects of the accords -- brokered by Portugal's Secretary of State Jose Durao Barroso, with critical support from the United States and the Soviet Union -- repeat mistakes made in the flawed 1975 Alvor accords that set the terms for the transition to independence after 500 years of Portuguese colonial rule.
In 1975, the Portuguese military was exhausted from 15 years of anti-guerrilla warfare, and the new revolutionary government in Lisbon wanted to cede independence to its five African colonies as quickly as possible. For Angola, this resulted in the mass exodus of virtually all Angolans of Portuguese descent -- and in civil war.
Both the Alvor and Lisbon agreements allowed for short periods to prepare for elections. The Alvor agreement gave the Angolans 11 months to prepare for elections and independence. The Lisbon accords allowed the MPLA, UNITA and 18 other fledgling political parties 15 months. Despite the country's history of warfare, the international community expects the Angolans to create a pluralistic system of government overnight.
Another similarity between the accords is that both mandated the integration of warring armies. Under Alvor, a transitional army was to have come from the colonial military and the poorly trained nationalist armies. Not surprisingly, that army never materialized.
Establishing a unified military under the 1991 accords has been equally difficult. Although a new army is supposed to be created by the time of the elections, less than 10 percent of the envisaged unifying has been accomplished.
The possibility exists that instead of one army, Angola will have three armies -- two existing ones and a partial "unified" one.
Perhaps the most troubling similarity between the two agreements is their intended purpose. In Alvor, Portugal wanted primarily to shed its colony. There is deep concern among many Angolans that the Lisbon accords, similarly, are intended to provide a rationale for removing Angola from the long list of countries in need of assistance once elections are held.
The concern is warranted. There is already a shortage of the logistical supplies necessary for successful elections. The United Nations, which has been charged with ensuring the neutrality of the police, accelerating demobilization and monitoring elections, is ill-equipped for the task.
What interests do the United States and other members of the international community have in successful Angolan elections? The cold war is over. The industrialized nations have pressing concerns at home.
Fair elections in Angola, however, would have a positive impact on other countries in Africa -- including South Africa, Mozambique and Tanzania -- that are struggling to end internal conflicts or decades of autocratic rule.
Western governments, especially Washington, have an obligation to help rehabilitate a country devastated by one of the cold war's most deadly conflicts. A healthy Angola could make a major contribution to southern Africa's economic well-being.
U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali and a bipartisan congressional group recently stressed in separate letters to President Bush that Angola deserves the same support in its transition to democracy given to Eastern Europe and the new republics of the former Soviet Union.
Despite unsettling parallels, the Alvor and Lisbon accords also have significant differences. The latter, for instance, has provided for the creation of a national Joint Political and Military Council that has infused the pre-election period with some order. In fact, more than 4.7 million people have been registered to vote, significantly more than even the most optimistic predictions.
Most Angolans are war weary. Both the MPLA and UNITA firmly believe they have the capability to win the elections and are eager to prove it. An electoral victory may not mean much to either party, however, unless the international community takes a more active role in creating the foundations for peace and democracy.
Witney Schneidman, vice president of Samuels International Associates in Washington, wrote this article for the Christian Science Monitor.