' Ethnic Cleansing' in Angola

April 11, 1993|By Jose Patricio

The Angolan government and UNITA (Union for the Total Independence of Angola) are scheduled to resume their long-delayed direct negotiations tomorrow in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, under the mediation of the United Nations.

This will be only the third round of U.N.-mediated talks since last October when UNITA, under its leader Jonas Savimbi (who once enjoyed U.S. and South African support) took up arms following its defeat in elections certified as free and fair by the United Nations and the Bush administration.

This vicious war has already claimed between 20,000 and 30,000 lives and displaced more than 2 million people -- one-fifth of the country's population. UNITA and the MPLA (Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola, now the government party), have been at odds for more than 25 years, when both fought separately to make the country independent from its Portuguese colonial rulers.

However, far more dangerous than its refusal to play by the democratic rules or even its armed military activities has been UNITA's attempt to turn Angolan brothers and sisters against one another on the basis of tribalism. It is this assault on the social and ethnic fabric of Angola that threatens to reduce my country into another Somalia.

Tribal warfare has been a rarity in Angolan history. Over several centuries there have been only minor incidents of conflict between the two largest ethnic groups in my country (Ovimbundu and Kimbundu) who comprise more than 60 percent of Angola's total population and constituted the ethnic cores of the MPLA and UNITA. Rather than warfare, relations historically between the Ovimbundu and Kimbundu were amicable, marked by considerable trade and intermarriage. If one can find any rainbows in our tragic civil war that devastated Angola from independence (1975) until the signing of peace accords in May 1991, it is that neither side ever engaged in "ethnic cleansing" or even ethnic baiting.

The emergence of ethnic conflicts from Yugoslavia to the former Soviet Union to South Africa reminds us how long and difficult is the road to integration and national unity. Governments are asked to solve century-old problems of ethnic and regional differences overnight. If ethnic problems remain intractable in countries that have existed for centuries, if not milleniums, imagine how difficult it is in Africa, where independence is so recent.

All too often ethnic differences are exacerbated by many other factors such as religion and differential exposure to Western or Arabic values and cultures that are grafted on top of the normal cultural differences. Thus, few were surprised when in the mid-1960s there were clashes between the Christian Ibos in the south of Nigeria against northern Hausa-Fulani Muslims. But Nigeria also demonstrated that with dedicated leaders, imaginative governance and constitutional engineering, it is possible to contain these differences peacefully.

Angola is similar to other white settler colonies in Africa where Europeans tended to concentrate in the capital (Luanda, Kampala, Nairobi, Dakar, Salisbury/Harare, etc.) where they had disproportionate influence on the ethnic group that traditionally inhabited this area.

Christianity and Western education had an earlier impact on these groups, and the first cries for "national liberation" came from these more "assimilated" peoples. Yet, in recent decades we have seen a handful of dem-agogic and populist leaders emerge in Africa who have turned against these very peoples as not being "true Africans" or "true Bantu." This was Idi Amin's war cry when he slaughtered the Buganda peoples around Kampala, Uganda.

We now see this populist torch raised by Jonas Savimbi in Angola. In a recent radio address to the nation, Mr. Savimbi summarized the differences between the Kimbundu peoples around the capital, who have traditionally formed the core support for the MPLA, and his own Ovimbundu in Central Angola as follows:

"No one is saying that Creoles should not have their own culture, that Creoles should not live the way they live. All we are saying is that we are not Creoles. All we want to say is that we belong to the Bantu origin, and we are Africans. We cannot abdicate and cannot compromise on the defense of these values . . . I am launching a general appeal to all UNITA armed forces wherever they might be in order to gather together in their old areas. We have uniforms, arms, ammunition, bombs and food. Come, but do not leave for assembly points. You should leave for your old areas, and we will immediately organize to collect you. We will immediately order the reorganization of your units in order to continue with the battles for the sake of bringing dignity to the Bantu people in their land of origin. Come quickly. I know that you will trust my word."

How does one negotiate with a leader who maintains that he "will not compromise on the defense" of these cultural values?

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.