In Angola, Savimbi death doesn't guarantee peace

If UNITA fragments, violence could build

February 26, 2002|By John Murphy | John Murphy,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa - The video of his bloodied corpse broadcast around the world last weekend left no doubt that the Angolan government's claims were true: Jonas Savimbi, the flamboyant rebel leader in one of Africa's longest-running civil wars, was dead.

Residents of Angola's capital, Luanda, greeted news of Savimbi's death with fireworks, cheers and honking car horns, hoping that, finally, three decades of war will be buried with him.

But while Savimbi's death could refocus the world's attention on a forgotten southern African conflict that long ago exhausted the patience of the international community, creating a lasting peace will be difficult.

His death could just as well lead to a continuation and escalation of the war, observers said.

"It has been said that the only way the Angolan government would stop UNITA" - Savimbi's rebel group - "was if it captured Savimbi or killed him. And they have killed him," said Henri Boshoff, a military analyst for the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria.

But UNITA representatives have announced they will not abandon the war against the government, which Savimbi launched in 1975 after Angola gained independence from Portugal.

What is most worrying is that UNITA might splinter into factions if its many headstrong leaders cannot agree on who should replace Savimbi.

"If there is a power struggle, UNITA could break up into a lot of small militia groups. There will be banditry," Boshoff said. The Angolan government would find it difficult to negotiate a peace, and the country could splinter into mutually hostile territories ruled by warlords, as has happened to Somalia.

Despite the potential pitfalls, if there ever was a window for peace, it is now. Yesterday President Jose Eduardo dos Santos called for national reconciliation, after fighting that has left much of the country in ruins and killed 500,000 people.

"My government is considering taking quick steps to normalize the political situation in Angola, obviously starting by searching for a path that leads us, urgently, to a cease-fire," dos Santos said after a meeting with Portuguese President Jorge Sampaio, the Associated Press reported.

Dos Santos is expected today in Washington, where he will meet with President Bush.

If a cease-fire can be negotiated, it would allow at least a chance for Angola to address the poverty of its 13 million citizens. More than 4 million people, about one-third of the population, are refugees because of the fighting. Thirty percent of all children die before they reach the age of 5, and much of the country depends on food aid for survival.

Paradoxically, the country has the fastest-growing economy in Africa - because of its vast oil wealth that has financed the military campaign against UNITA. The country produces more than 800,000 barrels of oil per day, more than half of it consumed in the U.S. market.

Many of the humanitarian crises are side effects of the military's scorched-earth campaign against the rebels. Thousands of rural residents of the central Moxico province - UNITA's base - have been forced out of their homes and into towns. The towns, however, do not have the resources to support the swelling populations.

The military kept Savimbi on the run until last week, when government forces overran him.

Born in 1934 in the central Angolan highlands, Savimbi trained in medicine in Europe and in the 1960s went to China, where he learned guerrilla tactics.

He returned home and in 1966 formed the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola, UNITA, to fight the colonial Portuguese government. After Angola won independence in 1975, he turned his army against the government of the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola, the MPLA, the party of President dos Santos, who has been in office since 1979.

During the Cold War, Savimbi was a darling of the United States, which backed his UNITA troops against the Soviet- and Cuban-supported MPLA.

But when the Cold War ended, Savimbi fell out of favor with the United States. A truce between Savimbi's UNITA and the government led to elections in 1992. But when Savimbi lost to dos Santos, the UNITA leader rejected the results and resumed the war, financed by diamond mines under his control.

In recent years, efforts to reach a peace agreement have failed and Savimbi has slipped further and further out of the public eye, losing more territory. After heavy losses to Angola's army in 1999, Savimbi reinvented his military as guerrilla warriors conducting hit-and-run attacks across the country.

Ruthless even by the standards of the region, Savimbi did not fit the mold of many rebel leaders. He was the dubbed the "Gucci guerrilla" because of the fine tailored suits he favored during his visits to the West. In the field, he dressed in military fatigues; that's how he was clad when he was killed.

A voracious reader, Savimbi was apparently restless in the days before he died, staying up most of the night reading Mao's writings on conducting a revolutionary war, one analyst said.

"I think we can never forget that Savimbi has been a leader for 26 years under a lot of pressure," said Hannelie De Beer, senior research at Executive Research Associates, a risk analysis group in Pretoria.

"But he kept [the rebels] together. He had the charisma to keep them together. Maybe he lost touch with reality, but he stayed with his troops until the end."

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