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Dateline: Savimbi Death, Peace Prospects in Angola - 2002-03-11

The words of Jonas Savimbi
"They'll never get near me. Because, if so, they'd have more information. However, they continue to pursue me. But I'm not too worried. Over the past year, we've developed ways to avert this catastrophe."

Twenty-seven years of life in the bush came to a violent end last month. Long-time Angolan rebel leader Jonas Savimbi was ambushed and killed by troops of Angola's MPLA government. This edition of Dateline examines the impact Savimbi's death may have on ending nearly three decades of civil war.

Since Angola's independence from Portugal in 1975, Jonas Savimbi, the charismatic leader of the UNITA movement, waged war against the government in Luanda. His fight for one cause or another attracted major international supportfrom China for his anti-colonialism — and from the United States and the white minority regime in South Africa for his anti-communism. As a testament to his popularity with conservative elements in the United States, Savimbi was received at the Reagan White House in a manner befitting a head of state.

However, when the Cold War ended, analysts explained that the ideological struggle between the then Marxist MPLA and anti-Communist UNITA, degenerated into a brutal fight over Angola's vast oil and diamond wealth. Over the last decade, Savimbi consistently rejected all peaceful attempts to end the conflict whether by UN-supervised elections in 1992 or the Lusaka peace process, initiated in 1994. Meantime, more than half a million Angolans have died and millions have been displaced.

According to Gerald Bender, Angola expert and professor of international relations at the University of Southern California, Savimbi had no one but himself to blame for his demise. Mr. Bender said, "Savimbi's ambition to be president of Angola at all costs, not only hurt the country, but hurt his party, hurt his people the Ovimbundo, and ultimately himself."

Jardo Muekalia is the former UNITA representative in Washington. While deeply saddened by Savimbi's death, Mr. Muekalia acknowledged a unique opportunity exists for peace. At the same time, Mr. Muekalia deplores what he says is the government's continued military pursuit of UNITA leadership in the field.

"Now that he's not here," Mr. Muekalia said, "we'd certainly like to see the government changing its tone, changing its attitude and rise to the level of being a government for all Angolans. If that is done, I believe indeed that this can be an opportunity for peace. But, if on the other hand, the witch-hunt continues, then we are in for trouble. This will have been a wasted opportunity because what will happen is that all the regional commanders will be afraid to show up anywhere because the policy is simply to kill everybody. So, in that situation I do not think that this may represent a new beginning."

News of Jonas Savimbi's death coincided with a previously scheduled visit to the White House last month by President Jose Eduardo dos Santos. President dos Santos told President Bush and other senior officials that Angola wanted a mutual cessation of hostilities, but he stopped short of declaring a unilateral cease-fire.

He reiterated this position in an interview with VOA's Portuguese-to-Africa service. "A government NEVER declares a unilateral cease-fire — the government has constitutional responsibilities and obligations to maintain order and protect its citizens," he said. "So, as long as there are armed men who are taking military actions, how can the government declare a unilateral cease-fire? I think it would be absurd."

However, while the White House and State Department did not insist on a unilateral cease-fire, they did press President Dos Santos to give the UNITA military and political leadership a chance to lay down their arms without fear of being attacked.

U.S. Ambassador to Angola, Christopher Dell, said the onus is on the Angolan government to create conditions conducive for UNITA's re-integration into the Angolan political process. Mr Dell said, "The government has said that it would welcome all the UNITA elements to return to the Lusaka peace process to put an end to the war once and for all. I think that beyond that, it's an obligation on the part of the government to do more than just welcome them but actually facilitate the conditions which the remaining UNITA forces operating in the field have the conditions so they can lay down their arms and come home as it were. It's very important that the government actually give them the space that they can pull themselves together and create the conditions for putting a definitive end to the war. We're not calling for a unilateral cease-fire or anything like that on the side of the government, simply not to be aggressively hunting them down."

However, as Gerald Bender said, decades of armed conflict is a difficult pattern for the MPLA army to break. "It's usually hard to call off a military that's been after an objective for 25 years and when they finally get there to ask them to stop. One way to stop would be if UNITA declared a cease-fire and then that would put the government in an extremely difficult position morally to continue," he said.

Meantime, President Dos Santos has called on UNITA militants to lay down their weapons, a step that could lead to a general cease-fire. However, former UNITA representative Jardo Muekalia reiterates that the process must be reciprocal. Mr. Muekalia said, "The government has reached a level where it loses absolutely nothing by stopping where they are and saying I am stopping here because I want to permit a climate, create a climate that we allow those signals to be sent, a climate that we allow us all to begin tackling the tragedy of the humanitarian situation. But if we say we can't stop because somehow we have to go on, this whole thing will continue. It will be hard. Yes, UNITA has always said this conflict is essentially a political conflict, therefore, its solution will have to be a political solution.

Nonetheless, Professor Bender says UNITA's internal divisions undermine its effort to communicate effectively with the government. He described the various UNITA factions that are often at odds with one another. Mr. Bender said, "The armed UNITA that we've been discussing, we have the UNITA Renovada that was essentially created by the government where many former UNITA top leaders can be found. We have the parliamentarians for UNITA who don't really agree oftentimes with the armed UNITA or the UNITA Renovada. And then we have some very prominent UNITA people in exile that used to run offices in Washington, London, Paris, Italy and so forth."

In addition to UNITA'S fragmentation, the government has its own shortcomings, namely its lack of political openness and economic transparency.

Gerald Bender notes that for decades, the government elite has siphoned oil revenues away from much-needed economic development efforts to fuel the war and corruption. He continued, "The government also has to make certain that all revenues that are freed up from the reduction of the war, hopefully the end of the war, will be channeled into assisting the population, rather than into increased corruption."

For his part, Ambassador Dell sees some progress on the economic reform front but says much more is required. "The government has undertaken a number of significant reforms already," he said. "They can point to specific such as efforts underway to reform the customs service, increasing if still insufficient transparency and accountability in the state budget, significant success at reforming the central bank in the country. The IMF is not satisfied with the extent of the progress so far and I believe the American government would also like to see further progress, but we do need to acknowledge the efforts made so far and try and build on those successes and keep the process moving forward."

Most analysts agree that Jonas Savimbi's death has removed one of the greatest single obstacles to peace and development in Angola.

By the same token, observers say his death has also removed one of the greatest single excuses the government has used to justify economic mismanagement.

With the war coming to an end, the international spotlight is now on the government to further democratize and invest its vast oil and diamond wealth for the benefit of its long-suffering people.