WASHINGTON — Peace in the Middle East. Rapprochement on the Korean peninsula. Democracy in South Africa. At a time when many of the world's major conflicts are nearing negotiation, if not resolution, Angola's 19-year civil war, Africa's longest, stands apart. On Oct. 17, the government of Angola and its chief rival announced that they had, yet again, reached an agreement in principle to end the fighting. Still, the conflict rages virtually unabated, despite a U.N. Security Council demand that all military operations cease.
Angola's post-colonial history is littered with a long line of accords, agree-ments, cease-fires, protocols and treaties brokered by the United Nations, the Organization of African Unity and interested countries like the United States and Portugal. The treaties bear the exotic names of their venues--the Alvor and Nakuru agreements, the Nkomati and Lusaka accords, the Gbadolite, Bicesse and the Sao Tome summits, to name a few--and have been broken, in whole or part, by both parties to the conflict.
But there is something more insidious operating in Angola: a deep enmity among Angolans based on ethnicity and ideology. Historically, these divisions were first exploited by the slave traders, then by the colonizers, and most recently by Cold War powers. Today, Angolans themselves propagate their own disunity. No party brings clean hands to the table.
The war began in 1975, shortly after a defeated Portuguese government ceded power to a tripartite alliance of indigenous liberation movements: the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), supported by the intellectual elite of Luanda, Angola's capital, and the Kimbundu peoples of northwestern Angola; the National Front for the Liberation of Angola (FNLA), backed by the Bakongo peoples of northeastern Angola, and the National Union for the Total Liberation of Angola (UNITA), favored by the mostly peasant population of the Ovimbundu people of central and southern Angola.
The three liberation movements signed a joint agreement at Alvor, Portugal, to build a "just and democratic society in Angola." But a month later, fighting erupted between two of the movements. Depending on its ideology, each group sought and received international support. The Soviet Union--and, later, Cuba--sent troops to support the MPLA. China and South Africa lined up behind UNITA. The United States began its involvement in 1975, when it opened an office in Luanda to coordinate military assistance to the FNLA, whose members soon scattered into either the MPLA or UNITA. As each faction received support from abroad, each renewed its claim to run the government and demanded international recognition.
By the late 1970s, most European countries recognized the MPLA as Angola's government, and by 1979, when President Jose Eduardo dos Santos assumed office, it began offering economic incentives to foreign companies to invest in the country, especially in its petroleum industry. Ironically, the regime was moving closer to East European communists even as it courted capitalists.
From the 1980s until recently, relations between the United States and Angola were strained because of U.S. support for UNITA. In 1985, Congress, at President Ronald Reagan's behest, repealed the Clark Amendment, which, since 1976, had prohibited U.S. military assistance to UNITA. This allowed for the free flow of arms and support to UNITA while barring the U.S. government from buying Angolan oil. Paradoxically, Gulf Oil, one of America's largest petroleum companies, continued to operate in Angola's Cabinda province, providing the MPLA regime with much-needed hard currency.
In 1988, with the military conflict a standoff, talks among Cuba, Angola and South Africa led to a settlement in which the fates of Angola and Namibia were diplomatically linked. Namibia won its independence in 1990, but the Angolan conflict remained unresolved.
After a series of on-again, off-again talks, the MPLA and UNITA reached a ease-fire agreement in the spring of 1991. Timetables and a framework for elections were established. A joint political-military commission, composed of representatives from the MPLA, UNITA, Portugal, Russia and the United States, was set up. National elections were scheduled in September, 1992, to be conducted under U.N. auspices. A new consolidated army was to be assembled by the end of that year. In the interim, the MPLA government legalized opposition parties. By all outward appearances, the dream of democracy seemed closer to reality.
But the election results, though declared essentially free and fair, were disputed. Jonas Malheiro Savimbi, UNITA's candidate, demanded a recount after a preliminary tally showed him trailing. Although Savimbi was operating within the rules of the agreement, the MPLA government denied his request. UNITA withdrew its forces from the combined army. Soon, hostilities erupted again.