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Angola: Will peace hold this time?

By Gary Kenny

"It's not just the absence of war," says Rev. Luis Nguimbi, his brow furrowed. "Peace means so much more than that."

Nguimbi, the general secretary of the Christian Council of Churches in Angola (CICA), a United Church partner, is worried. He says not enough is being done to instil confidence in war-weary Angolans that peace is truly at hand. Angolans "need to see, touch and taste progress," he says.

Almost two years have passed since the signing of the Luanda Agreement, which ended 26 years of civil war. The conflict, which followed a long war of national liberation against the colonial Portuguese, pitted the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), a communist regime, against the insurgent national Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA).

If Angolans are reluctant to take peace at face value, they came by their doubts honestly. Angola has failed three times to consolidate successive peace processes.

"We must not fail this time," a pastor in Angola's Evangelical Congregational Church tells me. "The country has been at war for too long and our people can't take it anymore."

This pastor who serves a parish in Huambo, Angola's second-largest city, fears government reprisals if he speaks openly. The region is a historical mission ground of the Canadian and American Congregational churches, and after Church Union in 1925, of The United Church of Canada. During the civil war Huambo was a UNITA stronghold and the city and surrounding towns and villages were relentlessly attacked and bombed by MPLA forces. UNITA also abused civilians.

The physical devastation wrought in Huambo is clearly evident to the outside observer. Rubble is all that remains of many buildings. Not so visible is the psycho-social trauma inflicted on the city's children. Nightmares continue to be common, the pastor says.

According to Development Workshop (DW), an Angolan-based agency, countries like Angola, after a period of open conflict, have no more than two to four years to create sustainable peace.

"A sense of progress needs to be achieved in this limited time, by strengthening the fabric and confidence of society," DW says in a recent report. If this opportunity is missed, a return to conflict is likely.

The pastor says the Angolan government, civil society and the international community all share responsibility for ensuring that Angola does not slip back into war. But not all are carrying their weight, he says.

As part of the peace deal the MPLA government said it would resettle some three million Angolans displaced by the war. It promised to demobilize and reintegrate tens of thousands of government and rebel soldiers.

It also pledged to reduce poverty and create jobs, invest in the education and health sectors, rebuild roads, bridges and other destroyed physical infrastructure, reform the constitution and legal system, and set a date for new elections.

On most of these counts progress has been disturbingly slow.

According to Human Rights Watch, the majority of Angola's war-displaced people remain in exile, in transit or temporary resettlement sites. Some 900,000 remain internally displaced. Millions more have virtually no access to hospitals or schools. Currently, three-quarters of the population survive on one dollar a day.

Almost half of Angola's 7.4 million children suffer from malnutrition, according to U.N. estimates. One in three children dies before the age of five, and one child dies of preventable diseases or malnutrition every three minutes.

Nguimbi is especially concerned about former rebels languishing in camps awaiting resettlement. Underfed and idle, the ex-combatants are a flashpoint for rekindled conflict. Thousands of former soldiers from both sides could turn to random violence or local organized crime out of sheer desperation.

The government says it lacks funds and blames the long civil war. These claims don't wash with Rev. Daniel Ntoni-Nzinga, who heads the Inter-Ecclesiastic Committee for Peace in Angola (COIEPA). He says lucrative offshore oil reserves and rich diamond deposits are netting the government huge sums of money. But little is being invested in social and economic reconstruction and development. Angola is sub-Saharan Africa's second largest exporter of oil after Nigeria, providing about 85 percent of government revenue.

The real problem, Ntoni-Nzinga says, is where the money is going. Charges of financial mismanagement and corruption are increasingly being leveled at the government. An analysis by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) shows that, during the same five-year period cited above, $4.22 billion (U.S.), roughly 9.25 percent of Angola's annual gross domestic product, went missing from government coffers. In a report published in January 2004, Human Rights Watch said the loss of these funds" seriously undermined Angola's [economic and social] rights."

Rafael Marques, a prominent Angolan journalist and director of the Open Society Institute (Angola), says an elaborate patronage network has been built around Angola's president, Edouardo dos Santos. Marques, jailed several times for his outspoken views, says much of the oil money goes into the offshore bank accounts of political and military elites.

Pressure is currently on the government to account openly for how it is using oil and other state revenues. But the culture of corruption, Ntoni-Nzinga says, will be a tough nut to crack. The government has retained much of its old centralist, state socialist orientation. It "is serving only itself. It must become a servant of the people."

The IMF has made all future loans to the heavily indebted Angolan government conditional on transparent reporting of oil revenue allocations. An international campaign, called Publish What You Pay (PWYP) is pressuring international oil companies working in Angola's oil patch to report what they disburse to the government in revenues, taxes, and fees.

Nguimbi welcomes these efforts but says it is ultimately the war-weary and disillusioned Angolan people who will make the government truly account able for its actions.

Nguimbi, Ntoni-Nzinga and other church leaders say the task of mobilizing Angolans is a critical priority. Many have been dispirited and numbed into passivity by war, Ntoni-Nzinga says. Adds Marques: "We must develop a new, cohesive sense of identity as a people."

The church council and other organizations are applying themselves to this task. With financial assistance from the United Church it is organizing seminars throughout Angola to build a "culture of peace" among the Angolan people.

Ntoni-Nzinga gives his country 12 months to demonstrate, to itself and the world, that peace this time is more than an illusion.

If there isn't greater progress by then, he says, "I fear what might befall my fellow Angolans." But he is hopeful and determined. "We have a mountain to climb but we will climb it," he says with a smile.


Gary Kenny is the United Church's Program Co-ordinator for Southern Africa and Emergency Response.
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