Angola’s long journey from independence to peace

Outside a school near Kuito
Outside a school near Kuito (© Eric Beauchemin)

“Hopefully now with the return to peace, Angolans will be able to go back home, rebuild their lives and restore their dignity”, says Tony Hodges, one of the world’s leading experts on the southern African country. In the wake of the signing of a peace agreement between the Angolan government and the UNITA rebels in April 2002, Hodges speaks to Eric Beauchemin about the origins of one of Africa’s longest civil wars and the challenges the country now faces.

Producer: Eric Beauchemin

Original broadcast: July 3, 2002


Radio Netherlands, the Dutch International Service, presents: “Angola’s long journey from independence to peace.” The programme is presented by Eric Beauchemin.

I think the ending of the war is a tremendous opportunity for sustainable peace. I don’t think the country will go back to war again now because one side really has won. Hopefully now with the return to peace and the opportunity for many people to go back home, they will be able to restore their dignity and rebuild their lives.

In April 2002, one of Africa’s longest running wars came to an end. The conflict in Angola began in the early 1960s when nationalists took up arms against the Portuguese colonisers. Over the next four decades, more than 1.5 million people out of a population of around 13 million have been killed. A third of Angolans had to flee their homes, and the country’s infrastructure was destroyed. Yet Angola – a nation over twice the size of France – is potentially one of the richest countries in Africa, with huge oil reserves, diamonds, and rich agricultural land. It’s a “terrible, shocking paradox”, says Tony Hodges, author of “Angola: From Afro-Stalinism to Petro-Diamond Capitalism”. Tony Hodges has been following developments in Angola, ever since the country achieved independence from Portugal in 1975. Angolans tend to place part of the blame for the country’s turbulent and violent post-independence era with the Portuguese colonisation. Tony Hodges agrees.

Tony Hodges
Tony Hodges (© Eric Beauchemin)

The Portuguese didn’t prepare Angola or any of their African colonies for independence. They considered Angola to be an integral part of Portugal. They felt the same about Mozambique and their other African colonies. And unlike the British and the French, they therefore didn’t make any preparations for independence. So when independence finally came as a result of the revolution in Portugal itself in 1974, independence came in a sort of state of confusion, with really nothing planned for a stable transition. The second thing is that the Portuguese didn’t invest much in education. And as a result, there were very few educated people to take on skilled jobs after the Portuguese left. Because of the confusion at independence, practically all of the Portuguese settlers who numbered about 350,000 left, abandoning businesses, abandoning the public administration. So here was a country proceeding to independence in a state of confusion, with nothing really prepared, and suddenly overnight losing nearly all of its skilled people. EB: When Angola did achieve independence, there had already been a type of independence movement in the country. There were three separate groups fighting for independence. That’s correct, and I think one could say that another of the contributory causes of the problems that followed independence is that these three nationalist movements which were based in different parts of the country, among different ethnic groups were fighting each other as well. They were jealous of each other. They wanted supreme power. They weren’t prepared to share power. And as a result, the country just fell very rapidly into a civil war. It was then made worse by the fact that the big powers intervened. They had alliances with different nationalist movements and they pitched in and made the problem far worse.

During the Cold War, the Soviet Union and the United States waged proxy wars throughout the developing world, including Angola. Two movements – the FNLA or National Front for the Liberation of Angola and UNITA or National Union for the Total Independence of Angola – received backing from the United States. They also got support from South Africa’s apartheid government, which was worried about Angola’s support for nationalists in neighbouring Namibia, controlled at the time by South Africa. The third party was the MPLA or People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola, which had the backing of the Soviet Union and Cuba. The MPLA took over power at independence in late 1975. Soon afterwards, the MPLA government adopted Marxism-Leninism as the country’s official ideology.

It was a government which tried to take over more or less all of the economy. One has to remember that practically all of the small and medium-sized businesses and commercial farms had been abandoned by the departing Portuguese. So the MPLA government nationalised a large part of the economy and tried to set up a centralised planning system on the Soviet model. It did it without the human resources or the data to be able to do it properly. And as a result very rapidly the system began to break down. EB: It was also, in the initial years, it was also a fairly totalitarian government. That’s true. But in a sense that was a reflection of the lack of political tolerance that was characteristic of all of the three nationalist movements. None of them if they had to come to power would have behaved any different. But that is absolutely true. It was a one party system. There was no independent press and dissent was repressed. Quite vigorously until the reforms that took place in the early 1990’s. In 1991, there was a constitutional reform that introduced a multi-party system and opened the way to the first multi-party elections which took place in September 1992. EB: Those elections were won by the MPLA. The election results were disputed by UNITA and then the country plunged into full-scale war once again. That’s right and the war continued for another 2 years until the Lusaka Protocol in November 1994. Many people thought, considered that the worst period of the war. It was a time when UNITA took over 5 of the 18 provincial capitals. Some big cities with large populations became theatres of war themselves whereas previously the war had been fought primarily in the rural areas. But the…very, very large numbers of people died in that period from 1992 to 94. There was then a peace agreement in 94. It didn’t work very well. Large parts of the country remained under UNITA control. UNITA was supposed to hand in its weapons and demobilise all of its troops. But not all of the troops turned themselves in. The crack troops were really held back in reserve by UNITA and the heavy weaponry, the serious weaponry was not handed in by UNITA. The government lost patience and towards the end of 1998, basically decided to go back to war to try to finish UNITA off. And then the period that we saw from the end of ’98 until the death of the UNITA leader Jonas Savimbi in February 2002 was a period of final conclusion of the war, in which the government because of its vast oil resources finally got the upper hand over UNITA.

EB: The UNITA soldiers are now being sent to quartering areas where they’re being disarmed and preparing for civilian life. Are there dangers in that process? Well, I don’t think that there is a serious danger of the country going back to war in the sense of a real, serious war because UNITA has effectively been militarily defeated, or at least it was so weakened and I think also so psychologically shaken by the death of its leader, Jonas Savimbi, that the return to war is not a serious option. On the other hand, there are some risks in the quartering areas simply by virtue of the fact that more 70,000 former UNITA combatants or people claiming to be former UNITA combatants have turned up in these quartering areas and they need to be fed and looked after, and along with more than 200,000 members of their families who are now settled in what are called family camps. And it’s a huge challenge to mobilise the food, the medical care, and other things for this huge number of people in such a short amount of time. EB: Is it going to be difficult to re-integrate them in society, the former UNITA soldiers? Well, most of these soldiers and their families came from rural areas and I think the simplest solution is for the majority of them to go back to the rural areas that they originally came from. For that, they will need obviously a lot of assistance. They will need seeds and tools to be able to start farming again. They will need some basic social services in the areas where they come from: schools and health facilities and so on. And they will need water sources. Basically an investment in making it possible to re-start normal rural life in those areas. Having said I would admit there could be some difficulties for some of these soldiers because some of them seem to have been moving around the countryside for many years and their links with the places that they originally came from maybe many years ago, may in some cases be quite tenuous. But of course some of these soldiers will be integrated into the government army. EB: People talk about the cease-fire but there is still a low-level conflict going on in the 18th province, in Cabinda. That’s true. Cabinda which is an enclave, geographically separate from the rest of Angola, divided by a strip of Congolese territory, has for many, many years had a separate low-scale war going on involving a separatist movement called the Front for the Liberation of the Enclave of Cabinda or FLAC. And nobody knows quite what the outcome of that will be. That war is fuelled by the fact that more than half of the oil produced by Angola comes from fields off the coast of that one province. It’s not been a very serious, intense war in the same way as that between the government and UNITA but it’s been a kind of lingering problem in Cabinda and ultimately a solution has to be found to that conflict as well.

The conflict in Cabinda as well as the war between the government and UNITA in its final years is about the control over Angola’s enormous mineral resources, the main one being oil.

Angola is the second largest producer of oil in sub-Saharan Africa after Nigeria, producing now more 900,000 barrels a day. The government is earning from oil between about 3 and 3.5 billion dollars a year. There’s another huge oil field, which is going to come on stream round about 2005. And there are several others that are likely to follow. Something like 8 or 9 billion barrels of oil have been discovered in Angola in the last 6 or 7 years, and these are gradually going to come on stream, doubling the oil production of Angola in the next 5 years. By 2007, Angola will be producing about 1.9 million barrels a day. It’s worth putting that in proportion. That’s not far off what Nigeria produces. Nigeria is the biggest producer of oil in sub-Saharan Africa, but Angola has only one tenth of the population of Nigeria. In addition to that, Angola is the 4th largest producer of diamonds in the world by value. And it’s quite obvious that large revenues accrue to the state from these resources and control of the state is the means to get access to some of this wealth. EB: What’s striking in Angola is despite it’s fabulous wealth, there is very little investment in health, in education, in infrastructure, in other things. That’s true. To a large extent this was a result of the war insofar as a huge proportion of the government resources were directed to fighting the war. I mean in the worst year, in 1999, after the country went back to war in its final phase, the expenditure on defence rose astronomically in 1999. Defence expenditure took up more than 50% of the entire government budget. So health and education were really crowded out by the huge expenditures on defence. The other problem is that a significant amount of the resources are not really properly accounted for in the government budget. There is a lot of suspicion as to what happens, but one can say that roughly a billion dollars out of total government expenditure of a little more than 4 billion dollars is not properly accounted for each year in the government accounts. EB: Do we know where the money is going? No, we don’t. I mean there is a cloak of secrecy over it. We do know about what has happened recently in Switzerland where the Swiss judicial authorities have frozen several bank accounts, claiming that monies from Angola have been diverted into personal accounts there.

EB: Now that there is a cease-fire in Angola, there is going to be greater pressure on the government to be more transparent, isn’t there? Yes, I think so, not just to be more transparent but to address many of the pending problems that have not really been addressed properly because of the war. I think there will be tremendous pressure from the Angolan population now to really take serious steps to improve the access to health and education for example. EB: Is civil society strong enough to put pressure on the government? Well, I think that one has to remember that it is a society which has been battered by the war. One-third of the population has been displaced. Vast numbers of people are really eking out a living, really surviving from day to day. They’re not in a position or they haven’t been in a position to assert themselves politically. But I think things will begin to change a bit as the country stabilises. People will become a little bit more secure, and as I say, their expectations will rise, and I think they will start to be more demanding in terms of what the government does with the huge resources at its disposal.

EB: The government is asking for assistance from the international community for the reconstruction process. But given that it’s so wealthy, shouldn’t it be financing it itself? I think the international community should try to assist where it can do so, but the bottom line must be that the bulk of the resources should be internal resources because there are substantial revenues domestically. Angola in that sense is in a quite different situation from many other African countries trying to overcome years of conflict. Countries like Mozambique which are much, much poorer. So Angola should really be contributing the bulk of resources internally, but the international community certainly can supplement those resources. But I think the absolutely crucial pre-condition must be that there is transparency in the use of the resources available to the government from oil and diamonds. It seems to me to be wrong to be appealing for international assistance, say 300 or 400 million dollars when there’s about a billion dollars of internal resources that are not properly accounted for in the government accounts. EB: Is the international community putting pressure on the government for more transparency? I think there is a growing expectation on the part of donors that their assistance must take place in circumstances where there is adequate transparency on the part of the government finances. The International Monetary Fund had a programme in 2000, 2001 which was focused very largely on getting greater transparency in the management of public finances. Unfortunately that programme did not come to a successful conclusion, and there is now no IMF programme, but I think the donors in general will expect movement on this issue really in order to be able to feel that they can provide the kind of supplementary support that they would be willing to provide if they felt that the government’s own resources were being transparently managed.

EB: Just how much of the country does need to be reconstructed? How severe is the damage in the country? It’s not just damage. I think it’s also the lack of investment that would have taken place if the resources had been used for priority objectives. Let me give an example of education: we know that there are 1.5 million children in school in 2000. Probably only about half of the children of primary school age. I am talking about primary school. We know that partly also because of the rapid increase of the population – which is growing at 3% a year – by the year 2015, Angola will have to have 5 million children in primary school in order to have universal primary education. The challenge will be to provide enough schools and teachers and teaching materials for 5 million children in primary school by 2015, instead of 1.5 million in 2000. EB: You can see the enormity of the challenge that lies ahead. One of the results of the lack of investment in education and the collapse of the economy is that you have thousands and thousands, millions of people in the streets trying to eke out an existence and living in very, very precarious conditions. That’s correct. Really we have a distorted economy where there is really one flourishing sector which is the oil industry which is now producing 50% of the gross domestic product. About 90% of the export earnings and about 80% of government revenue. All of the rest of the economy or practically all of the rest of the economy is in a state of stagnation or decline. If you take for example the case of agriculture, Angola used to be – I mean 20, 30 years ago – a net exporter of food. It used to export maize. Today, it has to import about half of its food needs. A large chunk of that comes in food aid and the rest is imported commercially. There were many different manufacturing industries in Angola, many of them linked to processing of agricultural commodities: cotton for example for textile and clothing factories. Most of that manufacturing has ceased to operate. As a result what has happened is that also because of the huge influx of people into the urban areas – where now about 60% of the population are living – the vast majority of people living in these urban areas are, as you say, eking out a living, mainly in the informal sector of the economy, trading imported goods. It’s a funny economy which is earning money from oil, from exports of oil, and then using the proceeds in part to import consumer goods. And it’s the trading of these consumer goods that is keeping a large proportion of the urban population in a kind of state of semi-employment.

EB: It’s a strange sight when you drive around Luanda actually because in many African cities you see people selling for example tooth brushes or drinks or toilet paper or things like that, but here you see people selling for example lights for a photography studio or you see speakers for a car, that type of thing which you wouldn’t see anywhere else in Africa. Well, I’m not sure actually. If you went to Nigeria or somewhere, you would see the same sort of thing. What is true is that a vast array of imported goods are on sale in the streets and this is how hundreds of thousands of people are surviving. EB: Why would somebody buy something like that in the street and not in a store? Well one of the problems is that there aren’t actually many formal shops. Because it’s quite complicated to open a sort of legal business in Angola. There’s an awful lot of bureaucracy and also because the taxation is rather high, the vast majority of small businesses or micro businesses just disappear off into the informal sector.

The cease-fire agreement reached by the UNITA rebels and the government in early April offers some glimmer of hope for Angolan society. But peace has not brought an end to decades of suffering. In recent months, for instance, hundreds of thousands of people have emerged from the bush in desperate need of urgent humanitarian assistance. They join millions of other people who had to flee their homes in the interior to escape the fighting. Millions have fled to the cities along the coast, says Tony Hodges, destroying the country’s social fabric.

We now have a situation where at least 60% of the population are living in the cities, whereas 30 years ago, it was maybe 15%. So the demographics have been completely changed. We do know that there are 3 million people in Luanda, compared with less than half a million 30 years ago, and that Luanda alone has one quarter of the entire national population. This raises huge challenges: how is it going to be possible to create the jobs to sustain such a large urban population. It’s true that a few displaced people will go back, but these are mainly displaced people living in camps and resettlement sites on the edges of cities or just outside cities, but the urban population is probably not going to diminish. If anything, it will probably continue to grow in the coming years. So that’s one huge problem. I think the other problem is that the government resources are overwhelmingly invested in coastal areas, particularly in Luanda, and it’s not going to be possible to stem the rural exodus over the long term unless quite a lot more resources are devoted to the rural areas in the interior. EB: The government is run by an elite which has been in power for over 2 decades now. Do you think that there is a willingness and an ability among the elite to open up and to carry through the changes that need to be brought about? It’s not really clear. This is an elite which has enriched itself rapidly as a result of the liberalisation of the economy in the 1990’s, using administrative mechanisms and political connections to get access to resources. The mechanisms of enrichment have been several, for example, the awarding of diamond concessions in the diamond producing areas by the government, senior generals and senior political officials as political favours. The awarding of land concessions has been another very important phenomenon in the last few years. It’s been estimated that more than 2 million hectares of land have been awarded to new large-scale farmers, again mainly generals and senior political officials. This is equivalent to roughly one half of the amount of land that was in the hands of the large Portuguese farmers in the colonial period. This actually, I think, poses very major threats for the future. If we’re looking towards rural poverty reduction and rural reconstruction, improving the lives of rural people and slowing down the exodus of rural people to the cities, then the government really must focus on developing the small-scale peasant farmer sector, and most protect the land rights of traditional African communities which are not documented, held under traditional customary land tenure systems. It must protect those land rights against the encroachment of large farmers and must stop encouraging this trend towards increased land concentration because it will only make the problems worse, will accentuate rural poverty, and reinforce the historical trend towards migration to the cities.

EB: People are now looking towards the future. But society also needs to close the chapter of the past 25 years of civil conflict. Is there that desire in Angolan society? Yes, there is in the sense that the population is completely tired of war. I think also the political situation in Angola was frozen in a way by this conflict. There was a kind of bi-polarisation of politics between two armed parties: the MPLA and UNITA who have been battling it out for the past 26 years. The return to peace does, I think, open the opportunity now for a new kind of politics in which new political forces could begin to emerge with new agendas and we can for the first time move on beyond this kind of frozen conflict between two armed conflicts. EB: But do you think that Angola needs a type of truth commission or human rights commission to investigate what happened during those 25 years of conflict? It sounds like a good idea in theory. I don’t believe that there is any sentiment from either the MPLA or the UNITA side in favour of doing something like this. One of the unfortunate things is that every time there’s been a peace agreement, there’s been an amnesty for all the crimes committed during the various periods of war and there have been tremendous crimes. One might call them crimes against humanity. Vast numbers of civilians have been killed and even larger numbers of civilians driven from their homes by both sides in this war. And those responsible for these crimes have never been brought to account and indeed have benefited from several different amnesties. So there really isn’t any mood on either side really to re-examine the past, I think.

EB: One of the other things that’s particularly striking when you go to the interior of the country is the stories that people tell you, the horrible stories of the war and you get the impression that many people in the interior are quite traumatised. Well, it’s not surprising. When people have been driven from their homes, often as a deliberate tactic of war, their homes burnt down, and their crops destroyed, to deny food to the enemy and have been herded into camps, losing all their means of normal survival, losing all of their assets, their homes, their lands, their tools, their livestock, and then becoming literally the dependent recipients of international charity, losing often their sense of dignity and self-esteem, it’s not at all surprising that they feel like that. Hopefully now with the return to peace and the opportunities for many of these people to go back home, that they will be able to restore their dignity and rebuild their lives. Given that all the challenges that Angola faces, what are the prospects for the future? Well, I think the ending of the war is a tremendous opportunity for sustainable peace. I don’t think the country will go back to war again now because one side really has won. I think that this will almost spontaneously produce some significant benefits. Some IDPs or displaced people will return to their areas of origin. It will become easier for people to engage in farming. Markets will open up again. Trade between the rural areas and the urban areas will pick up again as it’s safe for traders to go to the rural areas and buy surplus crops and bring agricultural inputs. And I suspect there will be quite a bit of support from the international community to re-capitalise farmers with seeds and tools, the livestock which they’ve lost and so on. So there will be some tangible benefits over say the next 1 or 2 or 3 years. It will take that long, and in the short-term, the humanitarian crisis will remain very serious ‘cause it will take time to help displaced people to get back to their areas of origin. It will take time before they harvest their first crops. In the longer term, I think there are also huge challenges as well as opportunities. One challenge is the enormous one of making possible for 60% of the population to earn their living in the urban areas. How are we going to develop the non-oil sectors of the economy in the urban areas to be able to generate better, higher paid jobs than the kind of stop-gap jobs that people are engaged in at the moment, hawking goods on street corners? Another huge challenge is going to be that of preventing the trend towards widening rural inequality, stopping this trend towards more and more concentration of land resources in the hands of small numbers of politically-connected businessmen, and putting the resources into developing the small-scale farmers which will be the best way to reduce rural poverty. My fear is that if over the long-term measures are not taken both to develop income and employment generating sectors of the economy in the urban areas and to support the small farmers in the rural areas, what we are going to see in Angola is increasing inequality with a small elite reaping the rewards of a growing oil industry, acquiring more and more resources in terms of land and diamond concessions and so on. But at the other extreme, a huge proportion of the population in the rural areas deprived of adequate land. In the urban areas, unable to find proper jobs. And over the long-term the risk is that that would create so much frustration and bitterness from the extremes of wealth that there could be conditions for new, serious conflicts in the long-term.

“Angola’s Long Journey” was produced by Eric Beauchemin. This has been a Radio Netherlands’ presentation.