e-mail us

Cover story

Making peace a reality in Angola

Luanda, Angola

Feliciana Alfonso came home to find only ashes. After three years of living in a miserable camp with thousands of other displaced persons, in late July Alfonso walked for four days back to her home village of Kimasinque with her husband and six children. It was a bitter homecoming. Where her home once stood, only one small portion of a mud wall remained erect. A few of the poles that once framed the dwelling stood charred and crumbling; her burned fields were choked with weeds.

Alfonso cleared space to plant a few cassava roots she brought with her, and then sat down to wait for the rains to begin in late September. Until then, she has little food and not much hope. Her children are hungry and wear only rags, yet the 25-year-old Kikongo-speaking woman is content to be home. “If we are going to die of starvation, I’d rather die at home than somewhere else,” she said.

Throughout this southern African nation of 13 million people, people are living in peace after 27 long years of war. Yet the celebrations that began in February with the death of Jonas Savimbi -- the last of Ronald Reagan’s African “freedom fighters” -- have been tempered by a growing humanitarian crisis, perhaps the worst in the world today. And while much of the world wants to help, the pitifully stingy response of Angola’s government to the crisis has left many asking why the international community should help a country care for the poorest of its citizens while the nation’s rulers reap huge profits from offshore oil wells. Caught in a conflict between international donors and their own government, victims like Feliciana Alfonso watch the immense African sky and pray for rain.

Surviving on leaves and roots

With its independence from Portugal in 1975, Angola was quickly submerged in a civil war that left as many as a million dead before it came to an end with Savimbi’s death, made possible by Israeli technicians, who tracked his satellite phone. The civilian deaths were the result of a brutal government counterinsurgency campaign that burned homes and fields across a wide swath of this country, which is three times the size of California.

After Savimbi’s death, his UNITA rebels quickly collapsed. An April cease-fire laid the terms for their demobilization. Some 84,000 former UNITA combatants and a quarter-million family members moved into 35 demobilization camps around the country.

The cease-fire opened up huge areas of the country to relief workers, and what they found was startling even to disaster junkies jaded by sub-Saharan Africa’s chronic crises. Four million people -- almost a third of the country’s population -- were displaced. Half a million of them, emerging from behind enemy lines, were in desperate shape, many having survived on leaves and wild roots for months.

The United Nations World Food Program and a plethora of nongovernmental organizations took up the challenge of feeding the hungry and resettling the homeless, but obstacles have blocked progress at every turn. Millions of land mines -- no one knows the exact number -- were sown throughout the country in the course of the war, and many of the displaced are justifiably afraid to return home. Mined roads and wrecked bridges make moving aid a logistical and dangerous nightmare, and rains at the end of September will convert many roads into stretches of mud.

Yet many displaced people aren’t waiting. By August some 300,000 had returned home. Several thousand of the almost half-million Angolan refugees in neighboring countries also returned. Yet many of these people arrived home, like Alfonso, with few tools or seeds. The World Food Program warned at the beginning of September that aid was falling further behind mounting need. Raising the number of Angolans needing food aid before the end of the year from 1.5 million to 1.9 million, the World Food Program appealed for the world’s help. Yet with its operations in Angola 75 percent underfunded, the food pipeline is no match for the immediate demand, let alone the hope to keep people alive until they can replant and harvest their first crops -- for many an event that is 18 months in the future.

So, soon after emerging from war, Angola teeters on renewed crisis. “If we don’t manage this humanitarian crisis well, we’ll just be planting seeds for the next conflict,” warned Daniel Ntoni-Nzinga, the executive secretary of the Inter-Church Committee for Peace in Angola.

Like many Angolans, Ntoni-Nzinga believes the world must help. “The great superpowers acknowledge that our country has been destroyed, but they don’t want to acknowledge their role in destroying it,” Ntoni-Nzinga said. “The problems in Angola were created jointly by Angolans and the rest of the world, so don’t expect us to solve them alone.”

United States backed Savimbi

The United States indisputably bears major responsibility for Angola’s torment. Along with South Africa’s apartheid regime, the United States backed Savimbi for years. When the Maoist sociopath wanted to engage in peace talks in the ’70s with Angola’s leftist rulers, Henry Kissinger told him the United States would not tolerate any negotiated solutions. In the ’80s, Savimbi was wined, dined and was the subject of photo opportunities in the Reagan White House.

From the beginning, the U.S. government justified its involvement in Angola by claiming it was a response to prior Cuban military intervention, yet historian Piero Gleijeses of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies revealed earlier this year that this was simply not the case. After a lengthy review of previously secret documents, Gleijeses showed that the CIA’s intervention in Angola came months before the Cubans got involved, not the other way around.

While politicians debate historical responsibility, Angola’s churches continue quietly responding to the needs of the victims. It’s a role they’re accustomed to. “During the war in provinces like Uige, vehicles from the Catholic missions could drive back and forth across enemy lines, carrying aid wherever and whenever they wanted. They were the only ones allowed to do that, because they were trusted by everyone,” said Nik Bredholt, an official in Rome with Caritas Internationalis, the network of Catholic aid agencies.

An urgent priority for the church today is to help resettle the displaced. According to Scott Campbell, the Angola representative of Catholic Relief Services, getting seeds and tools to war-torn villages, while at the same time supporting demining efforts, has taken priority over providing food in hundreds of camps for the displaced. The idea, Campbell said, is to “demagnetize” the camps and encourage people to return home. “We’ve got to get them back to some sense of normal life before things start to unravel,” he said.

Relief groups are also rushing aid to the UNITA demobilization camps, where levels of malnutrition and disease have been shockingly high. There’s also concern about what will happen if the troops are left on their own. While 5,000 of the former combatants, including most of the high-ranking officers, are being integrated into government security forces, the future is uncertain for the rest. “If the government doesn’t make peace worth their while, some will quickly turn to banditry,” warned Campbell.

Indeed, the Catholic church’s Radio Ecclesia broke the news on Sept. 2 that many former rebels are abandoning their hunger-plagued camps in the province of Lunda Sul and taking to smuggling diamonds. Should they turn to widespread crime, the former fighters will not lack for firepower. During demobilization, UNITA soldiers turned in only 26,698 light weapons, along with a few grenade launchers and mortars. It wasn’t long ago that UNITA, before a crippling U.N. embargo froze its bank accounts and inhibited its diamond sales, was flush with money and fielded entire mechanized divisions replete with tanks and Stinger missiles. World Food Program flights into several cities in the interior still conclude with a dizzying corkscrew descent from 22,000 feet in order to avoid possible rogue missile attacks from the outlying bush.

Peace counselors

In the wake of a war where brutality took precedence over rights, church leaders say they’re also called to help Angola make peace with itself. In several communities, churches are training “peace counselors.” Working with local congregations, government officials and traditional village authorities, the counselors are reinventing ways to peacefully resolve conflicts within families, among neighbors and between former enemies. Although a new program, the effort builds on years of courageous labor to not let violence have the final word. “A major reason we are at peace in Angola today is because the church constantly worked for peace and reconciliation,” said Beatriz Genero, an Argentine sister of the Congregation of the Good Shepherd who has worked in the northern province of Uige for 12 years. “Today we’re training community leaders to take that message out with new enthusiasm. The people are waking up, emerging from the conformism that they used as an instrument to survive the war.”

In most areas of the country, such peacemaking takes place in a vacuum. After the studied neglect of Portuguese colonial rule and almost three decades of post-independence warfare, most provinces have no judicial or penal system. According to a U.N. survey, only 13 of 164 municipalities had functioning municipal courts last year. “They don’t take many prisoners in the provinces,” said Patrick Hughes, a former priest who serves as deputy chief of the Human Rights Division of the United Nations Office in Angola.

To construct a working legal system, Hughes’ office is training judges and prosecutors and providing computers to track cases. A major problem with the existing court system is a dysfunctional bureaucracy that simply loses cases. “A poor guy could steal a bag of cement and spend years in jail because they lost his case,” said Hughes.

Training lawyers to do their job is another element of remaking the judicial system. “Lawyers here have been trained to obey the police and judges. We’re teaching them how to be lawyers, that working for their client is their main job,” said Hughes.

In a July report, Human Rights Watch claimed that the Angolan legal system -- or lack of one -- is particularly harsh on the displaced population. Because many of the displaced lack identity documents, they are often harassed and beaten by police officials demanding bribes. “Women and girls are particularly vulnerable to assaults, including sexual violence, by policemen and soldiers located in road control posts when on their way to and from isolated agricultural areas or when collecting water,” the report stated.

In addition, landowners regularly exploit the displaced as a source of cheap labor, and agricultural laborers are subjected to extortion at military and police checkpoints when they return from the fields. Soldiers that guard access to the displaced camps also “tax” the residents and steal food and other relief items, Human Rights Watch reported.

Church workers say such violations cannot be redressed by merely establishing formal structures, a process that will take time. The peace counselors are an effort to change things more quickly by cultivating a culture of complaint among affected populations.

In Uige, peace counselors formed a provincial rights committee that coordinates a 45-minute program every Saturday on the local government radio station. Airtime is paid for by the United Nations, and committee members introduce a different theme on each program. Over recent weeks, they’ve discussed domestic violence, women’s rights, how the courts work, and the rights of the displaced. Although access to phones in the province is minimal, citizens are invited to call in with their complaints. One early test of the radio program’s effectiveness came when someone denounced two police officers who had raped a woman and not been punished. Appeals to the officers’ superiors had gone nowhere. A phone call to the radio program led to the eventual jailing and prosecution of the two officers.

“People have a right to know that they can expect certain things of the government, but it’s clear we have to struggle for those things. If we wait on the government to make change we’ll be waiting a long time,” said Kula Romanos Jose, a Baptist university student who serves as secretary of the Uige rights committee.

Jose said the committee’s next task is to expand its work into the demobilization camps. “We need to attack the distrust that remains. Although the military leaders agreed to a cease-fire, it’s up to us to work out a spiritual cease-fire,” he said. “Many of the UNITA troops are afraid. They think they face intimidation or death from others. The role of civil society right now is not to leave peace to the politicians, but to assume it as our own task, inviting into the process those who have been left outside.”

After witnessing two cease-fires dissolve into bloodshed during the ’90s, many relief workers believe that by empowering ordinary people to speak out about abuse, they can help Angola get off the treadmill of violence. “It’s much easier to distribute food and blankets, but this work of building peace and reconciliation is extremely important. One of the reasons that past cease-fires didn’t succeed was that no one was speaking up about human rights violations,” said Carl von Seth, the Angola director for Action by Churches Together, a network of Protestant relief groups.

Learning centers

To encourage local communities to resolve their own problems, Catholic Relief Services is setting up “learning centers” in rural villages emerging from decades of isolation. The centers focus on putting information in the hands of ordinary Angolans and encourage discussion. “Angolans have not been taught to be analytical, but rather to be obedient. They’re used to having their leaders make all their decisions for them,” Campbell said, indicating that the problem dates to the colonial style of the Portuguese.

The learning centers encourage villagers to listen to Radio Ecclesia, the Luanda-based station that is the principal source of independent news in the country. The church-run station was taken over by the government in 1978, then returned to the church in 1997, but has been allowed to broadcast only on FM. The government refuses to grant independent AM licenses, thus effectively limiting the audience of the few independent radio stations--and a handful of small independent weekly newspapers -- to the sprawling capital city.

The station’s aggressive reporting illustrates the newfound freedom of the press in Angola. “Radio Ecclesia is very good at stoking the public debate,” said Carlos Leite, the Angola representative of the International Monetary Fund. “Yet what they’re doing would have been unthinkable a few years ago.” Indeed, just two years ago the government’s arrest and harassment of Radio Ecclesia reporters convinced the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists to name Angolan President Jose Eduardo dos Santos one of the world’s “Ten Worst Enemies of the Press.”

Government pressure on Radio Ecclesia has changed, however. Gone is outright harassment, replaced by pressure on advertisers and aggressive headhunting of the best staff. “They say to a reporter, ‘Here’s a house, a new car, and a job making twice what you were making before. Now don’t say anything more,’ ” said Ian Dolan, Angola director for the Irish Catholic aid agency Trocaire.

In the provinces, government control of the media is less enlightened. Detained while interviewing people on the streets of the city of Uige, I was subjected to a lecture by the provincial director of the government’s “social information ministry,” which runs the government media and keeps an eye on the competition. “In any modern society, the government has to control the press, lest the press say something negative about the government,” Beto Mendez told me with a straight face.

It’s obvious that the people who run Angola are accustomed to being in charge. Once Afro-Stalinists, in the ’90s they embraced crony capitalism and now enjoy the lucrative perks of power without Marxist guilt. By eliminating Savimbi, they did away with the last real opposition. When any significant challenge emerges from the dozens of small parties that have emerged in the last decade, the troublemaker is simply bought off. It’s a system run from Futungo de Belas, the presidential estate outside the capital, where dos Santos administers an effective patronage system that awards friends and buys off enemies. For the small number of elite families with access to the money, the bounties are endless. “These people live a different lifestyle, in another country, another Angola,” said Dolan.

Oil revenue

Angola is a resource-rich land, yet like many similarly blessed countries, immense natural wealth has spawned corruption and conflict, leaving the majority of the people desperately poor. Futungo de Belas runs on oil revenue; some 90 percent of the government’s income is provided by companies pumping almost a million barrels of oil a day from offshore wells. Despite exporting more oil to the United States than Kuwait, Angola ranks No. 161 out of 173 countries on this year’s U.N. Human Development Index.

Ten days of oil receipts would pay for the United Nations’ entire consolidated appeal for Angola this year, but the Angolan government, despite promises of new social spending and appeals for international assistance, has been “barely responding to the crisis,” according to Morten Rostrup, president of Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders), which cares for tens of thousands of starving Angolans at therapeutic feeding centers and clinics throughout the country.

The government’s indifference has led many international donors to drag their feet on helping starving Angolans. Few want to pass the plate for the poor while dos Santos and his friends laugh all the way to Swiss banks. Yet church organizations argue the humanitarian mandate leaves them no choice. “It’s a scandal, but you can’t let people die because of it,” said Trocaire’s Dolan.

Ntoni-Nzinga said it was “hypocrisy” for the world to buy oil from the Angolan government but then turn around and refuse to help the Angolan people because their government is corrupt. “As long as they get oil they close their eyes to the other problems,” he said.

Angola’s nascent civil society would like to pressure the government to alter its spending priorities, yet it doesn’t even know how much money the government takes in. The British watchdog group Global Witness claims that at least $1.4 billion in oil revenues went missing in Angola last year. That’s money that was received by dos Santos’ administration but never showed up on the government’s books. No one outside of Futungo de Belas knows the exact numbers; foreign companies like British Petroleum, ExxonMobil and ChevronTexaco are forced to keep their payments a secret or risk losing their drilling concessions.

Pressure on Angola’s leaders has led to the creation of several supposed watchdog agencies within the government, but these mostly exist only on paper. “The government has tried to buy credibility at the lowest possible price,” said the International Monetary Fund’s Leite. “But these are essentially what they used to call ‘reforms for the Englishman to see.’ ” Leite said he hoped the war’s end would produce a “transparency dividend,” yet that must happen soon, as oil industry analysts believe Angola will double its production volume by 2007. More oil equals more money equals more corruption.

Global Witness is pressuring oil companies and banks in the country’s northern region to admit to what they pay Angola in drilling fees, signature bonuses and other oil-related payments. If the companies make their payments public, activists believe, then Angolan civil society will have more leverage to demand transparency from its own government.

Church leaders agree. “The people shouldn’t be living in misery when the government is taking in so much money,” said Damiao Franklin, the Catholic archbishop of Luanda. “That money needs to be transferred to the people, to create work, to build schools and hospitals, especially for those who remain displaced from the war.”

‘Echo our voices’

Similar appeals are emerging from other parts of Africa. In a lengthy analysis of oil production and its problems, especially the lack of financial transparency, the Central African Association of Episcopal Conferences has called for solidarity from Western churches. “The oil companies operating in our region are headquartered in your countries,” the bishops wrote in a July 14 pastoral letter. “We hope you will echo our voices in your respective countries. … May the people of good will in your countries who take action in favor of the humanization of oil mining in our region receive real support from you.”

British Prime Minister Tony Blair felt the heat from British churches and joined the growing campaign on Sept. 2, when he announced during the Earth Summit in Johannesburg a voluntary program for oil companies to make their financial transactions public. Yet only five companies and two countries signed on to Blair’s plan, and critics said that voluntary measures aren’t enough. “The prime minister’s recognition of the direct connection between transparency and poverty is very welcome, but companies must be regulated to achieve transparency. The evidence shows that a voluntary approach is bound to fail,” said Katherine Astill, a policy analyst at the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development in London, one of the organizations sponsoring an international “Publish what you pay” campaign.

Oil companies are not necessarily opposed to opening their books. Their payments to governments in much of the world are public knowledge. Yet several countries such as Angola have included confidentiality clauses in oil contracts, and the companies know they’ll pay a price if they break the contracts by voluntarily going public. When British Petroleum suggested it might do so earlier this year, dos Santos told them they’d lose their Angolan investments. So activists claim the oil companies, and the banks that finance the deals, must be forced by Western governments to publish what they pay.

In the United States, the money paid Angola is already included in oil company reports required by the Securities and Exchange Commission, but it’s lumped collectively under “Rest of World.” According to Leite, the commission has the power, without additional legislation, to order the companies to separate out Angola and other countries where wealthy elites skim off the profits and leave their people to starve.

Economic pressure from Europe and North America was an essential element in ending the war in Angola. The campaign against conflict diamonds, which many churches joined, helped cut into Savimbi’s funding and made him vulnerable to the Angolan military’s final campaign. Activists believe that now it’s time to turn the same moral pressure on the oil companies and their banking partners.

Waiting for the rains to fall on her burned fields, Feliciana Alfonso is counting on it.

Paul Jeffrey is a freelance writer who lives in Honduras.

National Catholic Reporter, September 27, 2002