Angola: Interview with senior UNITA leader Isaias Samakuva

News and Press Release
Originally published
LUANDA, 6 March (IRIN) - Isaias Samakuva, UNITA's representative in Paris between September 1998 and October 2002, is seen by many observers as the next leader of the former rebel movement. IRIN spoke to him in the Angolan capital, Luanda, about the challenges facing UNITA as the country moves towards national elections.
QUESTION: What are some of the main challenges facing UNITA in peacetime?

ANSWER: The main challenge for UNITA right now is to choose a leader. Now that all the factions are united under one umbrella body, we can move forward and consolidate our support. At the moment we have a temporary leadership but we will have to hold a party congress which we are thinking should be held around May or June this year. This will give UNITA members an opportunity to elect who they want to run the party in the future.

Secondly, and no less important, is the demobilisation and reintegration of ex-UNITA combatants into civilian life. We have thousands of them and they are going through a very difficult time at the moment. It is important that we consider all avenues to address their situation. Apart from those two tasks, which are our key concerns, there is also the issue of reorganising the party.

Q: Are you referring to a complete overhaul of party structures or even a possible ideological shift?

A: It is not a complete change but we have to consider updating our structures. Certainly, it is not an ideological shift as we have always maintained that our struggle is for equality and justice for all Angolans. This we will maintain. Instead in the past we had two main pillars to the movement. Now the armed wing of UNITA no longer exists. The political wing in the past was also very dependent on the military wing. Given the circumstances we now find ourselves in, we will have to reshape the structure of the party so that we can concentrate on the political challenges we are now faced with.

Q: President Jose Eduardo dos Santos has pledged to call a vote as early as next year, although many politicians have said that would be premature. What does UNITA have to do to ensure that it is a serious contender for political power?

A: For UNITA to present itself as a viable political alternative to the present government during the upcoming elections it is really important that we formulate policies that appeal to ordinary Angolans. During the war most of our physical structures [such as roads] were completely destroyed. It is important that the party restores these as soon as possible. This will help to reunite UNITA supporters across the country. Since the end of the war last year, many people have been moving from province to province. It will be a real political challenge for UNITA to reunite our supporters. It is equally important that these people have local representatives in their communities to instruct them about UNITA policies.

Perhaps it is a little too soon for national elections, but we will have to prepare nevertheless.

Q: There have been suggestions that it would be better to hold local elections before the general election. Would this suit UNITA given it has limited resources and time to prepare for countrywide elections?

A: This is a practical answer to the current state Angola finds itself in. In order to have national elections it is important to know how many people there are in the country in the first place. We do not know this at this stage. So perhaps holding local elections in certain parts of the country would prepare us for the national election given the infrastructure problems we have.

Q: Given the overwhelming challenges facing Angolans today, what would a UNITA election campaign highlight as priorities?

A: At the moment we are talking about the need to change the way education and health is run in this country. Both sectors are sorely in need of some revision and we hope that our ideas will be acceptable to the government. Equally important is the return and resettlement of many people displaced during the war. If people are safe and comfortable in their areas of origin they can concentrate on agricultural development. It is vital that people can provide food for themselves instead of depending on international charity.

Also on our agenda is the issue of human rights. Up until now ordinary Angolans have not seen any of this. We believe that people must have the right to at least dream of a better life. UNITA is trying to implement these ideas on a small scale in areas where we still do have some influence. Hopefully, people will remember our efforts during the elections.

Q: The government as well as UNITA has underscored the need for national reconciliation and yet on two separate occasions ruling MPLA supporters prevented UNITA officials from setting up party offices. Does the party expect resistance to its activities in the future given the history of distrust between yourselves and government supporters?

A: These were isolated acts, probably the work of those who are not willing to embrace the momentum of national reconciliation. UNITA hopes the government will take the necessary measures to avoid this kind of thing happening again. It certainly does not bode well for reconciliation. If we talk about national reconciliation we really have to mean it.

Q: With some 110,000 former UNITA soldiers still living in quartering areas around the country, does UNITA think the government has held up its end of the bargain?

A: The government has not gone far enough. Yes, the government has good intentions and the ideas are there but the projects have not materialised which leads us to think that perhaps the authorities have another agenda. It is a concern for us that the vocational training for UNITA soldiers has not happened. Many of these soldiers remain in the quartering areas and in transit centres. These people may despair and we must do whatever it takes to avoid a further worsening of the situation.

Q: There are concerns that growing frustration and worsening living conditions could lead to many former soldiers leaving the camps altogether. Is this likely, and what are the implications?

A: I think there are a lot of likely scenarios. There are those who could go to their villages and do something useful for their communities and their country. On the other hand, there are those who only know how to make war. If we do not keep people busy they may resort to doing other things which may not be any good to anyone. It is up to the government to ensure that this does not happen. We also appeal to the NGOs and aid agencies working in this area to step up their efforts.

Q: Reports have alleged that in some cases former soldiers and their families were forcibly removed from the camps. Observers say the premature closure of the camps is a government strategy to discourage the camps from becoming UNITA enclaves. Is there any veracity to these observations?

A: The deadline for the closure of the reception areas is now scheduled for after the rainy season around April/May and yet many camps have been closed already. Many people were forcibly removed from the quartering areas. This is a fact despite government denials. Many people were simply put on trucks and dropped off in unknown locations. What were the intentions behind this remains to be seen.

Of course, people were not happy to leave. They had planted seeds and were waiting for the harvest. This caused much anger. There is speculation that the move was intended to cause dissatisfaction among UNITA members which could lead to a revolt against the leadership in Luanda. Arguments that suggest that the camps were becoming some kind of ghetto for UNITA are baseless. We do not need camps to reorganise. Every UNITA soldier that leaves one of these camps and resettles in some other part of the country will sow a seed for the UNITA cause.

Q: In its latest report on Angola, the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think-tank, noted that in certain parts of the country demining operations had uncovered mines which had been recently laid. Could you suggest any possible motive for such acts?

A: Nobody knows exactly who has been laying these mines. And yes, I have read reports that former UNITA soldiers have been accused of these acts. But to date, we still do not know. Landmines is big problem in Angola and the government has done very well but it does not have the capacity to deal with this problem. Another excuse often made by government is the lack of money.

Q: Financial transparency is a key concern of donors as the country moves toward the donor conference later this year.

A: Yes this is a very controversial issue. The lack of transparency is of particular concern, not only for the international community but for ordinary Angolans as well. But it is also important to conduct proper investigations into the matter and assess correctly the beneficiaries of corruption.

Q: Cabinda continues to be a thorn in the side of government but more recently there has been some progress toward a solution to the impasse. What are your thoughts on a way out of the conflict so that Angola can finally see countrywide peace?

A: The only solution in Cabinda is ongoing dialogue. People should engage in serious dialogue and not conduct talks that aim to trap the other party involved. The Cabinda problem is about economics and everybody knows that. Cabindans know very well that the oil deposits in their province keeps the country running. They are also aware that they live in one of the poorest provinces in the country. If people in Cabinda were given the possibility of some kind of autonomy while keeping the territory as part of Angola this would perhaps serve everybody.


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