Angola soldiers on one year after Savimbi's death

News and Press Release
Originally published
By Zoe Eisenstein

MAVINGA, Angola, Feb 19 (Reuters) - A year after Angola's charismatic guerrilla leader Jonas Savimbi was killed in a hail of bullets, his country is still struggling with the bloody legacy of his lust for power.

Savimbi's death, at the hands of government troops on February 22, 2002, triggered a peace drive that led to a ceasefire last April between the government and his UNITA rebel movement, ending 27 years of civil war that killed around a million people.

Many cannot believe that the man who directed his country's descent into hell is gone.

"Many Angolans still believe Savimbi's alive but he's not," said Dr Jeronimo Mbayo, who was the guerrilla's personal doctor for 30 years.

Mbayo should know, because he saw Savimbi's bullet-riddled corpse with his own eyes.

Sitting in his cramped office in Mavinga hospital in the country's southeast, he says: "He (Savimbi) was never ill a day in his life."

The same cannot be said of the oil and diamond rich country he helped lay waste to as he tried doggedly to seize power.

A product of the Cold War, Savimbi enjoyed the support of white-ruled South Africa and the United States as he fought the Soviet and Cuban-backed Marxist MPLA government in Luanda.

Times changed but Savimbi did not.

Washington ditched him with the end of the Cold War and embraced the now market-friendly MPLA, which -- crucially for the United States -- controlled the former Portuguese colony's vast off-shore oil reserves.

White rule in South Africa was replaced by majority rule, leaving Savimbi to wage his lonely crusade from the bush.

But UNITA had access to rich diamond deposits and illicit "blood gems" kept it supplied with fuel and weapons despite U.N. sanctions, while harried rural peasants supplied the calories for Savimbi's ruthless band of warriors.


"Savimbi's legacy is the devastation of 90 percent of the country," said Harry van der Linde, an analyst with Executive Research Associates in Pretoria.

Millions of land mines lay buried beneath its soil while its road, rail and power network lie in ruins.

Its natural wonders were devastated as UNITA wiped out Angola's magnificent herds of elephant which were slaughtered for their ivory. Countless animals were killed for food by a rebel army that lived off the land.

Soaked in oil, rich in diamonds and blessed with a fertile soil and a crop-friendly tropical climate, Angola should be an oasis of wealth in a sea of African poverty.

Instead, most of its 13 million inhabitants live in poverty with around 1.7 million of them dependent on food aid.

Analysts say many need hand-outs because UNITA's reign of rural terror was exacerbated by a government strategy of driving peasants from the land to cut off rebel food supplies.

And the government also stands accused of using the smokescreen of war to siphon off petrol dollars into the pockets of corrupt officials, with little of the wealth trickling down to the masses.

Angola is sub-Saharan Africa's second largest oil producer after Nigeria, pumping out around 900,000 barrels per day.

An International Monetary Fund (IMF) report last year suggested that around $1 billion vanished from government coffers in 2001.


The end of the war has brought change -- not least because donors and allies like Washington are demanding more transparency from the government.

"We need to change...The war is over and now you have to deliver what the population needs. People are going to start asking what are we doing with public money," Manuel Nunes Jr., vice minister of finance, told Reuters in an interview.

The government says it wants to woo foreign investors in a bid to diversify its petrol and diamond economy.

Many South African companies have expressed an interest in investing and an Angola-South Africa Chamber of Commerce will be launched next month in Johannesburg.

"If you look at Angola a year after (Savimbi's death), the peace process is going well, they are getting their act together slowly but surely," said van der Linde.

UNITA is also attempting to change its spots, from a global pariah and rag-tag rebel army into a political party to contest elections which have not yet been set.

UNITA has reunited with a Luanda-based faction and will hold a congress in May or June where it will choose a leader.

Its current secretary general, General Paulo Lukamba, also known as 'Gato', or cat, will not run for the party's leadership and political analysts say UNITA's former Paris representative, Isaias Samakuva, is now the front-runner.

For the average Angolan, the daily grind of poverty goes on as inflation soars.

"We have to look for tangibles -- in some respects it's got worse. If you go from the heightened expectations that followed Savimbi's death, people feel they've fallen further," one western diplomat said.

In one of Luanda's poor suburbs, a young girl walks several kilometres home with a bucket of water on her head. Like the vast majority of the capital's population of over three million, she lacks running water.

Other changes also seem to be hurting, rather than helping, the poor.

Brigades of police dressed in crisp new beige uniforms have been patrolling the streets of Luanda in the last few weeks, moving on street-sellers, car cleaners and prostitutes.

Agostinho, a 19-year-old who lives in squalor at the bottom of an apartment block in central Luanda and washes cars for a living, said he had been taken to the police headquarters, asked to pay a bribe of $30 and had negotiated his way out by offering to clean the commandante's vehicle.

"When the war ended, I was really happy because I thought my life would change," said Agostinho. "But my life's got worse - I live badly, I only eat if I wash cars."

Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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