From soldiers to citizens: The social, economic and political reintegration of UNITA ex-combatants

Originally published



Demilitarisation in the Angolan Context

"We need to disarm in our minds first. We need agreement on what kind of life we want to live, what kind of society we want, what kind of nation we want to be. We believe that the war as such is an expression of the frustration and other motives that are in people's minds. That physical confrontation only takes place when the confrontation within the mind no longer has space. So it is important that [after] silencing the guns, we get to the stage where we can talk about the real issue[s] that brought conflict between us. Many Angolans, especially those younger ones who were born in the 70s and 80s, know nothing else except the war. So the only mentality they have is how to eliminate others to keep [themselves] alive and how to survive the troubles that the war brings. So, we have to make sure that people don't think that's the normal way of life, that there is a proper way of living without conflict."(1)

Demilitarisation of conflict and society is crucial to building sustainable peace in countries emerging from the scourge of civil war. As longstanding conflicts come to an end, a variety of approaches are adopted by national governments and international agencies aimed at supporting processes that facilitate this potentially volatile transition from formal peace to social peace. At the heart of the exercise is the necessity of transforming the culture and the instruments of war - in particular, demobilising, disarming and reintegrating former combatants into society as well as ridding the wider society of arms.

The experiences of controlled processes of demobilisation, disarmament and reintegration (DD&R) in the past two decades have demonstrated that DD&R must per force be regarded as a tool of development aid. This is particularly true as regards programmes for the reintegration of former combatants into society, "no longer merely seen as a humanitarian issue but...recognised as a vital element of conflict prevention and a critical precondition of any security sector reform".(2)

While the process of societal demilitarisation must stem from a commitment by all to an end to using violent means in the resolution of disputes (most importantly by the leadership of armed movements), if it is to lead to sustainable peace, a deeper commitment at a socio-political level amongst those individuals (perpetrators of conflict) and communities (supporters or victims of conflict) to move beyond the identities and emblems which serve to perpetuate violence is critical. Moreover, the emergence of a new social contract in post-war societies is a vital step towards re-legitimising (in many instances, creating) the institutions and culture of good governance, of which democratic elections are a critical threshold. These can serve as a litmus test of the degree of reconciliation in a post-conflict situation.

In addition, genuine demilitarisation is only possible when all constituent elements of society are able to function fully as citizens. Former combatants, while numerically small relative to other vulnerable groups such as internally displaced peoples (IDPs), are not only potentially disruptive elements in the aftermath of war, but their reintegration back into society is widely thought to present very specific challenges. In this sense, while social acceptance and economic activity form part of the basis for this reconciliation, these factors must be accompanied by some form of political participation for reintegration to be considered complete. The sublimation of the instinctive resort to arms when conflict rears its head, and its substitution with the 'cut and thrust' of non-violent dispute resolution (including, of course, parliamentary debate and judicial appeals), is the key indicator that a democratic peace has been achieved.

The twin challenges of demilitarisation and democratisation are most starkly evident in the case of Angola. No other post-conflict situation has been faced with all the complexities and challenges of failed demobilisation, disarmament and reintegration (DD&R) processes. No other protracted conflict has experimented with as wide a variety of experiences, ranging from United Nations (UN)-inspired programmes to joint foreign-national efforts, as Angola has in the past two decades. In fact, this latest attempt at a comprehensive DD&R programme represents the third Angolan attempt at a structured demilitarisation of their war-torn society.(3)

Yet, this time, the situation is fundamentally different because peace came largely through military victory. The death in combat of Jonas Savimbi, leader of the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) in February 2002, and the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding between the belligerents two months later, established formal peace in Angola, at last.(4) As we have pointed out elsewhere, "the Angolan Armed Forces' (FAA) undeniable victory over a severely weakened UNITA must be considered central to this conflict's ripeness for resolution - and this, more than any other factor, helps explain the pace at which the belligerents agreed on a comprehensive cease-fire agreement as well as their unhindered political will demonstrated in the resurrection and completion of [the military aspects] of the Lusaka peace process".(5) This was also the view of UN-system organisations present in Angola at the time:

...the overwhelming military superiority of the Government forces, which contrasts sharply with the 'freezing' of the military stalemate that prevailed at the time of Bicesse Accords and the Lusaka Protocol, makes peace much more likely to endure than after those earlier attempts at conflict resolution. The country clearly has its best chance yet to build a sustainable peace and move forward to economic and social recovery.(6)

In addition to a shattered infrastructure and devastated economic fabric, the situation prevailing in Angola at the end of the civil war presented severe humanitarian challenges. In fact, by mid-2002, the number of people displaced by the war had exceeded four million. When compared to the 800,000 estimated to have been displaced at the time of the Bicesse Accords (1991) and the additional 1.3 to 2 million displaced when the war spread to major urban centres in the period 1992-1994, the tasks facing the government and humanitarian agencies in the immediate post-war period become clearer. With more than a third of its population internally displaced and several thousand refugees in neighbouring countries, limited or no access to large parts of the country (as can be seen in the map below), overcrowding in urban areas and thousands of people in temporary resettlement sites, the challenges of implementing a DD&R programme in addition to the challenges of returning and reintegration its displaced population are momentous.


(1) Reverend Daniel Ntoni-Nzinga, a Baptist minister and respected church leader, in an interview to Ofeibea Quist-Arcton of on 21 June 2005. See <>.

(2) DD&R programmes have in recent years become part of official development policy of a number of agencies, including the OECD (1997), the United Nations Department of Peacekeeping Operations, amongst others. See in this regard B Eisenblatter and B Hoffmann, 'Preface' in Demobilisation and Reintegration of Ex-combatants in Post-War and Transition Countries: Trends and Challenges of External Support, GTZ, Division 43: Health, Education, Nutrition and Emergency Aid, 2001.

(3) For an overview of previous DD&R processes in Angola, see J Gomes Porto and Imogen Parsons, Sustaining the Peace in Angola: An overview of current demobilisation, disarmament and reintegration, Monograph 83, Pretoria, ISS, April 2003, pp 19-30.

(4) The 'Memorandum of Understanding for the Cessation of Hostilities and the Resolution of the Outstanding Military Issues under the Lusaka Protocol' signed on 4 April 2002.

(5) Gomes Porto and Parsons, op cit, p 31.

(6) United Nations, Angola: The post-war challenges, Common Country Assessment, New York, 2002, p 51.