Analysis of Angola’s Role in Southern Africa


By Olimpio Nhuleipo

The Angolan President, Mr Jose Eduardo Dos Santos, was recently in Namibia at the invitation of his counterpart, President Hifikepunye Pohamba. It has been a long time since the inauguration of President Pohamba, as the two Heads of State ought to meet on an annual basis. But, what perhaps brings Mr Dos Santos to his southern neighbour?

First, Angola and Namibia share common air, maritime and territorial boundaries and a common cultural and historical background, dating back to pre-colonial times especially during the wars of resistance against foreign intrusion in Southern Africa. And, again during the struggle for the liberation of Namibia, Angola’s MPLA government housed Swapo of Namibia as a liberation movement, thereby cementing historical ties and fomenting a close alliance between the two countries.

Therefore, there is no doubt that Mr Dos Santos’s visit to Namibia was to consolidate the longstanding bilateral relations and friendship between the two sister countries and to discuss issues of mutual concern and common interest.

Apart from bilateral issues between Namibia and Angola, there are a lot of global, continental and regional issues that may top the agenda of discussion between the two Heads of State. These issues may range from the attendance of the EU-Africa Summit to be held in Lisbon this year, the situation in Zimbabwe, the civil conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Sudanese racial and religious related oppression of black people, terrorism and UN reforms.

Angola as a Trench State
Though it has been unstable for a long period since independence in 1975, Angola has been instrumental in the liberation of Southern Africa. The Angolan government, first under the late Dr Antonio Agustinho Neto used the country as the main base of operations, in support of all Southern African liberation movements, namely Swapo of Namibia, Zanu-PF of Zimbabwe, the Katangese of former Zaire and the ANC of South Africa.

It was a matter of sacrifice for Angolan leaders to use Angola as a trench state for Southern African liberation movements, just in the name of solidarity with the oppressed people of Southern Africa. But, on the other hand it was for security purpose because the independence of the Angolan state by that time was dependent on the liberation of Namibia and the eventual demise of Apartheid in Southern Africa.

Today, Angola is at peace and enjoys macro-economic stability with a booming economy growing at 15 percent per annum, with the highest GDP in Sub-Saharan Africa after South Africa and Nigeria. Angola is not only an emerging economy, but also a major military power in Southern Africa.

Also due to Angola’s role in the liberation of Southern Africa and the strong alliance between SADC member states, Mr Dos Santos has the potential to influence events in Southern Africa. Angola is emerging as a second regional economic powerhouse and as regional military power with the political will and ability to flex its muscle to play a major role in ensuring political stability in Africa and sub-Saharan Africa in particular for her national, regional and continental interests.

President Dos Santos as a Long-Serving African Head of State
Mr Dos Santos has been in power for 28 years since 1979, following the death of the first Angolan president, Dr Neto. But there is a major question hanging in the air: Is Mr Dos Santos in power by choice or was it the situation that necessitated his lengthy stay at the helm of the Angolan society?

Well, Mr Dos Santos took over the leadership of Angola when the Angolan nation was in a state of shock, following the death of its first president, and at the same time, the country was already embroiled in a four-year-old civil war with Unita and FNLA. At the same time, again Angola was a host to Swapo and was under constant military attacks by the most powerful army in Southern Africa, the apartheid South African Defence Force (SADF), which launched incursions into Angola in support of Unita and in pursuit of the People’s Liberation Army of Namibia (PLAN).

He (Mr Dos Santos) emerged as flamboyant and charismatic leader to console the Angolan nation. So he took over the Angolan presidency at the time of national crisis and of mourning Neto’s death and wars, both the civil war with Unita and FNLA and South African invasions.

In 1978, four years after their 1975 invasion of Angola on the side of Unita and FNLA, apartheid South Africa was back in Angola, this time in search of Swapo’s military wing PLAN and destroyed Cassinga, a Swapo civilian transit camp, just 14 months before Neto’s death, in September 1979.

In the same month, September 1979, the South African air force violated the Angolan air space following the announcement of Neto’s death – perhaps to them it was a celebration of the death of a communist leader.

In 1980, the all-too-powerful South African army occupied Southern Angola claiming to create a buffer zone to make life tough for PLAN fighters. In the process, South Africans destroyed lives and properties of innocent Angolans.

Their target was the Angolan army and civilians. They destroyed schools, hospitals, raped women, looted households of traditional items, clothes and bicycles, picked on fat livestock at random, randomly rocketed and air-raided villages and any moving target in southern Angola including ambulances and civilian vehicles and destroyed all the major cities.

So, Mr Dos Santos took over the Angolan national leadership in troubled times in 1979, his government faced a four-year domestic rebellion by Unita, financed by Washington and backed by South Africa. Mr Dos Santos’ Angola was constantly attacked by apartheid South Africa and the south-western provinces of Kunene and Huila bore the brunt of SWATF, KOEFT and SADF and the Eastern Provinces of Cuito and Bie suffered South African attack and Unita insurgents, respectively.

By the1980s, Angola was effectively transformed into a trench state, housing all Southern African liberation movement and Mr Dos Santos presided over this militarised state to defend its independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity, against foreign aggression by apartheid South Africa.

By that time, Angola was viewed by the West as a communist basin in Southern Africa and Mr Dos Santos, with the support of Fidel Castro’s Cuba and the Soviet Union, was the commander-in-chief of the trench state fighting Unita and South Africa, backed by Washington and hosted fellow African freedom fighters
In 1988, the conflict between Angola and the old South Africa on the side of Unita culminated into the battle of Cuito Quanavele, which was the decisive, major war fought in Southern Africa since WW II, by then. The battle of Quito, first fought between the Angolan army and Unita, later drawn in the Cuban international forces, which were stationed in Angola since 1975, to provide technical assistance to the Angolan Army and help guard major cities and the independence of Angola from apartheid South Africa, and Swapo’s liberation wing (PLAN) joined the battle, following the news of the incursion of huge numbers of South African Army troops to support Unita.

The 1988, South African alliance with Unita was defeated and the South African army begun to withdraw from Angola in 1989, paving the way for the independence of Namibia and the end of apartheid in South Africa. But Unita’s rebellion continued and Mr Dos Santos government remained fighting with Unita till 1991.

So, the period from 1979 to 1989 was the period of the war defensives, defending Angola’s independence, national sovereignty and territorial integrity from South African aggression. This period of a war situation in Angola did not necessitate a change of leadership, as there was just no time for it to happen.

In 1990, the Soviet Union collapsed following the 1989 reforms in Russia (Mikhail Gobachev’s failed Perestroika) and the MPLA government initiated a national self reassessment process to analyse the feasibility to continue with the socialist cause in Angola, amid the waves of change for democracy around the globe, which started in Eastern Europe with the fall of communism in Russia and the subsequent adoption of free market economy and multiparty democracy in Russia itself.

The 1990s process of national reassessment culminated into the 1991 political and economic reforms in Angola. The MPLA abandoned the ideal of a Marxist one party state in favour of a multiparty liberal democracy. Socialism as an economic system was abandoned and a capitalist a free market economy was introduced in Angola as part of catching up revolution or systemic compliance, under Dos Santos’s leadership. At the same time the Angolan government decided to reconcile with Unita, as part of pacifying the country by recognising Unita as potential national political party.

In the same year, the Angolan government signed a peace accord with Unita in the Portuguese city of Bicesse, known as the “Bicesse Accord” at Washington’s initiative, which formally ended the first round of the cold war related civil war and marked the preparations for the first democratic elections, held in September 1992, under the United Nations supervision.

Mr Dos Santos and his MPLA Party won the UN supervised elections, which were declared free and fair by the UN and international observers, but the main presidential contender, the late Savimbi, refused to accept election results, and the civil war erupted for the second time. The eruption of the second round of the civil war, rather than the second round of presidential elections saw the destruction of life and property and culminated in the death of Savimbi in February 2002.

Washington the main backer of Savimbi’s Unita during the cold war refused to recognise the democratically elected Angolan government and Mr Dos Santos’ government. Though democratically elected, Western governments – former allies of the old Unita – claimed at lacked legitimacy.

Again, the period of the second round of civil war, from 1992 to 2002, did not necessitate a change of leadership in Angola. Mr Dos Santos has to unite Angolans through a policy of national reconciliation, re-integrate Unita officials into the government of national unity and reconciliation and civilian refugees into society as party of the pacification process.

Yes Mr Dos Santos has been in power for 28 years since 1979, quite a lengthy period of time indeed, but if one takes an in-depth analysis of the period of his leadership, one observes that it was characterized and marked by episodes of instability, which warrants no disruption; by change of leadership within the MPLA; but continuity. So, by looking at the global and domestic events that characterised or featured during Mr Dos Santos’s leadership one tends to believe that his case of serving for too long is justifiable as he still remains with unfinished business in Angola and at regional and continental level as a president.

Mr Dos Santos is a crisis leader, and an agent of change and transformation, highly intelligent with multiple skills in crisis management and he is a regional and continental political asset. He (Dos Santos) started his leadership after the death of Dr Antonio Neto in 1979, and again witnessed that of Jonas Savimbi, 22 years later in 2002, Neto and Savimbi, were the two main figures in the history of Angola and 7 seems to be a magic number for political events in Angola as its multiplication is common in the interval of Angolan political events.

It is, however, reasonable for people to demand for his departure, but his leadership in peace times is not yet tested. On the other hand, Mr Dos Santos did not finish what he has started, preparing the ground and laying the foundation for the future of the Angolan society, through unification and reconciliation among Angolans, consolidation of democracy and reconstructions. Mr Dos Santos is the type of a leader Angola and Southern Africa needed during the cold war conflict and apartheid system in Southern Africa.

Angola Pacification
Upon Savimbi’s death and defeat of Unita, Mr Dos Santos’s government received his brothers and sisters from the bush with open arms, dressed and fed them and re-emphasised his government’s stance on the implementation of the Bicesse Accord and Lusaka Protocol to reconcile with Unita, integrate Unita officials into a government of national unity and reconciliation, and re-integrate Unita civilians into the society.

Thanks that today’s Unita is under a new leadership, which seems to have comprehended and reconciled with the MPLA. When Mr Dos Santos decided to postpone elections which were expected to be held last year, Unita, under Mr Issias Samakuva, this time did not join the public and international outcry that Mr Dos Santos is yet trying to buy some time to clean up his mess, but was the first to support Mr Dos Santos’s decision to postpone parliamentary elections to 2008 and presidential elections to 2009.

While the government is busy building roads to make remote parts of the country accessible to election officials, the new Unita leadership has learned to trust the MPLA leadership and one hopes that any political party that might takeover government in Angola, through the ballot box, will follow the example set by the MPLA to promote peace and national reconciliation, rather than witch-hunt. Equally, one hopes that if it is not the MPLA government, that future Angolan government will be an independent government that will not give in to foreign demands for achieving x and y in exchange for development aid or financial rewards and risk plugging the country into a third round of civil war.

In its reconciliation drive with the West, the Angolan government has requested for the holding of a donor roundtable conference for the country’s reconstruction. Western governments turned down the request. Western donors declined to help in the reconstruction of Angola, which they helped to destroy through aiding Savimbi and apartheid South Africa.

They choose to get into Angola with their own self-managed resources just to offer limited humanitarian assistance and may be expected the Angolan government to flop in the provision of basic services to the civilian population in the absence of Western economic aid, perhaps for Angolan to change their mind to vote Unita to power rather than the MPLA. The main reason cited by the West for not holding the donor roundtable for Angola was official corruption. One tends to believe though that development aid could have helped the Angolan government to fight corruption within its ranks.

Now, it seems as if the decline was an excuse for the hatred, lack of confidence and trust in MPLA. At the same time the West complains about Mr Dos Santos delays in holding elections since 1992, in a heavily mined country with inaccessible remote parts. So one denies resources needed to reconstruct the country and at the same time demands the government to hold elections, amid poverty, lack of roads, educations, housing and health services, just to fool the MPLA into committing political suicide by holding elections under such conditions in rural areas.

The main aim for turning down the request, it seems, was to avoid availing Western financial resources into the hands of former cold war foes until Unita comes into power.

There lies the danger to the Angolan nation – Unita might come to power or any other political party and the West will agree to the holding of a donor conference for Angola, avail the funds, but make the disbursement conditional. The conditions might range from putting on trial those who were involved in corrupt business activities during the civil war and after. Hell will break loose again for Angola, once that hypothetical government concedes to such likely Western demands to avenge former elites.

Angola’s Role in Regional and Global Affairs
In regional affairs, the Angolan government helped to bring about the independence of Namibia, Zimbabwe and in bringing to power a black majority government in South Africa, through using Angola as a trench state and by active involvement in diplomatic arena. The Angolan government also played a major role in stopping chaos in the Democratic Republic of the Congo following the deposal of the Mobutu regime. It helped restore order in Congo Brazzaville during a chaos erupted in the early 1990s as a result of an elected president Pascal Lisuba’s mishandling of that country’s former head of state, Denis Sosou Ngueso. It helped to maintain order in Zimbabwe during the short-lived instability in 2007.

Angola under President Dos Santos was the main base of operations for all Southern African liberation movements and Mr Dos Santos’s Angola helped liberate Namibia.

In global affairs Mr Dos Santos’ government is also concerned with world peace and security and push toward ensuring global justice, which is a precondition for global peace. Mr Dos Santos’s main message at the recent UN meeting was a call for equality of sovereign states and mutual respect among world leaders.

The Angolan government strives for UN reform for equal representation of all the regions of the world in the Security Council and favor multilateralism as opposed to unilateralism.

The reality is that the Angolan president had achieved a lot for his country and for other countries in Sub-Saharan, he is an African hero and a leader of a brave nation. Angola still need Dos Santos leadership and one is tempted to urge Angolans to offer him another opportunity to prove his leadership in a peaceful democratic Angola for at least one term after the 2009 presidential elections before he retires.

For Africa Mr Dos Santos is a political asset, highly intelligent with multiple skills in crises management. He is a transitional and crisis leader, what Angola and Southern Africa needed during the cold war.


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