Angola: Opportunity Missed
Angola, the third largest country in Africa, should be flourishing. With diamond and oil resources worth over $2 billion per year, Angola has the opportunity for economic and political stability comparable to that of Botswana and Namibia. But Angola is devastated after nearly 40 years of civil war. Despite its natural resources, over 90% of Angolans live in poverty, two-thirds of them on less than a dollar a day.
International media and governments only recently began to examine Angola's strife. In the 1990s, they began to focus on the illegal sale of diamonds to fund rebel attacks against the government. However, diamonds weren't always at the center of the conflict Cold War politics fueled the first 20 years of war.
The Beginnings of War
By the dawn of the 20th century, the Portuguese government had been exploiting Angola for over 500 years first for slaves, then for mineral and agricultural wealth. As other African nations gained independence in the 1950s and '60s, Angola came to resent its continued oppression. During this period, three rebel groups formed to challenge the government: the Marxist Popular Liberation Movement of Angola (MPLA), the CIA-backed Front National for Liberation of Angola (FNLA) and the Capitalist National Union for the Independence of Angola (UNITA). The three groups fought together for independence from 1961 to 1974, despite conflicting social and political backgrounds.
By 1975, MPLA had gained control of the government, but then faced opposition from UNITA and FNLA. This instability opened the door for international powers to take advantage of Angola. The Soviet Union supported MPLA with finances, while Cuba supported it with troops.
In October 1976, MPLA leader Agostinho Neto declared Angola a republic and himself president. MPLA's military success sent UNITA in search of its own international support. South Africa, fearing Angola would turn communist, equipped UNITA with troops, weapons and money throughout the '70s and '80s. The United States also joined UNITA's cause, viewing the rebel group as a champion for democracy. During the latter years of the Reagan and Bush administration (1986-1991), Washington sent UNITA $250 million. President Reagan even honored UNITA's leader at the White House.
Diamonds Enter the Conflict
As the Cold War came to a close in the late '80s, MPLA and UNITA needed to find new sources of revenue. The two sides discovered their homeland's rich natural resources supported them better than any international superpower. MPLA turned to oil and UNITA turned to diamonds to fund their war efforts. The war that once placed the communist against the capitalist now placed oil against diamonds. At first, diamonds won. Jonas Savimbi developed UNITA into the largest organized diamond smuggling operation in history. With the help of allies such as Mobutu Sese Seko, then president of Zaire, and apartheid South Africa, Savimbi sold UNITA's illicit diamonds on the market and traded them in exchange for artillery.
Since 1992, UNITA has controlled 60%-70% of Angola's diamond production, earning more than $3.7 billion between '93-'97. These profits enable UNITA to become a war machine, stockpiling landmines, rockets and tanks. UNITA's troops grew to over 60,000 well-armed soldiers.
In 1992, amid a break from war due to the Bicesse accord (1991), Angola held its historic first multiparty election. Instead of producing an end to the fighting and the beginnings of a new democracy, the election results pushed the country into its worst phase of war. Savimbi was unwilling to concede the win to MPLA and President Jose Eduardo dos Santos, and UNITA returned to war, attacking the Angolan Armed Forces (FAA) with full force. By the end of 1993, UNITA controlled 70% of the country. Angola's constant instability caused its gross national product to decrease by 22.6% that year. UNITA's artillery destroyed Angola's central regions and infrastructure, obliterating bridges, roads, railways and buildings. The war cost more than 300,000 lives between 1992 and 1995.
In 1994, MPLA fought back with increased force. Savimbi lost his hold on the government and signed the Lukasa Protocol with dos Santos in November. This agreement was supposed to mark the end of war, but like other agreements, it meant little. Under the Protocol, UNITA agreed to lay down all of its arms in exchange for positions within the government.
Diamonds Continue to Arm
UNITA gave up over 700 tons of disabled weapons, but then rearmed itself with enhanced weaponry bought with profits from smuggled diamonds. In December 1998, Savimbi led his 60,000-strong rebel army back into war.
The deadly effect of UNITA's diamond production was no secret, but little was done until 1998, when the United Nations passed sanctions against international trading of diamonds that didn't travel through Angola's Certificate of Origin regime. But the sanctions included a loophole: UNITA's diamonds could be bought and sold within the country, and UNITA continued to trade diamonds through Angola's official buying offices.
UNITA's renewed attacks left the FAA unsure it could block Savimbi's advance. UNITA troops quickly moved from the outer-borders of Angola to the rural districts and into the cities, displacing over 1 million Angolans in their path. By mid-1999, the UN reported that 200 people died each day, describing it as a "forgotten emergency."
Recently, the Angolan government has gained in its counterattacks against UNITA. After an artillery buying spree, using $900 million profits from oil prospecting rights sold to Western companies, the government gained control of 92% of the country's 157 districts, including major diamond districts.
In early 2000, the government reconditioned the diamond industry to regulate production. The plan calls for Sodiam, the state-owned diamond company, to buy all Angolan diamonds and prohibits all other diamond buying companies. The government also introduced signed certificates to identify the origin and destination of Angola's diamond exports.
By the end of the summer, FAA had pushed Savimbi farther out and took control of more diamond producing sites. However, this led Savimbi to return to his guerrilla tactics: attacking citizens and small towns for simple necessities. Savimbi would rather smuggle diamonds than have a direct confrontation with FAA. And for now, as long as UNITA has access to diamonds, it has some power over the government.
- by Lauren Thompson
Lauren Thompson is an English major at Mount Holyoke College and has studied African history. She will spend her junior year at the University of Sussex in England.