Long-isolated Angola reaches out to black neighbors

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Beset with troubles within and without, Angola's leaders are trying almost desperately to break out of their self-imposed isolation. In the past they have tended to blame South Africa for all their troubles. If only next-door Namibia were independent and the South African Army no longer on Angola's southern border, all our problems would be solved, the civil war would end, and there would be food for everybody. That was the general theme.

But it is becoming clear that the problems of this former Portuguese colony do not all come from the south. And the men at the top seem to be having second thoughts about a diplomatic isolation that they have allowed to grow, perhaps because they thought it unnecessary to cultivate local friendships when they had allies like the Soviet Union and Cuba.

After independence in 1975, it was Cuban troops and Soviet arms that helped the ruling Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) push back the South African Army and establish its authority over the whole country. Little was left of the regime's enemies.

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Jonas Savimbi's National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) retreated ignominiously into Namibia along with the South African Army. And Zambia, formerly a firm supporter of Dr. Savimbi, was so embarrassed by his South African connection that it closed its borders to UNITA guerrillas.

In the north, the shattered remnants of Holden Roberto's National Front for the Liberation of Angola (FNLA) fled into Zaire. In 1978, chastened by the invasion of the southern province of Shaba (formerly Katanga) that nearly deprived him of his copper mines, President Mobutu Sese Seko ordered his former brother-in-law, Mr. Roberto, out of Zaire and closed down the FNLA bases.

In exchange for assurances that the former Katanga gendarmes exiled in Angola would not be allowed to threaten Zaire, President Mobutu also cut off aid to the Front for the Liberation of the Enclave of Cabinda (FLEC), which had been operating in Angola's main oil-producing province.

Today, UNITA still relies on South African support and holds what in Zaire's and Zambia's eyes remains the most valuable card in Angola: control of the Benguela railroad. Before Angola's independence, this provided the best way to export the copper on which the fragile economies of Zaire and particularly Zambia still depend.

President Kenneth Kaunda desperately needs the Benguela outlet for Zambia's copper. And it was to Zambia that Angolan President Jose Eduardo dos Santos went to discuss security matters earlier this month.

The only black country that still plays host to a UNITA office is Senegal. And Angolan officials openly accuse Gabon of providing FLEC with bases from which to launch attacks against Cabinda. But in November, President dos Santos met President Abdou Diouf of Senegal in the Cape Verde Islands and later saw President El Hadj Omar Bongo of Gabon in Libreville.

President dos Santos certainly has cause for concern. Cabinda is cut off from the rest of Angola by a thin wedge of Zaire territory, and the enclave is bounded on the north by the Congo.

Left-wing Portuguese newspapers have over the last few months published detailed allegations of Zaire's new involvement in Angolan dissident groups. Angolan officials say they can trouble from the north next. They already have plenty to cope with thanks to UNITA in the center and the South Africans on the Namibian border.

Is it because the Angolans forgot Robert Frost's advice that good walls make good neighbors, that Zaire is again toying with the Angolan opposition? Or it is because President Mobutu has realized that the Luanda regime has too many problems to be able to survive?

Whatever the answer, the Angolan President's hurried trips to other black African nations show that his country's isolation has got him worried.

It is perhaps no coincidence that the ideologue who was always thought of as the Kremlin's man in Angola, Lucio Lara, is now identified with the Algerians rather than the Soviets. The Algerians might appear as a potential bridge between the United States and the internationally isolated radicals here in Luanda, just as they helped the US and Iran negotiate the release of the Tehran hostages.

Certainly, with the current signs that the West, black Africa, and white-ruled South Africa are making progress toward a Namibian settlement, the Angolan leaders may be running out of time to blame all their troubles on their neighbors to the south. They are in urgent need of some alternative policies.

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