WASHINGTON — ONLY a few months ago peace seemed finally at hand for Angola, the sub-Saharan former Portuguese colony battered by civil war since 1975. With a historic handshake United States-backed rebel Jonas Savimbi and Angolan President Eduardo Jos'e Dos Santos agreed to a cease-fire last June, and it looked as if negotiations and reconciliation might follow. But the cease-fire failed to take hold, negotiations have been perfunctory, and neither leader appears reconciled to anything. The US-endorsed Angolan peace process is in trouble, and rebel leader Savimbi is in Washington this week to shore up his support in the Bush administration.
On Angola ``we are virtually back to square one,'' commented Niel Van Heerden, director-general of South Africa's Foreign Ministry, in a recent meeting with Washington reporters.
The stalemate has led to increasing congressional criticism of the White House approach to Angola. Some lawmakers want less US support for the mercurial Savimbi, and more contact with Angola's Marxist government.
The current Angolan peace process is part of a larger regional accord put together under US auspices in New York last December. Under the accord, Cuba agreed to bring home the 50,000 troops it has fighting for the Angolan government side. South Africa agreed to United Nations-sponsored independence for Namibia, Angola's southern neighbor, which South Africa has controlled since World War I.
Cuba appears committed to bringing its soldiers home, no matter what. The Angolan government appears to have decided it wants to stop the civil war, according to South African officials. But stumbling blocks remain.
The first is getting a viable cease-fire. Though Savimbi and Mr. Dos Santos agreed to one at a late June meeting in Gbadolite, Zaire, and shook on the deal in front of 17 other African heads of state, subsequent negotiations have yet to produce a joint committee to establish cease-fire rules and regulations. Without such a mechanism ``a return to large-scale operations perhaps was inevitable,'' Acting Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Warren Clark Jr. told Congress last week. Angola's government launched a major offensive into territory controlled by Savimbi's National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) guerrillas last month, though both sides have been responsible for minor violations.
Second is agreeing on what has largely already been agreed to. The position of the Angolan government is that at Gbadolite both sides decided to respect the current Angolan Constitution, integrate UNITA into existing institutions of the ruling MPLA (Popular Liberation Movement of Angola), and send Savimbi into temporary exile. Since for UNITA this would mean subsuming itself in a self-declared Marxist state while losing its leader, it is not surprising Savimbi rejects these conditions.
Third is figuring out the role of the middleman. Zairean President Mobuto Sese Seko has been mediating a self-declared ``African solution'' to the civil war with the endorsement of both sides and the Bush administration. But Mr. Mobuto has upheld the MPLA version of what was agreed to at Gbadolite. Savimbi thus refused to attend a round of Mobutu-sponsored talks held in Kinshasa, Zaire, Sept. 18, despite US urging that he go.
What of the future US role? The charismatic Savimbi has long been lionized by the conservative wing of the Republican Party as a freedom fighter.
But the Bush administration, with its eye on the success of its total peace plan for southwest Africa, has clearly decided the Angolan war must end. Its initial goal is simply to get all parties in the same room, after a cease-fire, with no preconditions. ``All topics should be open for discussion at the negotiating table,'' said Mr. Clark.
US critics are pushing the White House to at least extend diplomatic recognition to the Angolan government. Economic reality means the MPLA's adherence to Marxist theory is a thing of the past, they say, and the government badly needs western credits and technology. Renewed charges of human rights abuses by UNITA and questions about Savimbi's commitment to representative democracy have been widely circulated in Washington.
For now the Bush administration is sticking with Savimbi, while urging him to again accept Mobuto as mediator. Until UNITA and the MPLA have reconciled, ``the United States will not recognize any government in Angola,'' said Clark.