Angola's Break With Its Past

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ANGOLA'S exit from 16 years of civil war is a breakthrough both for that battered country and for the democratic movement in Africa. But the starting points of democracy differ from country to country.

Angola's great advantage is a potentially strong economy. It has substantial oil wealth as well as diamonds, iron, and other minerals. It used to have thriving agriculture. But aside from the oil, which has been kept flowing to finance the war and a $6 billion foreign debt, Angola's economic assets lie in ruins. Critical institutions such as schools have been left to decay.

The foreign powers whose military aid did so much to keep the fighting going - primarily the Soviet Union and the United States - must now commit themselves to aiding Angola's transition to peace and representative government. The groundwork for a cooperative effort is laid, with the US, the Soviets, and the Portuguese, the former colonial ruler, having played key roles in bringing the Angolan adversaries to the point of agreement.

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Another country that could play a large role in Angola's rebuilding is South Africa. An Angolan mission has already traveled there to discuss economic ties. Angola's oil, particularly, interests Pretoria. If the former rebel leader, Jonas Savimbi, does as well as expected in coming elections, that relationship could blossom, since his UNITA forces were long supported by South Africa. But a slowing of South Africa's evolution toward full political participation by blacks would put the brakes on that deve lopment.

In the immediate future, Angola faces the considerable task of preparing for full political participation by its own people. The country's armies need to be merged and put on a peacetime basis. Electoral systems have to be set up, with help from Western and international organizations experienced in monitoring voting in lands that have little or no democratic tradition.

The United Nations will be on hand to keep the peace and take a hand in building new institutions of government. A free legislature and independent judiciary have to be constructed from scratch.

As in much of the rest of Africa, tribal and ethnic divisions and long-held animosities may try to thwart progress. But the war-weary people of Angola are unquestionably ready for change. The world must be ready to help.

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