SECRETARY of State James Baker III has demanded a "full explanation" of alleged human rights abuses and murder of dissidents in Jonas Savimbi's National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA). The request is significant and could signal that Mr. Savimbi - like another notorious United States-backed African ruler, Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire - is no longer an indispensable player in US-Africa policy. But, for Pedro Chingunji (former UNITA representative in Washington), for Mr. Chingunji's family , and for thousands of Angolan civilians on both sides of the 16-year Angolan conflict, this request comes too late.
Stories of UNITA atrocities are not new. By the mid-1980s UNITA's mistreatment of Angolan civilians was widely known. In 1988 stories began to leak out of human rights abuses in the movement itself, including allegations that dissidents had been burned to death at Savimbi's orders. In 1989 and following years specific allegations were confirmed in reports by observers, by respected groups like Africa Watch, and even by former UNITA supporter and Savimbi biographer Fred Bridgland.
Despite these reports, conservatives in Congress and the Reagan and Bush administrations heralded Savimbi as a "freedom fighter." They refused to take the charges seriously and funneled millions of dollars in covert military support to Savimbi's group. Flanked by the Washington-based public relations firm Black, Maniford, Stone, and Kelly, Savimbi was feted by the foreign policy establishment and policy elites on each trip to Washingon.
Until 1985, aid to Angola's internal groups was prohibited by the Clark Amendment. But the spirit if not the letter of the Clark Amendment was violated in the late 1970s and early 1980s, as US officials encouraged other countries, such as Morocco, Saudi Arabia, and South Africa, to join in supporting UNITA. In 1985, the Clark Amendment was repealed and by 1986, "covert aid" to UNITA began to flow from the US. Precise figures are classified, and creative accounting may disguise higher levels, but press re ports indicate the US has sent around $300 million worth of military equipment to UNITA.
Persistent calls throughout the 1980s by leaders in the religious community, like the United Church of Christ's Rev. Benjamin Chavis, went virtually unheard. Reverend Chavis, who visited Angola on several occasions with delegations of physicians and clergy, urged the US to end support for UNITA because of the war's devastation and because of UNITA's policy of planting land mines in civilian areas.
TODAY, Angola has one of the largest proportions of amputees in the world, a direct result of land mines. The war waged by UNITA with US support, along with direct South African invasions, cost the country an estimated $35 to $40 billion in damage and lost production - this to a country with a 1991 GNP of $4 billion.
As of last month, the State Department had made no public mention of UNITA's ongoing violations of the US-brokered cease-fire agreement and human rights abuses - despite the fact that they must have been well informed. In 1991 reports appeared of:
* The continued detention of political prisoners by UNITA.
* A denial of access by government officials, voter registration teams, relief workers, to UNITA controlled areas of Angola.
* Human rights violations, including the alleged murder of four Angolan Air Force officials, two of which were buried alive.
Yet on March 3, during testimony at hearings sponsored by two Foreign Relations subcommittees, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey Davidow made no mention of these matters. Only when two former, high-level UNITA officials - Tony da Costa Fernandes, former minister of foreign affairs, and former minister of interior Nzau Puna - disclosed information on UNITA's abuses and its lack of commitment to the democratic process did State respond by requesting an explanation from Savimbi.
Both Mr. Fernandes and Mr. Puna charge Savimbi with the murder of Tito Chingunji, his immediate family, and his brother-in-law Wilson do Santos last August, after the peace accord but while the US was supplying covert aid to UNITA. UNITA blamed Puna, claiming implausibly that the domineering Savimbi had no knowledge of the deaths.
The administration has correctly requested an explanation from Savimbi. But this recent round of revelations calls for a more pro-active response as well. The Bush administration must recognize the mistakes of the past, and take steps to establish its credibility as a supporter of non-partisan reconciliation in Angola. It should support the peace process in Angola as vigorously as it earlier prosecuted the war. The pattern of favoring one party over another, particularly when the group historically favor ed by the US has such a gruesome record on human rights and democratic practice, must end.