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War-Weary Angolans Prepare For First Democratic Elections

Successful vote could stabilize region and boost development

By John BattersbyStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 23, 1992


AS Angola prepares for its first-ever democratic elections Sept. 29 and 30, the international community is pushing for a government of national unity in a bid to avert a potential outbreak of post-ballot hostilities.

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A government of reconciliation is also regarded as a necessary foundation for building a new country from the ruins of 17 years of devastating civil war.

A successful ballot in oil-rich Angola would represent a major boost to the stalled process of democratization in southern Africa - particularly in Mozambique and South Africa - and would offer a new beachhead for the United States in the region.

It would also enable neighboring Namibia to secure vital water and hydropower supplies from the Cunene and Kavango rivers in war-torn southern Angola.

"If South Africa goes in the right direction to a democracy, then the two countries [Angola and South Africa] could lead the way in the region," US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Hank Cohen told the Monitor during a visit to Luanda Sept. 6 and 7. "Angola could become a little Persian Gulf down here."

Angola is currently producing 500,000 barrels of oil per day. It also has an additional 2.1 billion barrels in proven reserves and an estimated 3 billion barrels in sites offshore from the equatorial enclave of Cabinda.

The international focus is less on who will be the ballot victors and more on whether the victors and the vanquished can coexist and cooperate in building a democracy with a functioning economy.

President Jose Eduardo dos Santos of the Popular Liberation Movement of Angola (MPLA) and Jonas Savimbi, leader of the rebel National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA), both have paid lip service to the concept of a government of "reconstruction and reconciliation."

There are also signs of a new commitment to peace from the leaderships of UNITA, formerly backed by the US and South Africa, and the MPLA, formerly backed by the Soviet Union and Cuba.

But as ballot day approaches, there is mounting concern that the stored animosities of the civil war could overwhelm the fragile momentum toward democracy that is now evident in the streets and towns of this war-ravaged country of about 12 million people.

"There is a political commitment at the leadership level for both the peace and electoral process," says Margaret Anstee, United Nations special envoy to Angola. "But the whole thing could fall down on logistics."

Ms. Anstee was referring to Angola's shattered transport and communications system, the continued threat posed by unexploded mines, and the unreliability of basic services such as electricity and gasoline.

Delayed demobilization of the opposing MPLA and UNITA armies and the slow progress in forming a new national army could also jeopardize the prospect of peace. In the run-up to the ballot, many diplomats, aid workers, and government officials have sent their families out of the country; embassies and aid organizations have drawn up detailed evacuation plans in event of the outbreak of new hostilities.

Western diplomats say international leverage may be the only way to prevent post-ballot violence.