LUANDA, ANGOLA — A grin broke across the face behind the embroidered wedding veil as the young man raised the AK-47 assault rifle and fired into the sky.
His fellow looter, a teen riding the fender of a Massy-Ferguson tractor and wearing a brunette shoulder-length wig, responded in kind, spraying gunfire.
A group of orderly Angolan soldiers gazed at the scene in amazement as they boarded trucks out of Congo Republic's port city, Pointe Noire. Having helped last month to secure the city for forces loyal to strongman Denis Sassou Nguesso, the Angolans, their job finished, withdrew leaving Pointe Noire to the likes of the tractor-riding teen. A short looting spree ensued.
The Angolans' quick incursion into Congo was a low-profile but professional stint. Despite drawing mild criticism from the United States, it scored praise from those trapped in Point Noire. "This surely would have become another Brazzaville had the Angolans not shown up," says a diplomat who had been trapped in the French Consulate, referring to the looting by rival militias that decimated the capital. "They are much more concerned with getting the job done than in engaging in the kinds of games the militia clowns are interested in."
Because of a nearly 20-year civil war with National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) rebels and a lumbering three-year United Nations-sponsored peace process, the Angolan government has long been forced to focus its attention internally. But the civil wars this year in the small Congo Republic, and its neighbor, Congo, the former Zaire - both of which prompted Angolan intervention - as well the country's growing oil wealth and a weakened UNITA, have catapulted the Angolan government from an isolationist regime to a regional power, say diplomats and analysts.
"Once a country has played a role such as the one Angola played in [the former] Zaire, and Republic of Congo, they find it very hard to resist involving themselves in the affairs of their neighbors," says Kenneth Kotelo, a current affairs specialist at the Africa Institute in Pretoria, South Africa. "You can expect Angola to be flexing its muscles for some time in the region."
Diplomats and military analysts in Luanda point out that Angolan intervention in both Congos was primarily aimed at weakening UNITA. The former rebels have used the countries as rear bases to feed arms and supplies, despite the three-year-old peace process.
But in the course of intervening, diplomats and military analysts say, the government discovered its regional potential. "The Angolans found such an easy job of it in both [Congos], that they suddenly woke up to the fact that they can throw their weight around," says a military analyst. "They realize they can be a regional power."
A Western diplomat agrees: "They finally tried it and found out they really like it. It's a lot more fun than messing around with a boring peace process."
Angola, with between 90,000 and 120,000 troops, has the largest standing army in sub-Saharan Africa, say military officials in Luanda. The military's weapons, air force, and state-of-the-art communications and eavesdropping equipment are made possible by the 720,000 barrels of oil a day pumped from Angolan offshore oil fields. Promising new oil finds by French oil giant Elf could bring daily oil production up to 1.25 million barrels by the year 2002, say Elf executives. That promise of new money has given Angola more leverage in its negotiations with other countries, diplomats say.
"The Angolans have become quite savvy in how they use their oil wealth to get what they want," the Western diplomat says.
The diplomat says that last year Prime Minister Franca Van Dunem traveled to Paris where he told French officials that Angola would cancel oil contracts unless a stronger anti-UNITA policy was adopted. "Van Dunem told the French they were still too close to UNITA," the diplomat says. "He said basically, 'You stop supporting UNITA or we will cancel your drilling licenses.' The French ambassador, who was very close to UNITA, was replaced, and since then France's relationship with UNITA has been much cooler." Both Angola and French officials in Luanda deny the incident took place.
But officials close to Angola's peace process, initiated in 1994, say as long as UNITA maintains its grip on diamond fields, estimated to produce between $500 million and $800 million a year, the former rebels will remain a threat.
One official close to the peace process says that President Jose Eduardo dos Santos is thinking beyond borders to regional economic cooperation. "This man is seriously talking to the neighbors about such huge projects as getting the Benguela Railway back on line," the official, referring to the rail that stretches hundreds of miles from the coast to copper mines near the Congo border.
The official adds that Mr. dos Santos is emphasizing the importance of supplying thirsty Namibia and South Africa with plentiful Angolan water and of finding a way for the country to live up to its potential as a breadbasket for southern Africa.