Angola - yet to come to grips with independence

Nearly eight years after independence, Angola's Marxist-style government is still struggling to repair the ravages of war. Since coming to power with Cuban and Soviet military assistance in November 1975, the ruling Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) has been caught up in civil war with the independence fighters - former allies - who did not win a place in the government. The rebel forces of the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) are active in the southern, central, and western parts of the country. The National Front for the Liberation of Angola (FNLA) reportedly has begun to assert itself again in the north.

And on the economic front, the country has not yet recovered from the massive exodus of white Portuguese skilled labor and investers which began with Angola's independence.

Although the Angolan and South African governments appear to have agreed to a cease-fire, there is a threat of incursions by South African forces similar to those carried out in the latter half of 1981 and early 1982 against Namibian (South-West African) nationalist fighters based in Angola. These conflicts have obliged Angola to spend nearly two-thirds of its revenue on defense, including some of the exorbitant costs of maintaining Cuba's military expeditionary force.

As far as the MPLA authorities are concerned, South Africa represents the principal obstacle to a peaceful settlement in Namibia, and ultimately, in Angola. Without South African support, MPLA leaders say, the UNITA rebels would be unable to continue their ''bandit'' activities against the government.

Angolan Foreign Minister Paulo Jorge has repeatedly condemned the Reagan administration's concept of ''linkage'' in addressing this region's problems. He says it is ''unacceptable'' and ''makes no sense at all'' to link any South African troop withdrawal from Namibia with a Cuban withdrawal from Angola.

Nevertheless, Mr. Jorge has never quite closed the door on such a solution. Nor has he totally dismissed the efforts of the Western ''contact group'' (the United States, Britain, West Germany, France, and Canada), which is trying to find a solution acceptable to all combatants. Angolan representatives met twice since December with a South African delegation in Cape Verde to discuss these issues. A third meeting is being contemplated.

A promising development is the frequent talks between US and Angolan officials, even though the two countries have no diplomatic relations. A knowledgeable source says talks are ''hardly moving at all for the moment,'' but there is a willingness to continue. In fact, Jorge met with Secretary of State George Shultz in New York while attending a Security Council session on Namibia.

The Americans have told MPLA officials that Washington would continue to withhold recognition of Angola until Cuban troops have left and a political accommodation involving the rebel Angolan UNITA forces is worked out.

From the US viewpoint, UNITA should be regarded as a legitimate political representative of the Angolan people, just as the MPLA is. (Both groups fought for independence from Portugal, but the MPLA grabbed power in 1975 with Cuban and Soviet military assistance.) The Reagan administration appears morally to support the rebels, but the 1976 ''Clark amendment'' blocks any US military aid to UNITA.

Luanda has always maintained that it will politely ask the Cubans to leave once the South African military menace has been eliminated. Although the MPLA leadership categorically dismisses any suggestions of working out a political deal with UNITA, European diplomatic sources maintain that Luanda moderates have been cultivating discreet contacts with the rebels.

''The (MPLA) hard-liners are still the ones calling the shots,'' a West European analyst says, ''but there are a growing number of people in the Angolan government who realize that UNITA is a force that cannot be dismissed and if there is going to be an end to the country's problems, then the rebels will have to be given a participatory role.''

Angola's agricultural and mineral potential could make it one of Africa's richest nations. But its development is proceeding at a snail's pace. Once-bustling markets and shops are empty, boarded up, or struggling with long lines of customers. Once self-sufficient in food, Angola now imports about 90 percent of its food needs.

At the height of the colonial era, Angola was the world's fourth-ranking coffee grower. But production has withered; once it harvested 200,000 tons of coffee a year, now only 15,000 to 20,000 tons. Diamond and iron ore mining suffer, too.

Rebels effectively closed the Benguela railway, which bore trade items to and from landlocked African neighbors. The closure is a major factor in Angola's economic reversal. Lack of rail traffic means the loss of $50 million to $100 million of transit fees annually from Zaire and Zambia.

Oil reserves, on the other hand, furnished the regime with extensive foreign export earnings in its early years. The income allowed the MPLA to pay its military bills and granted Angolans, statistically, the highest per capita income in black Africa.

But oil income has dropped. Despite projections of a doubling or even tripling of Angolan oil production by the end of the decade, the world oil glut resulted in severe drops in production. It produced 150,000 barrels of oil a day in 1980, but only 115,000 last year.

The civil war, drought, migration of refugees, shortages of skilled labor, poor transport, mismanagement, and corruption are all factors in Angola's predicament. The MPLA regime concedes the country faces severe difficulties, but it generally blames the South African government for its economic troubles.

Any post-colonial government would have found it difficult to regroup in Angola after independence, analysts say. The country's infrastructure crumbled with the panic-stricken exodus of most of the territory's 350,000 whites at independence. In contrast with other European colonial powers in Africa, the Portuguese had done little to encourage black participation in the Angolan economy. Most of the shops, transport, and manufacturing industries were run by whites. Barely 2 percent of the country's available arable land was cultivated, either in the form of large, European-operated plantations or small, native-run subsistence plots.

After independence, East European and Cuban advisers helped to advance the nation's agricultural and mining sectors, alleviating problems to some extent. Luanda signed a 20-year friendship treaty with the Soviet Union in 1976, followed in 1982 by an economic pact. But since 1978, Angola has looked increasingly to the West for financial and technical expertise.

Several thousand non-East bloc technicians - Portuguese, Brazilian, French, West German, British, and American - work in Angola on a contract basis. Gulf, Texaco, and other corporations have quietly expanded their activities to tap the former colony's estimated 150-160 million tons of oil reserves.

The country has tried to pay its debts on time, and this has helped investors to look on Angola as a reliable investment area. Major banks such as Chase Manhattan and the Arab Bank for Economic Development in Africa have begun significant development projects. Luanda's Western-backed petroleum investment plan alone is said to be worth $1 billion.

About 85 percent of Angola's exports, mainly oil, go to the West. The communist bloc absorbs only 8 percent of the country's overseas trade. Moscow has warned the Angolans against seeking too much rapprochement with the West.

The MPLA has a love-hate relationship with South Africa. It maintains close economic relations with Pretoria even as it chastises UNITA for taking military support from South Africa. Roughly 90 percent of Angola's trade within Africa is with South Africa. In April 1980, Angola joined eight black neighbors to form the Southern African Development Coordination Conference - a group dedicated to attaining economic self-sufficiency and reducing economic dependence on Pretoria.

South Africa, the US, and the Soviet Union all have vested interests in Angola's political future. John Marcum, a specialist in southern African affairs at the University of California at Santa Cruz, wrote in ''Africa Notes'' this year:

''For the Soviet Union, the entry of UNITA into the Luanda government would, like the departure of the Cubans, constitute an embarrassing political setback.

''For South Africa, a role for UNITA in Luanda would vindicate the earlier decision to assure UNITA's survival. And for the Reagan administration, UNITA participation in the government would be perceived as a political gain, even though American . . . investors have been positive in their view of the MPLA government as pragmatic and honest.''

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Angola - yet to come to grips with independence
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today