6 June 2001

ANGOLA: Focus on church's role in new path to peace

An end to military combat and political hostilities, and a return to the negotiating table - this is what the church hopes to achieve in Angola by the end of the year. A tall order? Maybe so, but Reverend Daniel Ntoni-Nzinga believes it is not impossible, even though two peace agreements have come to naught in the past decade.

The church has emerged as a powerful and uniting civic force in Angola over the past year and is spearheading a campaign to end the 26-year-old civil war which has torn the country apart. In an open letter to the church last month, UNITA leader Jonas Savimbi asked the church to help end the conflict through mediation between his rebel movement and the ruling MPLA government.

At about the same time, President Jose Eduardo dos Santos changed his hardline stance, stating publicly that he would talk to Savimbi if UNITA laid down its weapons and honoured a 1994 peace agreement. Angolans themselves, through a wide range of civic organisations, have asked the church to help find a solution and the international community has finally acknowledged that it is Angolans that have to create their own peace. This has thrust the church to the forefront of peace efforts in Angola - a church that has in the past two years been vocal and often critical of government and UNITA policies alike.

Ntoni-Nzinga is executive secretary of the Inter-Ecclesial Committee for Peace in Angola (COIEPA), which is heading the civic peace initiative. Outlining the church's hopes for yet another "peace process", he told IRIN there were various factors which indicated this third attempt could work and should be taken seriously.

A new path

"Firstly, by the end of the year I would like this process to be at the point where we are capable of projecting a deadline for the end of formal military and political confrontations. Maybe by next year we can go back to normal life, in the sense that we can all feel part of the process we are in," he said. To get there, however, civil society and all other "actors" would have to reach a point where they had a "common understanding of the nation we want, not only through understanding the causes of the tragedy we have, but also the vision to put an end to it once and for all".

"In the formal sense, in political terms, we would like to see political and social forces saying this is what we want, the country we want, the nation we want to be ... If we work hard this year, I can see that by 2002 we can be engaging each other at a level where we are consolidating the peace. But off course the soonest we can develop what I would call a break with violence, especially military violence, the better. This should not wait for the end of the year, because this in itself will create the atmosphere we need to talk and to develop, because there is so much mistrust among Angolans," he said.

The mistrust was there at Angola's independence in 1975. The cold war years and apartheid South Africa helped fuel the conflict. Peace overtures that finally began in 1989, under international pressure for a political settlement, led to the Bicesse Accord in 1991 and multiparty elections in 1992. But the agreement collapsed when UNITA refused to accept the MPLA's electoral victory and returned to the bush. After two years of bitter fighting that cost thousands more lives, the government and UNITA went back to the drawing board. Under the auspices of the United Nations, the Lusaka Peace Protocol was signed in 1994. It also failed to stick, however, because the warring parties - mainly UNITA - failed to honour key aspects of the protocol, and the government went on the offensive. The United Nations was also criticised for its inability to act when the protocol was contravened.

Changing climate

But the political, military and social climate in Angola has changed. The international community, tired of broken promises, constant humanitarian crises and abject poverty, has begun to put pressure on the warring parties to look for peaceful solutions. The United Nations has placed sanctions on UNITA in the hope that these will prevent Savimbi from selling Angolan diamonds to buy weapons. Donors and international human rights groups have been putting pressure on Luanda to become more transparent about its oil revenues, to deal with high levels of corruption in government and to allocate more money to poverty alleviation. The European Union recently joined the chorus for calls to create a sense of urgency about peace. In a recent statement it urged the Angolan government to start creating the conditions for elections and asked Savimbi to comply with the Lusaka Accord so that peace talks could resume. On the battlefield the two armies' fortunes continue to fluctuate, with no decisive victory in sight for either.

More importantly, the church has assumed a role that no other civic group has dared in Angola's long history of war and has ideas of its own. Wary of getting embroiled in matters political and viewed in some quarters as colonial puppets, the church began to review its role in 1999 when it became evident that the war had reached a point of no return, Ntoni-Nzinga said. The years of 1998 and 1999 were characterised by heavy fighting between government and rebel forces, which displaced hundreds of thousands of people and further ruined what was left of the country's infrastructure.

The church, the only institution with access to all of Angola's communities, witnessed this suffering, said Ntoni-Nzinga, and realised last year that the time to act had come. The signing of a peace manifesto drafted by a group of civic leaders - including Ntoni-Nzinga - in April 1999 set the ball rolling. "A sense of hope was consolidated in the minds of people, that in the end something can be achieved. The other thing is that the peace process in the country has been vacillating because there was never the capacity for internal mediation." Then in 2000, after further requests from a range of civic groups, said Ntoni-Nzinga, COIEPA was created and decided to take its new role seriously.

Even so, the road ahead seems fraught with difficulties. The peace the church and civil society envisage is not the same as the peace Angola's two main forces contemplate. "It is true and clear that everyone wants peace. This in itself is a source of tension. The peace we are talking about goes far beyond the silencing of guns. It has become clear that previous peace agreements have failed because they were mainly interpreted as silencing the guns. How and who holds the guns was the major problem because the very people who held the guns were the ones who had to silence them, which still gave them the prerogative to use the guns again," said Ntoni-Nzinga.

"The peace we have to talk is the transformation of the tragedy of the war situation into a situation of peace. That means we have to bring in some new balance in terms of social and economic relationships. Angolans have to be given back their dignity. Many have been on the run for more than 25 years and know only war."

He dismissed recent government talk of holding elections in 2002, saying that while the church could not stop an election, the country might live to regret it, particularly because elections in 1992 had failed to bring peace. "Elections are just an instrument to consolidate peace, not to bring peace itself. Choosing leadership is not a condition for living together. Living together with a shared vision is a condition for choosing leadership. That is the tension right now and we have to face it, and that is the position the church has taken," he told IRIN.

If the church indeed ended up mediating in Africa's longest-running war, the belligerents could be in for a tough time. Ntoni-Nzinga is unequivocal about how he thinks the process should develop.

Dealing with UNITA and MPLA

To start with, he says, it is time to stop dehumanising Savimbi. "We have to do everything possible to avoid demonising him. He is a human being like everyone else. He has feelings and emotions. Specifically the church, and that is the pastoral role of the church, has to make him feel he is still wanted in the country. What has happened so far is the opposite. Savimbi has to come in, rather than be brought in. It has to be made possible for him to come in. It has not been easy. The letter he wrote to the church, 'we say thank you it's a good step but can we move from there now and try to ensure that further conversations are not only about finger-pointing'. We need to encourage him to project how to put an end to this (war). From the church's point of view, this must be done for Savimbi as much as for the hundreds of thousands of Angolans who look to him as their leader. If we ignore him, we are ignoring them too."

"We need to show him that it is not the MPLA but the people of Angola who are suffering - the very people who suffered most under colonial rule are now still paying the heaviest cost for our independence," he added.

Referring to dos Santos' MPLA government, he said: "Very often our leadership in government forget they have been there for 25 years. They need to try to understand that the people will not always look at them in the same way they did in 1975. I am convinced there are many leaders in the government today who have no fresh initiatives. There is a kind of tiredness. They have to accept that the collective memory needs new injection. Without that we will become so conservative and defensive, we won't be able to see anything else," he said. Ntoni-Nzinga also said that both sides abused children in the war. "There are kidnappings, forced recruitments and families are constantly broken up by those engaged in war," he said. Acknowledging that the task facing Angolans was daunting, Ntoni-Nzinga said there were no easy solutions, that it would take more than half a century for Angolans to come to terms with their history and to heal their scars. However, he added: "I am very happy. I see it very clearly in my mind that the time has come for a change. The train of peace has moved. It is on the move and whoever wants to live in Angola, whoever wants to govern Angola, has to join the train or stay out forever. It will no longer be the same Angola because it is evident to everyone that war no longer has the support of the Angolan people."

Explaining his optimism, he pointed to the fact that open debate is allowed in Angola today, when it was not allowed two years ago. Also, he said, while the government's US $20-million Peace and Reconciliation Fund which was created for those who denounce war and hand in their arms was inadequate - and perhaps misguided - its existence was a positive sign. It meant the government wanted to take the process forward, he said, adding that the fund could be used to ensure that communities directly affected by the war were assisted. This would go a long way towards rebuilding a society that all Angolans felt part of, and towards restoring people to their homes, families and land, he added.

The tough talk has international observers feeling hopeful too. A senior UN source told IRIN the church's mediation in Angola's conflict would be most welcome. He said the United Nations had made mistakes in the past, and would be happy for a neutral and widely-accepted local mediator to take the process forward. "We can then provide whatever it is that is needed and hope that when the time comes again for the UN to act decisively, it will," the source said.

However, according to other observers - most of whom say it is still too early to tell whether Savimbi and dos Santos will abandon their hopes for a military victory - the lure of Angola's natural resources may still prove too strong for peace. (IRIN)

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