24 February 2002

ANGOLA: Savimbi's death new impetus to peace process

The death of veteran Angolan rebel leader Jonas Savimbi has added new impetus to the search for a settlement to the country's long-running civil war, analysts told IRIN over the weekend.

Savimbi was killed on Friday, Feb 22, by Angolan government troops (FAA) after a fierce gun battle near Lucusse, about 700 km east of Luanda, the capital. His “column”, hunted by the FAA, was reportedly headed for the Zambian border. State television on Saturday showed the body of the 67-year-old guerrilla chieftain, who had led the UNITA rebel movement since 1966, sprawled on a makeshift table. The authorities said his corpse would be publically displayed in Luanda.

"I'm so optimistic. The nightmare has ended and the future has just begun," Dinho Chingunji, spokesman for the anti-Savimbi UNITA-Renovada faction in the United States told IRIN. There are, however, question marks over whether UNITA commanders in the bush will continue fighting, or if Savimbi's death could clear the obstacles to a peace agreement.

UNITA was under pressure in the eastern province of Moxico, as the FAA sought to role up Savimbi's forces, but remained active in the north of the country.

"In terms of charisma nobody can replace Savimbi, but in terms of politics and military operations there are still people with the capacity [to take over]," an Angola analyst in Luanda told IRIN. "The situation is unpredictable right now."

Regional commentator Claude Kabemba said that the problem of Savimbi's absolute hold on power in UNITA was now going to impact on the movement. He said there was a possibility of splits as hardline elements in the bush struggled for power. "Either we see the continuation of the war with a very weakened UNITA or a strategy to get into negotiations with the government and secure [the party's] future with a negotiated settlement," Kabemba told IRIN. He added that the government could be tempted to try to finish off UNITA militarily once and for all, but the situation also gave "a window" to the Southern African Development Community (SADC) to play a key role in brokering peace.

According to Chingunji, Savimbi's movement was run by fear, and his death means "the shackles have been broken and it is just a matter of time before [those in the bush] give up ... I don't see them lasting beyond a year."

However, in an interview last month, UNITA parliamentarian Abel Chivukuvuku told IRIN: "Nobody should expect a solution if something happens to Dr Savimbi. In the current circumstances in UNITA among those fighting, Dr Savimbi is the person whom, if he states 'yes, this [initiative] is good', every one would follow. I don't know if everyone would follow, for instance, the [UNITA] vice-president Antonio Dembo. I don't think anybody sees [Savimbi's close aide Paulo Lukamba] Gato as a leader."

Angolan President Jose Eduardo dos Santos is to meet US President George Bush later this month in Washington where he has the opportunity to present a new vision for his country. News reports said that the US government is already encouraging Luanda towards an inclusive peace agreement, under the framework of the moribund 1994 Lusaka protocol, as is the rest of the international community. There have also been promises of western development aid.

Domestically, the government is also under pressure to find a resolution to the conflict. Civil society had been demanding a national conference to chart Angola's way forward, that goes beyond the interim power sharing arrangement between UNITA and the ruling MPLA party contained in the Lusaka agreement.

Angola has some of the world's worst social indicators, and the government had long promised that an end to the war would allow it to start addressing the deep poverty most Angolans live under. (IRIN)

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