Diary: A ‘Soldier’s Peace’? Angola Forum, Chatham House

By IndepthAfrica
In Angola
May 3rd, 2012

By Eric Cooper
Angola is a country in serious transition. Leading indicators (from the admittedly scarce data available) suggest change has been afoot since the end of the civil war in 2002 – shortly after the death of rebel leader Jonas Savimbi and the signing of the Luena accord.

Human Development Index (HDI) ranking is increasing, inflation has fallen dramatically, health expenditure per capita has increased 13-fold and overall economic growth is forecast to rise by 12 percent this year. But like many other African countries, this data reflects a somewhat misleading reality: Angola’s incredible economic growth has been driven almost entirely by petro-chemical dollars, alongside fledgling secondary and tertiary industries which support it. There is little data to suggest Angolans at-large are significantly engaged with and benefiting from this growth.

This cannot necessarily be attributed solely to the country’s undiversified oil economy, however. One-party political rule led by President Dos Santos’ MPLA — whose principle aim seems to largely be suppressing opposition in the interests of a nationalist unity — and a stagnated economic force caused in part by returning UNITA soldiers who face acrimonious feelings from their communities, are two of the main culprits contributing to mass disenfranchisement. The consequences of which will be discussed later.

The recent Angola Forum at Chatham House, billed simply as ‘Angola: Celebrating 10 years of peace’ was an effort to delve more deeply into the data, providing a retrospective analysis of several key indicators of peace (or the lack of), along with projections and forward-looking ideas about Angola’s future. Central themes included legacies of the conflict and a review of the achievements and challenges facing the oil-rich nation.

The forum began with remarks by the newly appointed Angolan Ambassador to the United Kingdom Miguel Neto, who offered a brief review of Angola’s need for integration into the global economic order. Ambassador Neto’s remarks were followed by Dr Christopher Alden, whose work as an International Relations reader at LSE led him to conduct research on soldier reintegration after the civil war. He asserted that negative perceptions of former (mainly UNITA) militants in their communities was the single greatest barrier to sustained economic growth, preventing a large and economically ambitious group of people from invigorating local and national economies. These former militants, while representative of a common problem in post-conflict areas, reflect an uneasy and perhaps unwilling peace which has formed in Angola.

Remarks by Justin Pearce, ESRC postdoctoral fellow at SOAS, carried this point even further. He suggested that it was a ‘soldier’s peace’ in Angola – a fragile peace fashioned around a soldier’s interpretation of a state-driven nationalist ideal. This so-called peace is characterised by unease and discord—hardly the hallmark of a nation on the march to real societal change.

Pearce here points out the work of noted Angolan scholar Christine Messiant, who has observed a new kind of nationalism forged since the end of the Civil War. This is a nationalism which is “primarily geared to reject outside interference with the current political transition. The emphasis on unity and reconciliation…is…meant to call all groups to rally behind the banner of the MPLA” — an insightful reference to the nature of Angola’s overarching political and economic struggle.

As Pearce further observes, the current political situation in Angola is rooted in the legacy of the Civil War and the way in which it ended in 2002. The MPLA defined itself as the defender of the real Angola and of a singular national interest, excluding UNITA entirely — as oppositional forces ‘were construed as contrary to the national interest’.

And ten years on from the end of the war, the MPLA is still in power and still ruling through this period of ‘transition’, with little or no acknowledgement of oppositional opinion. This could, as Pearce posited, disrupt the ‘path of peace and…damage the new post-war consensus and social order.’

The aforementioned data, suggesting incredible economic growth in the country, is an incomplete representation of the Angolan situation and fails to draw attention to the crisis at the heart of Angolan politics. Crucially, the economic figures, which hinge almost exclusively on developments in the hydrocarbon sector, ignore the fact that the mentality amongst Angola’s political elite is to reject discourse in the interests of apparent unity and stability. The consequence of this one-party rule is political stagnation due to a lack of scrutiny, transparency and accountability which renders the vital instruments of statecraft undeveloped.

The remarks and report submitted by Markus Weimer of Chatham House amplify the above point, using World Bank data which indicates the business environment in Angola is plagued by corruption, land access issues and poor customs and trade regulations. Without a shift in this mindset, leading to open debate and discourse, socio-political progress is difficult to forecast, despite the seeming promise of the country’s economy. By focusing on illusory economic indicators determined by resource sector developments, at the expense of improving the political landscape, Angola runs the very real risk of ignoring its greatest resource: its people.

Eric Cooper is an African Studies and Development Studies student at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London.

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