Angola: The Crisis You Aren’t Hearing About


Out of sight of the world, a humanitarian crisis of enormous proportions is unfolding in Angola, as perhaps hundreds of thousands of people flee the “grey zones”, the 90% of the country which have until now been closed to outsiders, including humanitarian aid agencies and even civilian medical structures.

Many are dying of starvation on the roads. Others find themselves in towns and regional centres which have no food and no medical infrastructure and are too weak to go further. Those lucky enough to get to areas where humanitarian organizations can reach are still in grave danger, as the amount of international aid which has so far reached the African nation is far less than what is needed.

If there is not a massive mobilisation of humanitarian aid soon, tens of thousands may die.

As part of its 27-year effort to overthrow the government of President Eduardo dos Santos and his MPLA movement, the rebel UNITA army has long employed terror tactics to force people off the land by raiding villages, murdering locals, burning crops and mining fields. Rounded up by UNITA, many villagers were forced into a state of semi-slavery, gathering food or carrying ammunition for the troops and forced from place to place as the frontline shifted. Many women were forcibly “married” to UNITA soldiers.

Those who fled to the government-held towns found their situation little better, however. The Angolan military, which ran the towns, paid little if any attention to the food and medical needs of civilians and put no resources into building the infrastructure required to take care of the local population. Humanitarian emergencies were routinely ignored, resulting in very high levels of malnutrition and mortality. Those displaced into these towns found themselves just as trapped as those in the UNITA areas.

Now this is starting to break up and the full scale of the devastation is emerging.

On February 22, UNITA’s leader, Jonas Savimbi, was killed in a battle with government troops. Six weeks later, on April 4, UNITA commanders signed a ceasefire agreement with the government. Since then, the once-powerful rebel force has begun to break up and its hold on much of the country has slipped.

Now free to move again, Angolans have hit the road, in a desperate search for food and medical care.

International medical relief organisation Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) is only international agency which has as yet managed to mount exploratory missions into the interior. It has visited nearly a dozen different towns in the central provinces of Angola and has been horrified by what it has found.

To judge the severity of a humanitarian crisis, aid agencies use a measure called the CMR, the crude mortality rate. One death per 10,000 people per day is considered crisis level. In the towns it has managed to reach, Médecins Sans Frontières teams have estimated death rates four, five, in one case even seven times crisis level.

In the latest town the agency has managed to reach, Galangue, its doctors counted 31 freshly dug graves in two weeks and estimated a CMR of 5 per 10,000 per day. One-fourth of children are suffering severe malnutrition and another 18% moderate malnutrition. Four children died on the first day of the team’s mission.

Médecins Sans Frontières has established an emergency mobile team in the town and is about to begin food distribution. Those with the most severe cases of malnutrition are being transferred by truck to one of the agency’s Therapeutic Feeding Centre in the nearby town of Caala.

Some of the agency’s workers believe the crisis in Angola is the among the worst they have dealt with in a decade.

Those few aid agencies who are working in Angola are appealing for an emergency influx of food and medicines to cope with the tens of thousands who desperately need help.

As yet, there has been little response from the international community, which is apparently suffering from a severe case of “compassion fatigue” when it comes to Angola. Even UN agencies like the World Food Program are dragging their feet.

But the international community’s culpability stretches beyond turning its back on Angola’s current tragedy. Western governments and corporations have long been involved in stoking Angola’s civil war, first as part of a crusade against leftist and national liberation movements and then as part of a grubby attempt to plunder one of Africa’s most resource-rich countries.

>From the moment Angola won independence from its colonial master >Portugal in 1975, after a long and bloody war, the country has been the venue for an even longer and bloodier proxy war, in which the United States and apartheid South Africa sought to contain the spread of communism and national liberation struggles. Despite (or perhaps because of) its terrorist tactics, UNITA was backed to the hilt with arms, money and even South African troops.

Meanwhile, Cuba intervened on the side of the leftist MPLA government, seeing a victory for a movement backed by apartheid South Africa as a defeat for left-wing movements through Africa. In 1988, Cuban and MPLA forces were able to decisively defeat UNITA and the South Africans at the battle of Cuito Canavale, forcing South Africa’s withdrawal. The Cubans themselves withdrew soon after, while Bill Clinton formally ended US support to UNITA shortly after assuming the presidency in 1992.

While Western intervention into Angola’s civil war in the 1970s and 1980s may have been motivated by ideology and anti-communism, its involvement in the 1990s was far more prosaic. Motivated by greed, Western companies, particularly in the oil and diamond industries, have willingly participated in the plunder of Angola’s natural resources.

UNITA has long funded itself through the sale of diamonds mined in the country’s east. Technically, the sales have been banned under a UN embargo since. But in practice the international gem industry has showed little interest in stopping the flow of these “blood diamonds”. It’s estimated that the illegal trade out of Angola is worth some US$500 million each year.

Just as damaging to the peace as UNITA’s control of the diamond trade, however, has been the MPLA’s control of the oil industry. Once at the head of a genuine national liberation movement, Eduardo dos Santos and the MPLA leaders have long since abandoned any commitment to socialism and has embraced free-market capitalism with enthusiasm, enriching themselves in the process.

Taking advantage of the opening to grab a stake in what will soon be Africa’s largest oil industry, Western companies including Chevron-Texaco, ExxonMobil and BP-Amoco have entered the country – and have corrupted the government with millions of dollars in royalties and payoffs.

The Angolan oil industry brought in revenues estimated to be between US$3-5 billion in 2001. But little if any of this went to dealing with the country’s dire humanitarian crisis – in a report issued in December, Médecins Sans Frontières noted “Oil production in the country is estimated at close to 800,000 barrels a day … yet [in the town of Cuito] there is not a drop of diesel for the hospital generators, the only source of power in most large hospitals.”

In a report released in March, All the President’s Men, the NGO Global Witness detailed the extent of the corruption (“state looting”, it called it) and the complicity of the oil companies. It estimated that US$1-3 billion, about one-third to one-half of all state revenues, went missing in 2001.

Unlike in other developing countries, Western oil companies refuse to give any details of their payments to the Angolan government. The report calls for the introduction of international transparency regulations aimed at preventing companies from acting in such a way.

The break-up of UNITA presents the best chance Angola has had in a generation for peace and development, but that won’t happen without the help of the international community: first, to end the present humanitarian crisis and then to rein in those who would plunder the country’s wealth. Surely, the Angolans have surely suffered enough.

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