Rebel Leader Urges African Talks on Angola
The leader of the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola, which has fought a 12-year guerrilla war against Angola’s pro-Soviet, Marxist government, is seeking African mediation to resolve the conflict, offering as an incentive a plan he says will ensure the immediate independence of neighboring Namibia, the continent’s last colony.
Jonas Savimbi, the leader of the guerrilla group, said in an interview at his headquarters here that he was in touch with President Kenneth D. Kaunda of Zambia, the current chairman of the Organization of African Unity, as well as with the presidents of Kenya and Nigeria with an “almost irresistible offer” meant to bring the Luanda government into negotiations with the rebels on the sharing of political power in Angola.
“The day the Angolan problem is solved, six months later Namibia will be independent,” Savimbi declared. “This is within reach of daring minds.”
He described the proposed mediation, which stems from separate offers made recently by Zambia, Kenya and Nigeria, as “serious, firm and gaining momentum,” and he promised that “we will give (prospective mediators) enough ammunition” to ensure its success.
Savimbi hopes that a “government of national unity” would result from the mediation and include his movement--and that this would lead to the withdrawal of foreign forces from Angola and then to independence for Namibia, a former German colony still administered by South Africa despite repeated U.N. calls for its independence.
While diplomats in Pretoria, the South African capital, expressed considerable skepticism about the Angolan government’s willingness to talk with UNITA, as the guerrilla group is known from its initials in Portuguese, they noted that UNITA’s defeat of a major government offensive two months ago might persuade Luanda to seek a political rather than a military solution.
“Sharing power with UNITA is definitely not what Luanda has in mind,” a senior Western diplomat said in Pretoria, noting that the ruling Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola has adamantly refused to talk with UNITA.
“But the (Angolan) government may find itself agreeing to some sort of mediation if the pressure from its neighbors and allies is strong enough. . . .
“The prospect of at long last freeing Namibia from South African rule would be very tempting for Kaunda and other black African leaders, who have felt virtually impotent in trying to confront Pretoria in the past few years. African mediation to resolve the Angolan conflict might just succeed in opening solutions to other problems in the region,” the Western diplomat said.
What South Africa’s reaction would be to such a mediation effort is uncertain. Although committed to granting independence to Namibia, which is also known as South-West Africa, Pretoria has insisted--with strong support from the United States--that an estimated 37,000 Cuban troops and advisers be pulled out of Angola first.
“As long as the Cubans remain in Angola,” Savimbi commented, “there will always be the ‘Cuban problem’ blocking Namibian independence. If they were withdrawn, South Africa would no longer have a pretext for delaying Namibian independence. . . . I am convinced that the South Africans, against their will, would then have to relinquish Namibia.”
Savimbi, who has developed strong ties with Pretoria, which provides his guerrillas with substantial support, added that if UNITA were a member of a national unity government in Angola, it would use all its influence with South Africa to secure Namibian independence.
UNITA would also move quickly, he said, to end the intermittent clashes between its forces and the South-West Africa People’s Organization (SWAPO), which has been fighting for Namibian independence for more than two decades.
“It is necessary for Angola to become independent, truly independent, for Namibia to become independent,” Savimbi contended, reiterating UNITA’s criticism of the Angolan government for its heavy dependence on not only the Cuban forces, which it puts at 47,000 troops, but also on the Soviet Union, East Germany, North Korea and other Communist countries. “If we work hard and get independence of Angola, it is the quickest way to get the independence of Namibia.”
UNITA’s tactics are intended to put the government on the defensive politically and diplomatically and assert its claim to be the key to peace in southern Africa. While UNITA stakes out a reasonable, flexible position, the ruling Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola finds itself defending a “negative position” of no negotiation with UNITA.
Flexibility on Cubans
But Luanda appears to be showing some flexibility on the issue of Cuban troops in Angola, although diplomats in Pretoria doubt that it is sufficient to break the prolonged Namibian deadlock.
Venancio de Moura, the Angolan vice foreign minister, said this week that the government would propose the phased withdrawal of the estimated 37,000 Cubans over two years when Chester A. Crocker, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for Africa, visits Luanda next month to continue the intermittent American mediation efforts on Namibian independence.
Luanda had previously offered a withdrawal over three years, with as many as a third of the troops to remain to protect the capital and the oil fields at Cabinda from UNITA attacks. Pretoria has insisted on a total pullout in a matter of months as part of its price for Namibian independence, and Washington has proposed withdrawal over a year.
Pretoria, sensing that serious negotiations are close, is already positioning itself to ensure South Africa a major voice in shaping any settlement, Savimbi said.
Savimbi said this explains Pretoria’s claim last month that its troops had saved UNITA from defeat in the government’s three-month, 16-brigade offensive, although, he said, Luanda’s task force already had been beaten, with only minimal South African assistance, and turned back two weeks earlier.
“This was a political message to UNITA--and to the United States, too--that they won’t be able to do anything in Angola without taking South Africa fully into account,” Savimbi commented.
“The South Africans have been our friends, and as friends we have to tell them what our aims are and ask what their interests are. . . . But bringing South Africa to the actual negotiating table (in discussions on Angola’s future), that UNITA won’t accept.”
Pretoria’s interests coincide with those of UNITA for the present, he continued, but they could, ultimately, diverge significantly.
Pretoria’s boasting about its assistance to UNITA seriously hurt the guerrillas, Savimbi said, both by denying their victory and portraying them as South African puppets.
The damage of the original statements was compounded, he added, by a South African propaganda video, distributed in Europe and the United States, that shows old battle scenes and other footage, little, if any, of it from the most recent fighting, to support its claim of saving UNITA from defeat.
Savimbi said he took UNITA’s complaints to President Pieter W. Botha and his top ministers earlier this month in a series of frank exchanges in South Africa.
‘A Killing Ground’
“It’s up to the Angolans on each side to clarify the goals of their allies,” he said, speaking of UNITA and the government and the support they draw from South Africa and the Soviet Union respectively. “We don’t want our country to become a killing ground, a place for everyone to try their guns and play out their ambitions.”
UNITA nevertheless is placing considerable hope for an eventual resolution on a Soviet-American rapprochement.
Although Angola rated only a preordained mention in the communiques during and after the Washington summit meeting between the two superpowers this month, UNITA officials believe that a Soviet-American blessing of a negotiated settlement in Angola could eventually bring further reductions of local tension.
The lure for the United States in this scenario, Savimbi said, clearly bidding for Washington’s support, would be assisting Namibian independence, thus enhancing its stature throughout Africa. The Reagan Administration would also succeed in getting Soviet and Cuban forces out of Angola, a goal that it set itself when it took office in 1981.