Two Cold War Pawns Begin to Break Free : Out of Angola and Ethiopia comes a pinch of optimism

The fighting has finally ended in Angola--one of several African battlegrounds nurtured by substantial military support from the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Peace, political progress and perhaps even a little prosperity may be in the oil-rich nation’s future if rivals can work together and keep their promises.

The negotiated end to Angola’s lengthy civil war is the latest attempt at democracy in Africa. Nine heads of state have lost power during the past year to rebellions, coups and increasingly potent demands for democracy.

The easing of superpower rivalries has also helped bring about several changes. Moscow cut off military aid after funneling as much as $10 billion to Ethiopia’s Mengistu Haile Mariam, who fled three weeks ago. Somalia’s President Mohamed Siad Barre also lost substantial American support, and his leadership post, after years of fighting.

PROLONGED AGONY: Angolans had been fighting for three decades. The first battles targeted Portuguese colonialists. Independence brought no relief from the bullets. Portugal’s decision to abandon the nation in southwestern Africa with little preparation and no meaningful transition toward self-rule only exacerbated internal rivalries that led to civil war.


The superpowers stoked that civil war with military aid and foreign troops. The Soviet Union supported the Marxist government of Angola’s President Jose Eduardo dos Santos with millions of dollars and Cuban troops; the last contingent left recently. The United States, with the help of South African invaders, supplied Jonas Savimbi and the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA). The fighting ruined the economy and the infrastructure and took 300,000 lives.

After 16 years of death and destruction, President Dos Santos and his charismatic rival, Savimbi of UNITA, recently pledged to build a united army, encourage competing political parties, nurture a market economy and hold free elections. The peace accord was negotiated by the United States, the Soviet Union and Portugal--the foreign powers that had fanned the flames.

The progress toward democracy provides hope in Angola, and in Ethiopia. But it will take more than an election to rebuild war-shattered economies and in Ethiopia’s case to relieve a famine that could kill as many as 7 million.

NEW DECENCY: Ethiopia’s Mengistu also left a legacy of intolerance, torture and murder--a legacy that the new leaders have chosen admirably not to emulate.

The Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front--in stark and welcome contrast to more vicious victors--are treating their former oppressors with a humanity that has been missing for decades in that Horn of Africa nation. The rebels have jailed former leaders, but in comfortable surroundings, and the prisoners have been allowed frequent visitors.

This decency should begin to reassure a wary international community, attract much needed humanitarian assistance and provide at least a little optimism in Africa, as it continues its struggle to shake the long-term effects of a history of outside interference and inner turmoil.