Bloody-Minded

Basil Davidson

  • High Noon in Southern Africa: Making Peace in a Rough Neighbourhood by Chester Crocker
    Norton, 533 pp, £19.95, May 1993, ISBN 0 393 03432 1
  • Small Wars, Small Mercies: Journeys in Africa’s Disputed Nations by Jeremy Harding
    Viking, 441 pp, £17.99, May 1993, ISBN 0 670 83391 6
  • Bridging the Zambesi: A Colonial Folly by Landeg White
    Macmillan, 233 pp, £40.00, March 1993, ISBN 0 333 55170 2

‘In olden times, which is when God was deciding what blessings he would give to the countries he was creating, after a long while he finally got to Angola and he asked Gabriel his angel to remind him where Angola was, because he’d forgotten. “Angola?” said Gabriel. “Angola’s down there some place, nobody’s been there yet.” And so ...’ This was Petrov telling a story as we sat around a bivouac fire in May 1970, somewhere in the flat lands east of Muié (which is south of Luso, which is ‘some place down there’), so as to explain the wrongful reputation given to his people, the Angolans, by their neighbours in Southern Africa. Although his own language is Kimbundu, he was speaking Portuguese for my benefit, but an Angolan Portuguese that the others would mostly understand. Petrov is neither Bulgarian nor any kind of Slav but a thoroughly African Angolan from Ambriz on the Atlantic seaboard, a man of many modern virtues and various experience. The luck of the draw in the late Fifties, the days of ‘scholarships to Europe’, had steered him to Slav lands, ‘where they called me Petrov because they couldn’t get hold of my name, that’s how it was.’

Seven faces are listening in the firelight, and Petrov continues. ‘And so God feels pity for this God-forsaken land and says to Gabriel his angel, “Then give Angola many blessings, Gabriel, give it diamonds and petrol, give it iron and manganese, give it cotton, coffee and God knows what,” until Gabriel can’t believe his ears and says to God: “Wait a moment – all this to a country where there’s nobody?”’ Here Petrov puts in a pause for effect. ‘“I know what you’re thinking,” says God, “but just wait till you see the sort of people I’m going to put there.” A bloody-minded people, that’s what our neighbours say, don’t they? Always difficult always divided.’ There is a sigh of consent from around the fire, for the fact is well-known, and is even reflected in the defiant slogan of their patriotic movement, the MPLA, Um só povo, ‘one single people’, coined in the Sixties when they had yet to cease being a dozen or twenty different peoples. ‘For here we are at this fire, and who are we?’ Petrov reads off the faces: ‘Kimbundu, Mbunda, Ovimbundu, Bakongo, Chokwe’ and the list continues. ‘But we shall become a single people. A new people. Isn’t that what we are struggling for? To be united, so as to be standing free.’

Led by the MPLA, the war against colonial dispossession had begun in 1961. When the Portuguese at last recognised defeat in 1975, the Salazar dictatorship and its generals having been driven to their knees by guerrilla courage and persistence, the Angolans had not become a single people but they had taken steps in that direction. Formidable in leadership if weak in disciplined numbers, and weaker still in experience of statesmanship, the MPLA had thrust aside its proclaimed rivals, FNLA and Unita – each of which had fought on the side of the colonial regime while pretending the opposite – and secured control of most of the country. To achieve this it had repelled an invasion from Zaire by troops of Zaire’s grim placeman of the CIA, Mobutu Ssese-Seko, and had then managed, thanks to the last-minute but crucial arrival of an army from Cuba, to halt and turn back an invasion from South Africa. Widespread recognition of an independent Angolan republic followed: by early 1976 some seventy countries, including all of importance save only the USA, had sent ambassadors or their equivalent. Petrov’s cheerful optimism of 1970 began to seem less incredible. After centuries of the slave trade and decades of colonial dispossession, perhaps the Angolans could begin to enjoy the blessings handed down by Gabriel.

The process of unification would have to be slow, for linguistic and territorial differences were deeply embedded in the conflicts of regional interest of a country more than twice the size of France. The differences were acute between the peoples of the High Plateau, chiefly Ovimbundu isolated in the far interior, and those of the Atlantic seaboard and its ports, which traded with Europe. In 1861 the Governor-General, Calheiros e Menezes, had remarked that ‘the normal condition of the administration of this colony is to make war, and to prepare itself for war,’ but the invading Portuguese were not the only ones to blame for that. Quite apart from its history of internal strife, by 1975 the country had been devastated by years of warfare, bereft of social services by a bankrupt colonialism, and riven by fears begotten of inherited miseries. Moreover, the world into which Angola was ‘decolonised’, in the barbaric term of the day, was itself divided between militant ideologies or what passed for such. Yet in 1976, all this notwithstanding, peace certainly seemed possible. The Zaire-promoted FNLA had been thoroughly beaten, a scatter of subversive British mercenaries were dead or in Angolan jails, while South Africa’s military incursions were at least held in check. Various irregulares had hidden themselves here and there, including harried remnants of the Portuguese-armed Unita on the High Plateau, and points east through Bié to the plains of Moxico and the Zambian frontier. But these would be able to sustain a threat to the infant republic only if succoured by a second outside power in addition to South Africa, and then impelled to fight for the interests decided by that power.

If that were to happen the Unita leader, Jonas Savimbi, a Mbundu with an old Lisbon affiliation, might become dangerous, for his overweening ambition linked to his newish contacts in Washington could present a powerful combination. I believed this, for I had first met Savimbi in 1963 and watched his career with attention. He had refused to make common cause with the MPLA in 1964, and in 1965 had launched his own ‘movement’ from a base in Zambia. He then took it into the Portuguese colonial service, as was later confirmed by Marcello Caetano, Salazar’s successor as boss of the Estado Novo. From at least 1970 Savimbi and his handful of armed men holed up east of Bié were supplied by the Portuguese so they could be used against the MPLA. This tactic was familiar from the liberation wars in Guinea-Bissau and Mozambique: Lisbon watched out for frustrated careerists and gathered them in as convenient ‘native allies’. Such men were no threat initially to nationalist solidarity, but with outside support could poison the tender plant of intracultural unity. If the plant could be weakened by subversion of this sort, the common anti-colonial cause might shatter and chaos supervene.

For a while, in and after 1976, it appeared that these forebodings might be mistaken. It remained difficult to shed the ‘normal condition’ of warfare, but unity still seemed a very conceivable future. True, the USA had rejected the new republic; yet Gulf Oil, America’s chief material stake in Angola, was continuing to make good money – and good money talks. All other powers, West as well as East, had meanwhile crowded into Luanda, Angola’s capital, in the sensible hope of sharing in post-colonial profits. The Soviets might present a problem, but here on the Atlantic coast they were poorly placed, far from home, and in any case not much liked. Yet all hopes of peace, however much they were encouraged, were at once reduced to waste paper. Dr Henry Kissinger was in power in Washington, and to Dr Kissinger the new republic of the MPLA had no identity save as a puppet of the ‘evil empire’. It should be undermined and eventually destroyed. This conviction appears not to have derived from any first-hand inspection but was all the same enshrined as a ‘basic doctrine’ immune to argument. Convenient to its purpose was the availability of the South African Army and its ‘native allies’, Jonas Savimbi and Unita. Within months of the South Africans’ retreat from their unprovoked invasion of the High Plateau, arms were being secretly flown to Unita forces there. The ‘normal condition’ duly ensued; it has prevailed ever since.

In spite of human failings and internal fractures, in 1976 the MPLA was strongly placed to uphold a post-colonial peace, something no other party could do. Peace could have been developed in Angola, and sustained, provided the major cause of internal conflict after the Portuguese departure was progressively removed. This conflict had little to do with ideology but derived from the ancient competition for transoceanic contacts and trade opportunities between the High Plateau Ovimbundu and the near-seaboard peoples, chiefly Kimbundu and Bakongo. Only the MPLA possessed the talent and influence, and the potential statesmanship, to confront this simmering rivalry. It may be argued, and I would agree, that these advantages might not have been enough to extract Angola from its ‘normal condition’, given what was going on elsewhere in the world and, above all, the ‘economic order’ that continues to impoverish colonies or former colonies for the benefit of industrialised countries. Even so there was a chance for peace, even quite a good chance. A properly capitalist Angola was nowhere on the foreseeable cards, a Communist Angola even less so; but there could have been a generally peaceful Angola. This is what Gulf Oil and other well-informed parties thought. But they thought it in vain.

The reasons are very clearly displayed in Chester Crocker’s detailed review of these years, as seen from an unwaveringly Reaganite standpoint. What Crocker gives us is the record, unalloyed by any temptation to doubt his own wisdom, of State Department policy for Southern Africa during the crucial decade of the Eighties. Planning for a durable peace was not on the agenda, when one looks at what was done as distinct from what was said. In this respect Crocker’s tale of intra-Republican plotting may well be indispensable to understanding the ways those powerful men thought about the world and went about their business. Crocker shines forth from his own account as the good guy in a scenario filled with speculators and operators. Perhaps he was; but what he actually thought and wanted tends to get lost in a professional ‘linguistic ambiguity’, to borrow a phrase used by David Ottaway in the Washington Post. Crocker writes that he wished to prepare for peace. The effect of what he did was to guarantee war. Large parts of Angola were ravaged in the period following Crocker’s success in making peace. Here was a dominant USA, equipped with every means of gaining every kind of information, nonetheless contenting itself with policies based on a persistent refusal to examine the complexities with which it had to deal. The picture is of a Washington that chose the violent and corrupt, the cowardly and devious, as though no other choices were possible.

The big idea of Crocker’s State Department, where George Shultz was in charge after 1981, was known as ‘linkage’, or sometimes as ‘constructive engagement’, two of those oily terms that float to the surface of think-tanks as handy camouflage for the policy that is really being recommended. In this case, ‘linkage’ involved persuading the South Africans to let go of Namibia, Angola’s southern neighbour, which was due for independence. In exchange, Washington would work to send the Cuban defenders of Angolan sovereignty back to Cuba, while in no way undermining Unita, Pretoria dependant. We are then led to understand that Unita, under a Jonas Savimbi whom Crocker amazingly describes as ‘one of the most talented and charismatic leaders in modern African history’ and possessed of ‘a world-class strategic mind’, would further develop his ‘nation-wide insurgency’ with continued South African and American support; whereupon Angola would be saved from Soviet and all comparable devils.

Tens of thousands of Angolans, mostly civilians, have died from these calculations – as many as 100,000 since last October according to UN estimates – but it didn’t work as the State Department hoped. South Africa did pull out of Namibia: not, however, because of ‘linkage’ but because of the growing effect of the economic and especially the financial sanctions imposed in the late Eighties. When Namibia gained independence, Castro called his army home ahead of time; and a general election in Angola, competently supervised for the UN by the very effective Margaret Anstee, gave the country a legitimate MPLA government and a re-legitimised President, Eduardo dos Santos. Now, at last Washington brought itself to recognise the republic declared 18 years before.

It was too late. Far from being removed, as the founders of the MPLA had hoped, by a process of conciliation and a common purpose, the ancient rivalry of interests between the High Plateau and the seaboard has now been inflamed into a murderous civil war, a civil war, inspired by Crocker’s ‘world-class strategic mind’, the charismatic Savimbi, that cannot be quickly ended. It may be true, as reliable reports suggest, that nothing stands in the way of still wider mayhem on a Bosnian scale. Having torn up his promises and refused to accept the results of the election, Savimbi simply reactivated his fighting units on the High Plateau, where he has resumed command of his war. ‘One arms dealer experienced in Angola,’ the Independent reported in July, ‘said he estimated that Unita had enough weapons stockpiled in underground bunkers to last the movement for two or three years’ – and ‘enough friends in South Africa and Portugal to keep it well supplied by air’, however illegal any such supplies must necessarily be. The United Nations reckons that as many as two million Angolans now face war-induced starvation, while the war itself, according to newspaper evidence, is ‘set to escalate’.

This is the background against which Crocker appears to have no hesitation in asserting what he calls ‘the eventual success of US diplomacy in Southern Africa’, a ‘success’ which turned in no small part on unwavering support for the line of thought that accepted Savimbi, and therefore civil war, as a necessary ally. That the MPLA made egregious blunders, was far from coherent or competent, became infected by the corruptions of office and was in no way ideal as Angola’s saviour, is all true but beside the point. A peace-making diplomacy would have acknowledged these failings in order to help reduce them, would have recognised the legitimacy of High Plateau grievances while condemning warfare as a means of settling them, would have looked carefully at the claims of the seaboard peoples: would, that is, have worked to prepare the ground for the reconciliations that must now be extremely hard to promote.

After Dr Crocker’s wanderings in the diplomatic sphere, Jeremy Harding’s vivid sketches from the ‘small wars’ of the Eighties bring us back to everyday Africa. His chapters on Angola and Mozambique, where the wars have not been small, are among the best journalism written in this period, and would not have been disowned by the great Henry Nevinson himself. His chapter on Eritrea, where another ‘talented and charismatic’ warlord, the Ethiopian dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam, was applying his strategic mind during Harding’s visit, is even better, and much to be recommended as a model of what such reporting should be. In Eritrea, where the ‘evil empire’ did its worst, even sending its artillery specialists to assist Mengistu in killing still more Eritreans, ancient and ancestral rivalries – between Muslims and Christians, between cultivators and pastoralists – were not inflamed beyond reconciliation. Since the evil empire has meanwhile disappeared into its own misery and crime, and Mengistu (unlike Savimbi) has fled to a distant country, there is peace in Eritrea and every likelihood it will continue.

It is a pleasure also to read Landeg White’s tolerant and wise account of the colonial follies epitomised by a great Zambesi railway project of earlier years. Taking the many-spanned bridge across the Zambesi at Sena as his centrepiece, Dr White unfolds the strange meandering story of the railway that eventually, if somewhat erratically, joined Central Africa to the Indian Ocean at Beira. Built at a cost that nobody seemed to expect, and leaving a heavy burden of debt, the project was able to deliver few or none of the promised benefits. Today its hugely impressive bridge at Sena stands unused because unusable, one of its principal spans having been lately blown up by the Mozambican counterparts of Unita (whose wars, if anything, have out-Savimbi’d the master himself); White sees this last blow against all good sense as tragedy added to futility. I cannot think that anyone has so well described the tranquil but ever-menacing Zambesi, ‘with its evergreen flood plain, its squadrons of pelicans, its pink explosions crystallising into flocks of flamingoes’, and best of all, ‘its hippos yawning like pianos’. Beyond these felicities, there is White’s empathy with the peoples who have somehow survived the blessings of colonialism. My friend Petrov has also survived them, and would certainly applaud.