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Sunday, 17 March, 2002, 01:10 GMT
Analysis: Angola's chance for peace
Angolan headline on government-Unita talks
The two sides held their first high-level talks for years
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By the BBC's Justin Pearce
in Angola
line
Only two days after the Angolan Government announced that it was halting hostilities so as to facilitate contacts on the ground with Unita officers, the deputy commander in chief of the Angolan Armed Forces (FAA) held talks with the commander in chief of Unita's army.

It is a sign of how quickly the government has managed to seize the political initiative following the death of Unita leader Jonas Savimbi three weeks ago.

The government said that talks were to be conducted in the interests of establishing a lasting ceasefire. According to the statement issued by the FAA after Friday's meeting, progress was made in that direction and the two parties intend to meet again.

Unita has accused the government of "using political prisoners" in the signing of peace agreements, believing that Unita's military commander had been captured by the Angolan Army a week before being shown in front of the television cameras at the meeting with the government.

No political meeting

There have still been no talks at a political level between the government and Unita, for the simple reason that no-one knows where Unita's leadership is.

Savimbi's successor to the leadership, General Antonio Dembo, is generally believed to be dead. The man next in line to become Unita president, General Paulo Lukamba, known as General Gato, has been out of contact since before Savimbi died.

Angolan President Jose Eduardo dos Santos
The government's peace plan is short on detail
A spokesman for Unita's external mission in Lisbon, which before Savimbi's death served as a mouthpiece for the rebels, confirmed that the meeting had taken place, but said he found it "strange" and had no knowledge of what was discussed.

The Angolan Armed Forces' military campaign in eastern Angola has had the effect of scattering and undermining Unita's leadership. The government is now exploiting this weakness to talk to the rebels on its own terms.

Before Savimbi's death, it was widely thought that if talks were to happen, Unita would demand some new political concessions from the government in exchange for peace.

In bypassing the political leadership and engaging in direct discussions with the military men, the government is much less likely to have to grant the rebels anything beyond what was laid out in the Lusaka accord in 1994 - basically, the allocation of a handful of political posts to Unita members, and the integration of Unita soldiers into the Angolan armed forces.

Many critics of the government - most of them also sharply critical of Unita - are worried by this turn of events.

Opportunity wasted?

They feel that the ending of hostilities should be the opportunity for a truly multi-lateral dialogue on the country's future, which would take Angolan politics beyond the "either-or" choice imposed by decades of civil war.

The government has certainly done its best to assuage such scepticism. Its peace proposals made public on Wednesday talk of the need to move towards elections - the first since 1992 - and of the importance of dialogue with all sectors of Angolan society.

Just a few months ago, it was talking of Savimbi as a war criminal - now suddenly its language is full of terms like "reconciliation" and "pacification" that seem to have been borrowed straight from the speeches of the anti-war movement which has grown out of the churches and civil society organisations over the past year.

But the peace plan in its present form is short on detail, and some serious unanswered questions remain:

  • Even if the military chiefs prove willing to lay down their arms, there is no guarantee that this message will be heeded right down to the level of the armed groups - many of them bandits or disaffected soldiers under no central command - who make a living by terrorising Angola's rural population.

  • There are serious doubts as to whether the government has the capacity to implement the ambitious plan to resettle displaced people and start rebuilding the country. It has asked for international help in this regard. Diplomats say that donors are unlikely to hand over any cash until the government has proved it can make good its promises.

  • There are no mechanisms in place to monitor the demobilisation of Unita soldiers. Whether this will be done by foreigners or by Angolan non-political organisations is still open to debate.

One Western diplomat said of the peace plan that "as a statement of intent, it exceeds expectations".

The government is uniquely able to determine how fast and how far things move now.

In a country with a long and sad history of broken political promises, people are waiting cautiously to see whether the government is going to make its statement of intent a reality.

See also:

13 Mar 02 | Africa
Angola faces life after Savimbi
25 Feb 02 | Africa
Angolan politics after Savimbi
18 Mar 02 | Africa
Angola rebels demand death probe
25 Feb 02 | Africa
Angola seeks quick end to war
25 Feb 02 | Country profiles
Country profile: Angola
25 Feb 02 | Country profiles
Timeline: Angola
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