Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Lessons from the Angolan Civil War

In order to bolster the chances of successfully resolving conflict, interveners should look to the past in order to avoid committing errors that caused earlier peace settlements to collapse. The civil war in Angola is perhaps one of the most illuminating case studies of how efforts to achieve peace can go awry.

The Angolan Civil War erupted in 1975 and ended in 2002 after a series of brief interludes, and featured two main combatants—the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) and the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA). Given its control of the capital city, Luanda, the MPLA served as the quasi-government of Angola during the civil war, although it struggled to project its authority throughout the rural hinterlands where UNITA operated. 

The Angolan Civil War was primarily an ideological struggle in which belligerents sought to gain control over the state. The MPLA, which adopted a Marxist-Leninist philosophy, derived substantial support from Cuba and the Soviet Union, whereas the more right-wing UNITA was backed by South Africa and the United States. This international dimension made Angola one of the battlefronts of the Cold War, and likely contributed to the conflict’s lengthy duration. Indeed, whenever one side would gain the upper hand, the other could count on its international backers to intervene on its behalf. At the height of its involvement, for example, Cuba had 40,000 troops in Angola fighting in support of the MPLA. This constant supply of international resources precluded a mutually hurting stalemate from arising, as each faction never felt exhausted by the war. 

Foreign interveners finally withdrew from Angola in the late 1980s as the Cold War ran out of steam, and the MPLA and UNITA were left mostly to their own devices. This allowed the aforementioned stalemate to manifest, and the international community re-engaged with the conflict, offering diplomatic support instead of military assistance.

The first major peace agreement implemented during the course of the Angolan Civil War was the Bicesse Accords in 1991. This agreement had four major components: a ceasefire, demobilization, the installment of a UN observation mission, and a commitment to hold presidential elections 16 months after the signing of the accords. 

Measuring the success of peace settlements can be challenging, but if we examine whether the goals of the settlement were achieved, it is clear that the Bicesse Accords failed miserably. The UN peacekeeping mission was under-resourced, and the demobilization process shifted the balance of power in UNITA’s favour, as it maintained 30,000 of its troops to the MPLA’s 10,000. When UNITA lost the presidential election, its leader Jonas Savimbi cried foul and resumed the fighting.

In 1994, international custodians coaxed the disputants back to the negotiating table, which resulted in the Lusaka Protocol. In many ways, this agreement was a significant improvement on its predecessor. It installed a much larger peacekeeping contingent throughout the country, and instead of holding another round of winner-takes-all elections, a power-sharing arrangement was implemented which guaranteed both parties a seat at the decision-making table. By this point, however, the distrust between the MPLA and UNITA was too strong, and after UNITA’s refusal to cede certain territories under its rule, the agreement fell apart. It was not until 2002 that Angola’s civil war finally ended. Savimbi was assassinated by government forces, and UNITA accepted defeat.

The botched peace process in Angola should serve as a cautionary tale to the international community. However, it would be a mistake to assume that efforts towards conflict management should be abandoned entirely. Instead, four major policy implications should be drawn from the Angolan Civil War:

1. Concessions should not be granted to total spoilers. After Savimbi sabotaged the Bicesse Accords, the international community should not have offered him further inducements in the form of a power-sharing agreement. This only whet his appetite further, causing the Lusaka Protocol to collapse. 

2. Peace agreements require a robust third-party presence in order to succeed. Both the Bicesse Accords and the Lusaka Protocol featured peacekeeping missions that were inadequate in demobilizing the belligerents, allowing UNITA to easily resume the war.

3. Building on the previous lesson, peacekeeping missions should be given ample personnel and a strong military mandate. The Bicesse Accords included little more than 1,000 peacekeepers in total, who were only mandated to observe the peace process. While the Lusaka Protocol included 7,600 peacekeepers, this was too little, too late. By that point, neither UNITA nor the MPLA were committed to peace.

4. Winner-takes-all elections could exacerbate conflict if the loser has no incentive to cooperate with the outcome. In Angola, Savimbi easily spoiled the outcome as his troops outnumbered UNITA’s.

While these four policy recommendations are not the only lessons that can be drawn from the Angolan Civil War, they are an appropriate starting point when considering how to design future peace settlements.

By Steven Rai

Recommended Reading:

"Angolan Civil War: A Brief History." South African History Online. Accessed April 06, 2016.

"Angola's First Civil War." Global Security. Accessed April 06, 2016.

Fortna, Virginia Page. "A Lost Chance for Peace: The Bicesse Accords in Angola." Georgetown Journal of International Affairs 4, no. 1 (2003): 73-79.

Spears, Ian S. "Angola's Elusive Peace: The Collapse of the Lusaka Accord." International Journal 54, no. 4 (1999): 562-81.

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