Civil war foes neck and neck in Angolan polls

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The Independent Online
WHETHER or not Angola's first- ever general elections today will mark the dawn of peace after 30 years of war, one thing is certain: the country's 10 million people are probably better dressed now than at any time since independence from Portugal in 1975.

Political T-shirts have replaced the AK-47 assault rifle as the key weapon of the two principal parties - President Jose Eduardo dos Santos' ruling Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) and Jonas Savimbi's National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (Unita) - in their effort to win in legislative and presidential elections what they could not on the battlefield.

Seventeen other parties are contesting the polls today and tomorrow, but the true battle is between the MPLA and Unita, which fought to a stalemate a 16- year civil war that became the biggest confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union in Africa and involved South African and Cuban troops.

The election is too close to call. In Luanda, the stronghold of the MPLA, a comfortable win is expected for Mr dos Santos, a quiet Soviet-trained engineer who has run a slick, well-financed campaign. In the central highlands, the Ovimbundu people identify with Unita, and Mr Savimbi, the charismatic guerrilla leader, is tipped to win there.

Ideologically, little divides the two parties, and both profess to support free-market economic policies. Mr dos Santos' theme is 'the secure future', while Mr Savimbi stresses the need for change from 16 years of largely Marxist rule. His chants of 'war or peace' at recent rallies appeared to contain a veiled threat that unless Unita wins, Angola could face further conflict. Last week, he said a Unita loss would mean the elections were rigged, and he would not accept them.

There is ample room for fraud, despite a huge UN effort to ensure fair elections. Some 800 UN election observers will monitor 5,820 polling stations, many of them in remote rural areas. The two armies of the MPLA and Unita have been formally disbanded, but tens of thousands of troops remain in assembly points. Both sides have secretly stored arms, according to Western diplomats.

The run-up to the vote has seen increased tension and clashes between Unita and MPLA supporters that prompted the Catholic cardinal, Alexandre do Nascimento, to call for calm. The British head of the UN programme to assist the elections and the 16-month-old ceasefire, Margaret Anstee, urged Mr Savimbi last week to restrain his supporters.

Today's elections bring Angola full circle to the early independence days of 1975 when a plan to hold a free election collapsed, and the Marxist MPLA, the US- backed Unita, and Holden Roberto's FNLA movement, launched a civil war that laid waste a country which, with huge reserves of oil and diamonds, should have been one of Africa's richest. The war killed hundreds of thousands, filled the countryside with landmines, consumed half the country's export earnings, and left nearly 1 million people dependent on food aid.

The key to radical change in the past three years can be found at what the Portuguese colonialists called 'the end of the earth', the remote south-eastern province of Cuando Cubango. It was there in 1988 that a huge deployment of Cuban and Angolan armour and troops engaged the South African Defence Force and its Unita allies in the war's decisive battle at Cuito Cuanavale. The battle ended in deadlock, and was a lesson to South Africa that after years of repeated invasions, it had lost its air superiority.

The US had renewed aid to what it called Unita 'freedom fighters' in 1986 after Congress lifted the constraints on Washington's involvement in messy Third- World conflicts introduced after the Vietnam disaster. The Soviet Union, under Mikhail Gorbachev, lacked the stomach to fund a distant African conflict showing no sign of a military solution.

US- and Soviet-sponsored negotiations in New York led to the withdrawal of the South Africans, the pull-out of 50,000 Cuban troops, and elections in Namibia and independence there in March 1990. A last-ditch thrust by the Angolan army to overrun the Unita stronghold in Mavinga failed, at a cost of pounds 500,000.

That set up the final round of talks, brokered by the US, the Soviet Union and Portugal, which ushered in a ceasefire in May 1991 and the UN-sponsored plan for today's elections.