Divide that fuels world's 'worst war': Country-city struggles ravage Angola

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THE Ovimbundu people of Angola's central highlands were in revolt. The main cities in the regions of Huambo and Bie were under siege by a peasant army; thousands of refugees were pouring into the coastal city of Benguela with horrific tales of atrocities.

Whites, people of mixed race and blacks involved in the rich trade in ivory, wax and rubber felt especially threatened; a price war had initiated the rebellion. They armed themselves and formed vigilante squads against what they saw as the primitive hordes from the bush. All roads from the highlands to the coast were cut. Commerce was paralysed.

The uprising petered out after an army unit launched a surprise attack on rebel headquarters and a sniper's bullet killed the revolt's leader, a charismatic chief from Bailundo, Mutu-ya-Kevela.

His rebellion ended in 1902. It was the last big uprising against the Portuguese on the central plateau until Angola's war of independence started 60 years later.

But the memory of Mutu- ya-Kevela is alive today in the central highlands, especially among the sobas, the traditional chiefs. They invoke his name when they recount their history of resistance to what they regard as exploitation by outsiders, European or African.

This is not just historical romanticism. It does much to explain the seemingly endless Angolan war, described by the United Nations as 'the worst war in the world'.

The conflict is not about ideology - though the government forces once espoused communism and the Unita rebels were long supported by Pretoria and Washington. It is not about tribalism - although, as always in Africa, tribalism plays a part. It is not about personal ambition - although the intransigence of the Unita leader, Jonas Savimbi, helped to destroy UN peace efforts after he lost elections in September last year. Stripped to its essentials, the Angolan war is an epic struggle between the city and the country.

In much of the central highlands, Mr Savimbi won 80 per cent of the vote. The government party, the MPLA, swept the cities. Unita rallies were generally attended by the rural poor or, in the towns, rural immigrants. Their clothes were distinctly inferior to their counterparts at MPLA rallies. While the government promised 'a secure future', Unita's most potent message was 'New trousers in September'.

The mainly rural Ovimbundu people have long felt oppressed by the more cosmopolitan residents of the coast and cities. As in 1902, they form the bottom of Angola's social order. In colonial times young Ovimbundus were sent to Brazil as slaves. Later they were dispatched to northern Angola to work the coffee plantations as forced labour.

On the election campaign trail, Mr Savimbi repeatedly told his supporters in the central highlands, to great applause, that victory by Unita would mean that the sons of the Ovimbundu would never again be 'sent to pick coffee'.

Government supporters portray Mr Savimbi's movement as backward and violent, claiming that Unita leaders indulge in 'witchcraft'. To rural Angolans, such charges carry little weight; the vast majority of the country's 10 million people consult traditional healers and practise some form of ancestral spirit worship.

Although the civil war has ebbed and flowed for 18 years since Angola gained its independence, the basic pattern has remained stable: Unita controls large areas of countryside; the government is - despite periodic Unita sieges and incursions - pre-eminent in the cities. Hundreds of Unita fighters have died in recent weeks in sieges of the central highland cities of Kuito and Huambo.

During the savage clashes between Unita and the MPLA in Benguela earlier this year, whites and mixed-race Angolans felt particularly threatened by Unita. 'They call us the children of Agostinho Neto, our first president, because he had a white wife,' said one mixed- race woman whose son was killed fighting Unita soldiers.

As the post-election fighting swept briefly into the cities, many young, urbanised Angolans, hip to Western dress and music, joined in the fighting, regarding the Unita 'bumpkins' as a threat to their way of life. 'We will never let those bush people come and take what we have,' said one 23-year-old Angolan who battled with Unita supporters in the port town of Lobito.

Many Ovimbundu families in the cities, some of whom had nothing to do with Unita, became targets of the pro-government campaign of limpeza, a local version of ethnic cleansing. Thousands of Ovimbundu were killed; many thousands more were driven back to the central highlands.

Despite denials by Unita officials and their long acceptance of support from the white minority government in South Africa, much of Unita's rhetoric carries an anti-white, anti- foreigner bias. Documents captured by the government during street fighting in the capital, Luanda, included a detailed list of all senior white and mixed- race members of the MPLA.

After allegedly fighting for 16 years for democracy and against communism, Mr Savimbi now says that he is fighting for the survival and dignity of his people. At peace talks, which began last week in Zambia, Unita renewed its call for Angola to be recast as a federation - admitting, in effect, that the cities were beyond its grasp, and demanding home rule for the central highlands as the price for ending the war.

(Photograph omitted)