Leading Article: Hope revived in Angola

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The Independent Online
THE CHOICE facing the Angolans in their first free elections after a long civil war was dire. On the right, there was Jonas Savimbi, ruthless leader of Unita, one of the most brutal rebel movements that Africa has produced. On the left, President Jose Eduardo dos Santos, leader of the ruling but incompetent and corrupt People's Liberation Movement of Angola (MPLA). Unita had been backed by South Africa and aided by the United States; the MPLA by Cuba and the Soviet Union.

In the event, the Angolans appear to have opted for the lesser of the two evils, in the shape of the MPLA. Better still, the elections were judged by international observers to have been conducted freely and fairly, and with a high level of popular enthusiasm. That did not prevent Mr Savimbi from suggesting before the count that if he did not win, the vote would have been rigged; and half-way through, when he seemed to be losing heavily, that he might resume the 16-year- long civil war. His former backers appear to have calmed him down.

Much in Africa hangs on his willingness to accept electoral defeat and co-operate with the new government. Before the end of the year Nigeria and Ghana will also be holding proper elections, and Kenya must do so before March. Peaceful progress in Angola would boost confidence in the democratic process - as would an end to Mozambique's catastrophic civil war following yesterday's signing of a peace treaty between the government and the Renamo rebels.

Demands for multi-party democracy swept the continent two years ago, bowling over tyrants and one-party states. In Liberia and Somalia the demise of dictators led to chaos and catastrophe. Elsewhere the democratic process has been manipulated, delayed or debased. But even the most cynical governments have to pay lip-service to it: they know that unless they are seen to be moving in that direction they will get no aid.

Yet it is difficult to feel optimistic in the medium term. Many African countries are deeply and artificially divided along ethnic and cultural lines and in the past the winner has taken all. Economic decline and policies which widen the gap between rich and poor do not provide the social stability needed for democracy. Nowhere was external interference more damaging then in Angola. Pitched from a poor Portuguese colonial administration into the front line of the Cold War, Angola suffered from war - civil, national and international - for 30 years. The Soviet Union, Cuba, the United States and South Africa made the country their battleground and poured in billions of pounds' worth of weaponry when nothing was needed more than schools, hospitals and investment: Angola has oil and other natural resources and is potentially very rich. With their habitual cynicism, the superpowers exploited existing political, ethnic and cultural divisions.

Although the ceasefire agreed in May 1991 has mainly been observed, deep mistrust remains between the two sides, and the merging of their respective armies is far behind schedule. The UN mandate should be extended and the US in particular, which has been involved politically and militarily for so long, must follow through its commitment. As the dreadful example of Somalia shows, it is better to help early than late.