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Savimbi's ghost still haunts UNITA

[Angola] Jonas Savimbi. IRIN
Jonas Savimbi - Angola has been at war with itself for 27 years, but may now have a chance for peace
This weekend saw the second anniversary of the death of Jonas Savimbi, founding president of Angola's former rebel movement, UNITA. The slaying of the charismatic Savimbi by government forces marked the end of one of Africa's longest civil conflicts and set the wheels in motion for a peace accord signed with UNITA's arch-foe, the ruling MPLA, just two months later. Last June, UNITA held a congress at which Isias Samakuva swept to victory as Savimbi's successor. Samakuva has helped shake off UNITA's fearsome rebel image, while reinforcing the party's unity in a new era of unarmed opposition. "[Since Savimbi's death], UNITA's biggest achievements have been its reunification, the deepening of democracy within the party – our congress was one of the biggest achievements in the history of politics in Angola – and, of course, peace," said Alcides Sakala, UNITA's secretary for public administration. For several years UNITA was split between those loyal to Savimbi, who fought on in the bush, and those that accepted parliamentary seats and to an extent worked with the government in Luanda. Some senior officials are quietly confident that, having transformed UNITA into a legitimate political party, UNITA could fare reasonably well in a ballot. "I'm not pessimistic; I'm not optimistic; I'm realistic," said Jaka Jamba, MP and second vice-president of the national assembly. "If we create conditions for free and fair elections, without intimidation and fraud, why not?" The last poll in 1992 was deemed generally free and fair by the international community, but UNITA contested the results and returned to war against government forces. UNITA wants elections next year, but government sources say 2006 is more likely. While the transformation of the party's internal workings has been impressive, analysts and observers say UNITA still has some way to go before it presents a serious threat to the MPLA. "There is a real risk of UNITA growing comfortable as a sort of permanent opposition, leaving Angola as a kind of two-party dictatorship under a veneer of democracy," Nicholas Shaxson, associate fellow at the London-based Royal Institute of International Affairs, told IRIN. The independent weekend press devoted scores of column inches to the anniversary, including analysis of the future of Angola's largest opposition party without Savimbi at the helm. A local newspaper, Semanario Angolense, lamented UNITA's "loss of energy", and heaped criticism on its old-fashioned, military perspective. "There is today an ambivalent way of thinking within the organisation: The nostalgia for the old iron-fisted leadership goes against the desire to move forward and modernise." But it's not only independent observers who are dissatisfied. UNITA insiders, too, worry that the party is stuck in a rut and lacks direction. "So far, nothing, as yet, has come out as a new initiative," said one disgruntled official, speaking on condition of anonymity. "The only thing that has changed is that the party is more open than before Savimbi was killed." Doubts also hang over the strength of Samakuva, the pastor's son whose softly-softly approach has irked some party members. "Lots of people are quite disappointed within the party ... People can't point to what achievements he's made," said the official. As yet, Samakuva has failed to articulate the concerns of poor Angolans. "A true firebrand opposition leader would strongly attack the MPLA at its weakest point: corruption, mismanagement, and the paradox of poverty amid oil and diamond riches," said Shaxson. "Where was the detailed UNITA critique of the latest government budget? Why were they so quiet about the latest Human Rights Watch report? Why have they not made more of a meal of the land rights bill? "Samakuva has so far been timid in these controversial areas and seems more preoccupied with procedural matters: things like the election date and internal UNITA party mechanics. These matter, but are not enough to attract the sort of massive grassroots movement that are UNITA's only chance of seriously challenging the MPLA in elections. Samakuva needs to lead from the front, and to make a few people angry," commented Shaxson. Lack of funding remains a serious problem, with analysts estimating that UNITA receives a paltry US $13 million to US $15 million each year from the national budget. Trying to create a widespread support base ahead of elections in a country whose infrastructure was destroyed by the conflict is an expensive job, and government funds fall well short. "We're facing financial problems - that's a reality. We don't have any money - today we depend on the budget of the government, and that's not enough for UNITA, which has national priorities ... But I'm sure we can overcome this problem," Sakala said. With Savimbi's portrait still taking pride of place in many UNITA offices, drumming up support in areas where there is still a deep mistrust of the movement will take more effort. "Many people in the coastal and urban areas are still suspicious of UNITA, and that's partly because the ghost of Savimbi is not fully exorcised. He's not an electoral asset," said Shaxson. Another serious issue diverting much of the party's attention is the reintegration of its demobilised soldiers. Many former combatants and their families are struggling to find work and fit into civilian life. "The demobilisation process hasn't been successful. There have been a lot of theoretical initiatives but, in practice, much less has been done. This is bad for the peace process and for national reconciliation," Sakala said. "These people are coming to us, looking for help, but UNITA is not in a position to give it." The death of Savimbi, the veteran nationalist, may have been remembered by the party faithful, but most ordinary Angolans are keen to put the war years behind them, and want politicians to concentrate on improving their quality of life. Angola has the third-worst child mortality rate in the world; one in four children are likely to die before their fifth birthday; and almost half its children are out of school, UN Children's Fund figures show.
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