Slow reconstruction in Angola

Tuesday 1 July 2003, by François L’ÉCUYER

Photo: CIDA

I’m always fascinated by the whispers of African cities: the neighbour’s radio, the rooster crowing in his yard, the market, and the taxi stand.

Yet in my first few hours in the city of Kuito, I heard no rooster, no ndombolo from the radios. Perhaps I should have expected this, after touring the city in the afternoon and noticing that not one house lacks a peppering of bullet holes left by some now-silent machine gun. I don’t think that I saw a single intact window in Kuito for three straight days. After a year of peace in the country, water and electricity were still disconnected.

Kuito was among the cities most severely affected by 27 years of civil war in Angola. Throughout the 1990s, the Angolan armed forces and UNITA rebels were both in town, each dug in on their side of the line that split the city in two. Residential neighbourhoods, downtown-nothing was spared. The paths leading to the far-off countryside are sometimes edged with beautiful white rocks. Be careful, pedestrian: the land beyond those stones is mined.

The assassination of Jonas Savimbi in February 2002 ironically put an end to the hostilities. The rebel leader, supported by Ronald Reagan as a "freedom fighter" and by apartheid South Africa’s hardline P.W. Botha, was the last obstacle to a sustained peace. After losing the 1992 elections, Savimbi ended the tenuous truce and took up arms once again, alienating himself from any form of foreign support. Nevertheless, his control of Angola’s northeastern provinces and their diamond mines secured him one billion dollars a year in revenues. Despite international agreements banning the trade in war diamonds, the complicity of two ruthless West African heads of state (Eyadema in Togo and Campaore in Burkina Faso) allowed Savimbi to buy more tanks, more kalashnikovs, more shells.

On April 6th 2002, the government and UNITA signed a cease-fire which has so far held. Most of the 4.5 million internally displaced people started to return to their villages, and the government offered them each a half-hectare of land to grow food. A difficult task when livestock was stolen long ago, and seed banks have similarly been scattered to the wind. The lack of basic resources is a stark challenge for international aid agencies, which would like to move beyond emergency food assistance. For the province of Bié, where Kuito is, about 65 percent of the food arrives in the now-familiar sacks distributed by the World Food Program, a figure confirmed by UN staff.

Many observers are fearing the presence of GMOs in the distributed food, notably the local staples of peanuts and corn. "Suicide seeds" - the famous terminator technology where the new seed become sterile for copyright purposes - could soon threaten the recovery of local agriculture. Just as the wealthy and powerful profited from Angola’s grinding civil war, it seems that some are ready to profit from the country’s agonizingly slow reconstruction.

François L’Ecuyer, Alternatives Newspaper

The author is project officer for Africa at Alternatives

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