CEOs of war bleed Angola

Tribune foreign correspondent

This rocket-shattered village on the desolate plains of northern Angola doesn't look like the front line of an ugly new kind of war in Africa.

Everything seems too dismally familiar. The abandoned mud huts. The government troops trudging down red-dirt savanna roads with looted furniture balanced on their heads. The filthy refugees with sunken eyes who watch them pass from the shade of mango trees.Squint, and Cangandala could be any African war zone within the last 50 years. Except for the stories of exhausted old men such as Paciencia Nyanga.

"When the soldiers chased us off our farm they said it was for our own safety, because of the guerrillas," said Nyanga, 60, a soba, or traditional village elder who led his family across 60 miles of wilderness to the relative safety of a refugee camp here. "But we know better. There were mines nearby. They were too close to us. We knew they were dangerous."

Nyanga wasn't referring Angola's lethal crop of 10 million land mines. He was talking about diamond mines, and here his woes, like the seemingly familiar wretchedness of Cangandala, symbolize a new and particularly venal chapter in the history of warfare on this continent.

In a conflict that every year seems less like a civil war and more like an exceedingly violent corporate takeover, government generals have seized Nyanga's land not because of his politics, tribal affiliation or religion, but simply to mine whatever gems might lie under the old man's cornfields. For years, UNITA rebels have been doing exactly the same thing, and the millions that both armies skim from such dirty business not only buys more tanks and ammunition, but perks such as private jets, luxury cars, vacations in Europe, fat overseas bank accounts and, for government officers at least, investments in tacky discos in the mildewed capital of Luanda.

More than just diamonds are at stake in this greedy free-for-all. Angola's war booty includes a vast pool of offshore oil, much of it pumped by American petroleum giants such as Chevron. That bonanza in turn feeds an even greater web of corruption and profiteering that entangles everyone from the political clique surrounding Angola's president, Jose Eduardo dos Santos, to Slovakian arms dealers, South African pilots and Israeli radar manufacturers.

In effect, after 25 years of grinding combat and a pile of 500,000 dead, Angola has metamorphosed from an idealistic liberation war to a Cold War sideshow to a post-modern killing field. Stripped of nationalism or ideology, the fighting here today is little more than armed capitalism.

"It's one of the continent's new commercial wars," said Simon Taylor, an analyst with Global Witness, a London-based human-rights watchdog. "The government and UNITA wrap themselves in democracy, freedom and human rights, but they're just lining their pockets.

"When you think about it, what's happening in Angola isn't so much a new war as a very old one," Taylor added.

"We're actually regressing back to a colonial-style scramble for Africa's natural resources. Only now it's the multinational conglomerates and local political elites who are cashing in."

More traditional forms of mass bloodletting haven't entirely vanished from Africa, where 11 wars are simmering. Thousands of Tutsis and Hutus, for example, still are being hacked or shot to death in the grim ethnic strife tormenting Burundi and Rwanda. Religious antagonism between Muslims and Christians plays a toxic part in the civil war in Sudan. In Africa's parched Horn, neighbors Eritrea and Ethiopia have waged a bizarre territorial conflict over a patch of worthless desert.

But the troubling rise of apolitical, money-driven wars in Africa is hard to ignore in the continent's most recent hot spots. In Sierra Leone's revolution by amputation, diamonds are again at the core of the fighting. Oil wealth drives the ongoing unrest in the Republic of Congo. In Congo, formerly Zaire, by far Africa's most explosive conflict, six different nations are mired in an ideology-free combat where the stakes boil down to access to natural resources as diverse as gold, timber, diamonds and coffee.

When it come to killing for profit, however, Angola remains in a class by itself.

After achieving independence from Portugal in 1975, Angola's fractured liberation movement was quickly hijacked by the Cold War machinations of East and West. The former Soviet Union supported the leftist MPLA government of dos Santos, while the rebel UNITA movement, led by the veteran guerrilla Jonas Savimbi, received millions in armaments from the CIA and the old white-supremacist regime in South Africa.

Unfortunately, since the fall of Berlin Wall, extinguishing the flames of the bloody if forgotten war in Angola's savannas and deserts has proven far more difficult than fanning them.

UNITA's Savimbi, a die-hard opportunist, seems willing to spill blood until he is crowned Angola's supremo. After stubbornly sabotaging every peace effort sponsored by the United Nations over the last decade, including a 1992 election that he lost, the onetime hero of the Reagan administration has become an international pariah. The West now backs former leftist dos Santos, whose newly found enthusiasm for free markets has earned him a reputation as one of the most corrupt presidents in Africa.

What all this means for 11 million ordinary Angolans is a rudderless war with no end in sight, a conflict that has reduced three quarters of the population to slat-ribbed poverty.

Luanda, a once-charming coastal city of red-tiled roofs, boasted 3,000 members in its yacht club during colonial times. Today, about the only vessels plying its harbor are cargo ships carrying UN corn for some 1.2 million war refugees.

Thousands of unemployed youths hawk Portuguese wine, wild parrots, toilet seats and condoms in Luanda's streets.

Around them clashes the surreal iconography of Angola's endless war, old and new. Chevron's gleaming headquarters, for example, sits on Lenin Avenue. DHL, the American express-mail company, is located on Comandante Che Street.

The country's Marxist-turned-capitalist political elite, meanwhile, gun their sport-utility vehicles through the chaos, nudging aside os mutilados, beggars who press their mine-blasted stumps against rolled-up car windows.

"It's fashionable to say that we are cursed by our mineral riches," said Rafael Marques, an Angolan journalist who was convicted of libel and sentenced to 6 months in jail for attacking corruption in the dos Santos regime.

"That's not true. We are cursed by our leaders. Dos Santos and Savimbi are exactly the same because they are killing us for money. They are our CEOs of war."

Yet if Angola's war has degenerated into a soulless business venture, then it is impossible not to tally its assets. Angola, where a third of the children are dying of disease and hunger before the age of 5, is potentially one of the richest nations in the world.

Enormous new oil strikes have placed the country's petroleum reserves on par with Europe's North Sea, say industry experts. Last year alone, exploration bonuses shelled out by American and French conglomerates earned the Angolan government $800 million, almost all of which was spent on weaponry. The U.S. pumps 7 percent of all its imported crude from Angola, most of it through Chevron wells. Oil analysts say that figure will double within the next decade.

"Billions in oil revenues pour into a black hole called the Angolan government, and most of it is never seen again," said Taylor of Global Witness. "Dos Santos' cronies funnel it through their own supply companies and take kickbacks on every bullet fired in the war, on every uniform, on every piece of bread fed to the soldiers. War has been very kind to these people, and there is little incentive to stop it."

In a report issued last year on the role of oil in Angola's conflict, Global Witness accused the president's arms procurers of using this gusher of petroleum dollars to buy Slovakian arms through the Russian mob. Israeli, Ukrainian and Russian arms dealers also are believed to be tapping the profits from Angola's oil.

When it comes to the commerce of war, some Angolan officials are loath to turn any client away. According to the New York-based group Human Rights Watch, aircraft belonging to Sonangol, the national oil company, even have been sighted at enemy UNITA airstrips.

Through its spokesman at the Ministry of Social Communication, the Angolan government refused to comment on those allegations.

So did Chevron, which funnels hundreds of millions in taxes every year into Luanda's murky coffers. So crucial are Chevron's revenues, in fact, that they have spawned one of the more legendary anecdotes of Angola's postmodern war: The American company's facilities were protected in the 1980s by Cuban troops, forces sent to prop up dos Santos' regime against attacks by American-funded rebels.

"Look, we can either engage the Angolans and try to change the system or just wash our hands of the place," said a U.S. official familiar with the scramble for lucre in Angola.

"I don't think that anyone disputes the fact that today the government is more responsible than Savimbi."

Besides the fact that Luanda adheres to UN peace plans, however, little of substance differentiates the two old enemies anymore--except their sources of income.

For Savimbi, it is Angola's incomparable treasure trove of diamonds. On average, only 15 percent of the world's diamonds are gem-quality, experts say. In Angola, that percentage rockets to an extraordinarily profitable 80 percent.

Varied sources say that Savimbi has amassed $3 billion to $4 billion in illicit gemstone sales over the last eight years, despite UN trade sanctions against his rebels. In a blunt UN investigation published two weeks ago, Belgian diamond brokers, Bulgarian arms dealers and several African heads of state were all implicated in UNITA's diamond smuggling ring.

"They'll never be able to stop it," said a government diamond broker in Malange, a northern city that was shelled mercilessly by UNITA forces last year, after the latest cease-fire unraveled.

"There's too much money to be made in this war, and both sides know it," said the man, who asked to remain anonymous. "Peace means we'll have to clean up our books. Nobody wants that."

Sitting at an open-air bar in Malange and watching the army roll into the shattered town to unload truckloads of beer, the broker told how he had bought gems from his government's enemy. A small plane touches down at a dirt airstrip. A waiting UNITA officer takes the requisite 15 percent cut from a briefcase stuffed with $1 million. And the remaining capital goes for locally mined stones that are then mixed with other gems before being sold in Antwerp, Belgium.

Such tales of an undeclared "diamond detente" are like land mines in Angola; it is hard not to bump into them. Until recently, the two armies responsible for killing a half-million of their own citizens even were mining side by side along northeastern Angola's remote Chicapa River.

Efforts by Luanda to sift "guerrilla-tainted diamonds" out of its legitimate trade by creating a central clearing house called ASCORP, a firm again linked to dos Santos' cronies, have been greeted with skepticism.

"I think every diamond from Angola is dirty, not something you would want to wear," said Chris Dietrich, an Angola expert with South Africa's Institute for Security Studies. "Just ask the average Angolan what this war is about. Nobody even remembers. It's about greed, period."

Most of the war-weary, displaced farmers in bullet-pocked Cangandala village agreed, if in simpler terms. For them, as for old Nyanga, who had walked days across the savanna, the war was what they had lost: a herd of goats, their fields, a foot to an anti-personnel mine. Only one refugee recalled the antique Marxist rhetoric of dos Santos' MPLA government, a decade out of date.

"This is depressing because, in a sense, we're working for the generals too," said Hans Vikoler, an Italian with the UN World Food Program, which was feeding thousands of homeless people stranded in the village. "The two sides move villagers off their lands to dig diamonds and we take care of them. We make business easier."

In the end, about the only true believer seemed to be Flavio Fernandez, the governor of Malange, the vast and desolate province that encompasses Cangandala.

"We cannot give up the dream of democracy here," said Fernandez, who predicted that recent months of government victories were bringing UNITA and Savimbi to their knees. "To say there are no ideals behind this war, no good or evil side, is lie. We are not fighting a lie."

Fernandez, a close associate of the president, said this in his air-conditioned Luanda office, where the business cards on his desk introduced him as the president of a construction firm, the owner of Angola's sole Nissan dealership and director of a gynecological clinic.

No cards mentioned his post as governor of distant Malange province, perhaps because he spends no time there.

His office in Malange is a decrepit, shrapnel-spattered building with no power, where his staff hawks diamonds.

They display them to visitors with a whisper, and the stones look like salt.

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