21 June 2002

Angola: We Must 'Disarm our Minds', says Church Leader

Washington, DC — Angolan leaders from the government, the former rebel group, Unita, and civil society have been visiting the United States in recent days, to tell America more about the prospects for peace and reconstruction after a ceasefire and what many people believe may be the end of the long civil war in Angola.

Reverend Daniel Ntoni-Nzinga, a Baptist minister and respected church leader, is also the executive secretary of the Inter-Ecclesiastic Committee for Peace in Angola (COIEPA a coalition of Catholic, Protestant and Evangelical churches that was instrumental in the movement that helped bring peace to Angola.

In 2001, Ntoni-Nzinga and his fellow COIEPA members were founder members of The Peace Network, a group of 50 civic and religious organizations, which campaigned for a ceasefire in Angola and is working with COIEPA to consolidate peace.

Last week, Ntoni-Nzinga spoke at the first Congressional hearing on Angola since 1997, alongside Walter Kansteiner, the U.S. assistant secretary of State for African Affairs, as well as Angola's deputy foreign minister, Georges Chikoti, and General Paulo Lukamba "Gato", the interim leader of the former rebel guerrilla movement, Unita. The government and Unita signed a peace agreement in April after the death of the Unita leader and almost ten years of war. In an interview with Ofeibea Quist-Arcton of allAfrica.com, Reverend Daniel Ntoni-Nzinga set out his hopes and concerns for the future of his country.

Do you feel that there can now be peace in Angola?

Yes, I do feel that there can be peace in Angola. You put it very correctly, "there can be", which means there is still a lot that must be done for peace to be peace. But the chances, the possibilities and the opportunities are better now than we ever had before.

How to you reach that conclusion?

I say that because, first, we have to draw lessons from where we came from and what we have gone through. Especially for the past 10 years, we have not been able to achieve peace for one main reason: we did not look at the future with the same eyes. We were not of the same mind. There was less consensus among Angolans as such, not just between the two major players (the MPLA government and UNITA), but Angolans at large.

Now a lot of consensus has emerged around the issues that must be addressed for peace to be real peace in the country. And I am talking about people in the civil society movement, the people at large and even among the political players there is a lot of consensus. That too is very important.

Secondly, for the first time, the military took action that even surprised politicians. Of course, the orientation has always been politicians telling them we will do this or that, but they have gone as far as trying to disarm and demilitarize fast with a certain goodwill, which is different from what we have seen so far.

Let me just take another third point, of course. In 1991 and 1994, we thought that addressing the political agenda would enable us to deal with the rest of the issues later. This time, the decision to address the military agenda before addressing the political issues has been very helpful, because it shows how the military has agreed on the way the country should be. With that, we hope there will be no more possibility of returning to war in the same way we did in the past.

There may be other possibilities in the future, you never know, we are a nation. But I think the chances of cultivating a culture of peace, a culture of living together are much better now.

What about the role of the churches? General Paulo Lukambo "Gato", the interim Unita leader, praised the churches, particularly the Roman Catholic Church, for what they had done to try to bring peace to Angola.

Yes, the church has also emerged in a stronger position and as a stronger voice as well, especially the committee which I came to represent here in the United States, COIEPA, the Inter-Ecclesiastical Committee for Peace in Angola. It's in itself not just a voice, but a model for the need of a united voice in the country. The churches, Catholic and Protestant, were not always on the same wavelength. All of a sudden, in the quest for peace, they agreed to come together and to work together for the peace we want. So that is very, very useful.

And it is only the churches that took the initiative to engage in this question and conversation with all the political players, including Unita, the Unita that General Gato is part of. This means that that initiative, to talk to everybody, played a major role to try to create some trust between the different political factions in the country.

Do you feel that politicians in Angola are now truly committed to peace, because of course Angola is such a potentially rich country that people say the war was prolonged so that both sides could profit from the riches, the diamonds, the oil etc?

I think they are better exposed now to the political process, to the peace process and they have shown more willingness now than ever before. I mean three years ago, it wasn't easy for our political leaders to talk about peaceful coexistence, about living in peace and working for peace. They talked about peace in very vague language. Today, they have changed that language. So, they are showing a good willingness which we have to encourage.

You talked about Angolans having first to disarm in their minds. What exactly did you mean?

Yes, I said we need to disarm in our minds first. We need agreement on what kind of life we want to live, what kind of society we want, what kind of nation we want to be.

We believe that the war as such is an expression of the frustration and the other motives that are in people's minds. That physical confrontation only takes place when the confrontation within the mind no longer has space. So it is important that silencing the guns, we get to the stage where we can talk about the real issue that brought the conflict between us. That is exactly the reason why the church will continue to say 'The end of the war does not mean the end of the conflict'.

Many Angolans, especially those younger ones who were born in the 70s and 80s, know nothing else except the war. So the only mentality they have is how to eliminate the others to keep yourselves alive and how to survive the troubles that the war brings. So, we have to make sure that people don't think that's the normal way of life, that there is a proper way of living without conflict.

But how do you rid a country of a war mentality?

The first thing we are trying to develop is to make sure that people understand that we belong to each other. This is another lesson I have drawn from the experience of this inter-Church Committee, where people say to start talking we have first to realize that we have something in common. We are part of the same thing and even if we entered into this process from different directions at different times, we are all a product of the same process. So that's one way of trying to eliminate the war mentality.

The second way is through the education process. We want to make people realize that security is not acquired by the gun we hold. The real security is acquired by the security we maintain with one another, the deal with one another, the way we deal with others. If we treat that person as someone you can get rid of at any time, as someone you don't necessarily need and can live without, they will treat you the same way. And very often the response may be different, and this is one way.

That's why we want to encourage people not to rely on guns for personal or collective security, but to rely on the kind of relationship that maintains us in our transactions, be they economic or social, whatever transactions. That relationship should be the security we need for our future. So that's the kind of work we are trying to do and we are going to develop many programmes around these issues.

Now you said Angolans have to agree on what kind of life you want to live, what kind of society and what sort of nation you want.

Yes because, as I've been trying to say all along, one of the major problems we had in 1991 is that the two major players in our political system went into what they called the peace agreement and then rushed into the electoral process without any proper agreement on how Angola should be.

You know, since we became independent in 1975 from Portugal, there has never been a time when we sat down as Angolans and discussed our future, the nature of the society we wanted. And that, in my view, is a very, very, important task we have to deal with.

We have to determine what kind of Angola we want. Is it a country where some people can continue to feel that they are second-class citizens? Because this is how colonialism was. There was the elite that colonialism created which was the 'real' Angolan citizen of the colonial state. There was the rest of the nation which was there as the instrument of the state, but they were not part of the state. So this situation did not really change by the mere fact that independence was proclaimed and the flag was raised and all that. That did not change everything.

And the worst thing is that the people who have suffered the most from this war are the same people who, in the colonial state, were not necessarily 'citizens', citizens in the real sense of the people who make the nation, who create the nation, who create the life and enjoy the life. It never happened before.

So, what we have to do is to sit down and work through those issues and make sure that we agree on the nation we want to have, not just to have the name or flag of the nation, but the way we relate to each other as citizens of the same nation. It is important. So that is what we are calling the kind of society we want to have.

The kind of state we want to have… The colonial state, because it was the state of the Portuguese and not the state of the people of Angola, we were made to become Angolan, but we were never the state of that nation. Therefore all we had to do was to do what the Portuguese colonial state wanted us to do.

In those days, the governor was appointed in Portugal, and then when he came to Angola as the governor of the colonial state of Angola, he appointed the governors for the provinces. Now we still have practically the same thing, not that the Angolan president is appointed by Portugal, but the president is the only person who appoints the ministers, the governor and the governor appoints etc.

So are you saying power is too centralized?

Power coming from the top down does not make a state of the people, or the government, a government of the people, because it's important that the people move upwards, not individually. But the power must be passed on from the community to the leaders the community wants until it reaches the top level.

So this in itself is a new concept of power as far as Angola today is concerned. As far as Africa is concerned it's not a new concept. Because when you speak about the extended family in Africa, that is how it emerged. The head of this family, or the lineage or whatever you call it, it emerged that each group had a head who would emerge from another head and that's how it worked, so it's a new way of addressing our problems and of managing whatever tension or of resolving any conflict that may spring up as we live together.

What about the equitable distribution of Angola's potential resources and the country's wealth?

That is another important issue. Again I would go back to the model of the colonial state. The colonial state came to exploit the resources and take the product to their countries.

But the belligerents in the civil war in Angola have done pretty well about continuing that trend.

Yes, I must confess that there are groups of Angolans who have become very, very rich in the past twenty years and the question will remain for a long time about how it happened, because the majority has become very, very poor, poorer even than we were at independence from the colonial state.

These are serious questions we will have to address and they can only be addressed without creating new conflict if we do it within the kind of political set up that I'm talking about.

It is important that the resources are redistributed properly and that the people, especially in those in the regions that are mineral-rich -- our country is very rich, not just in minerals, but in land as well. It is especially in those places, where the people have lived there all these years, that they should see the benefit of what God has given us as a nation. This is not happening at the moment, because there is exploitation, but the results benefit more the elite, the small group that is managing the economy than the people as such.

So, this is a major issue we have to address in deciding what kind of society we want to have.

Coming to the issue of elections, you have said that Angola must not rush into them.

Yes, because in my view and it is the view of the civil society movement now, we have to agree on the kind of society we want to have, on the rules of the game and they should not just be established by the people competing for the election. That is like a tailor-made suit. They will make it the way they want it to be, and not the way it should be for everybody to be able to wear it.

So, we want to make sure that this time the rules of the game are established by the people and that politicians standing for election will abide by those rules. And we have the way to check them out when necessary.

You made a comment that made everyone laugh about politicians needing voter education more than the people!

Oh yes! In the case of Angola, the experience of 1992 of course it is also the case of many African countries but in the case of Angola, using that experience it is very clear that we have to concentrate education, political education, on the politicians themselves. We know that they do not all stand for the well being of the people. But, with this culture of the last 27 years where you get into a position, you get rich very quickly without knowing how it happened and other people watching what is happening it is important that we don't get political leaders who are there to enrich themselves, but who are there to serve the people.

I use the model, that someone wrote, that we want people who serve, not leaders who are served. We want leaders who serve and not the leaders who want to be served. For that very reason, it is important that they are educated before they get into the position and they have to comply with that.

Do you think that the voice of civil society in Angola is being heard -- by the leadership and by the Angolan people themselves?

Yes. I think they are hearing the voice of civil society and this is a very good development in our country. It didn't happen four years ago, but they are now listening. The only problem is, are they accepting what civil society is saying? That is still problematic, but it's going to come, because civil society has been weak for too long. Now we have to consolidate the capacity that civil society has acquired. That is the reason why we need to create the platform where the different groups of the civil society movement can speak together, in a united voice.

And what we agreed in our meeting last May is that we need to come up with a new strategy of alternatives. Very often you hear one group saying we can do it this way, another group saying we could do it that way. But now we want to see if the consensus-building process has been formalized so that, with this platform, we can speak together to say we agree on this issue and this is the best way to do it and how it can be done.

So what would be your common message?

The message at the moment is that it's absolutely important that the government, the politicians, the political class and society at large understand the need for security and stability in the country. We can no longer move away from this situation if we continue to be fragile in our thinking and in our approach to life.

Secondly, transformation has to be achieved. We have to go through the transformation process. Actually, I'm thinking that peace itself is about transformation, because the way I have to accept you is not just today, but as we go along. You are going through a growth process and I'm also going through a growth process and we have to continue to accept each other. So transformation has to be a permanent process.

At the same time, it is very important that there is participation. All the people have to get involved and that will be the best expression of the unity we all want for the country. This is the message we are taking to the government and the politicians.

You are here in the United States, what has been your message to the American government and the American people, and what has been the response?

Our message continues to be that America has a very important heritage which we sometimes look at, not as a model but as something that can help us understand where we are coming from and where we are going. I am referring to the way the American nation came to exist as a nation.

We would like to draw lessons from that and we would like to see that, on the basis of that heritage, the United States of America supports us in recreating the nation we want to have in Angola.

So, using America's own experience, the US can help us understand and it will also understand better. Also, it is very important for us that we get the international solidarity we need. And the United States of America is a leading voice within the international community. Support given in our process will be very, very useful, not just to us but to many other countries who would like to stand with us.

We also think that it is important that the United States of America, which has had a long history of relationship with Angola, should play a more active and positive role that would help the people of Angola come out of the crisis we have been in for the last 27 years.

That is the message I am trying to bring to the American people and to the American institutions in all fields. It's not just a question of the Washington government dealing with the government of Angola, but all sectors of American society need to contribute to this process through whatever they do on a daily basis and through whatever relationships they have with Angolan sectors of our society.

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