19 July 2012

Angola: War Vets' Protests a Chilling Reminder of a Regional Cancer


Last week, disgruntled Angolan war veterans threatened to stage yet another round of protests to claim unpaid pensions.

The veterans want a lump sum demobilisation gratuity of around 55 000 kwanzas ($550) and a monthly pension. Thousands of Angola's war veterans have not been adequately integrated into society, through, for instance, being offered financial guarantees, vocational rehabilitation assistance and post-war trauma counselling. Occupying an important place in Angola's body politic, the group has become increasingly visible and vocal as a political force. In June, discontented war veterans, though small in number, flexed their muscle and staged protest marches to the presidential palace and the Ministry of Defence.

Set against the backdrop of high levels of graft, unemployment and poverty, as well as a high cost of living and preparations for a general election to be held on 31 August, it is imperative for the Angolan government that it manages to pre-empt the disruptive potential of disenchanted ex-fighters. Indeed, analysts have warned that dissent from the war veterans and a burgeoning youth movement could result in a lower voter turnout or a drop in support for the ruling MPLA.

There is agreement that ex-combatants are a key target group for preferential state assistance to facilitate their reintegration into sustainable civilian post-war livelihoods. World Bank survey data reveals that the majority of former combatants may lack basic education and marketable job skills, as well as the social skills needed for successful economic and social integration.

History has shown governments of regional states such as Zimbabwe, Namibia and South Africa that marginalised or neglected former liberation fighters could threaten national stability. This had been a red flag that these national authorities could hardly ignore, resulting in the reactive institutionalisation of mechanisms to address the needs and expectations of this community.

In Zimbabwe, a short-term dedicated war veterans' ministry was only established 17 years into independence, in 1997. The groundswell of discontent among unsuccessfully reintegrated ex-fighters exploded in the form of rolling protests against perceived bureaucratic bungling and maltreatment after the state suspended a welfare fund on which most unemployed and distressed fighters depended. The government then hastily cobbled together a war veterans' compensation scheme. This was managed by a 'quick-fix' Ministry for War Veterans, created in the president's office, to mollify the disgruntled ex-fighters. War veterans were also later involved in the violent 2000 parliamentary election campaign and the 'land grab' of white commercial farms. War veterans constitute a reserve force and, like active members of the army, receive travel and medical benefits in addition to their monthly pensions.

In Namibia, the aptly named Socio-Economic Integration Programme for Ex-Combatants (Sipe) was only institutionalised in response to similar public disruption and rioting by unsuccessfully reintegrated former liberation fighters in the mid-1990s. This included a peace project aimed at affirmative job placements mainly in the public service for about 11 950 unemployed and registered ex-fighters. Within a year of taking office, Namibian President Hifikepunye Pohamba had established a separate Ministry of Veteran Affairs to take care of war veteran matters.

In 2009, South African President Jacob Zuma reorganised the country's defence ministry into the Ministry of Defence and Military Veterans, which was also tasked with the concerns of war veterans. This was in line with the ANC's 2007 Polokwane Conference resolution to establish a presidential commission on military veterans, ahead of the introduction of a 'comprehensive social package for all ex-combatants of former liberation armies'. Thousands of South Africa's war veterans are unemployed, lead destitute lives and suffer psycho-social problems. Their military training may cause - and in many cases has, in fact, caused - destitute veterans to turn to crime or become mercenaries. The former is especially worrying given South Africa's significant multi-causal small arms scourge and gun-related crime. Despite the fact that the creation of a government department to deal with the welfare of war veterans comes 15 years into South Africa's democratic independence and falls short of war veterans' hopes for a stand-alone ministry, this should be seen as a significant step, which could also pre-empt their potential destabilising moves. Following the approval of the Military Veterans Bill by parliament in 2010, the department is currently in the process of registering war veterans to facilitate the roll-out of benefits from about R1.6 billion that has been set aside by the government.

In Angola, although the defence ministry has acknowledged the plight of the war veterans and promised to pay each veteran a monthly retirement stipend of $500, the clampdown on the war veterans' June protests means the government will not allow this significant constituency to act without strict control. However, it is imperative that Angola, the second-largest oil producer in sub-Saharan Africa after Nigeria and one of the world's fastest-growing economies, adopts measures to guarantee the human security of the ex-fighters without disrupting the national socioeconomic and political fabric.

After all, Zimbabwe has shown how the relationship between the ruling party and the war veterans, if managed badly, can be a serious threat to the future stability of a nation.

Picture courtesy AllAfrica.com: Soldiers display their MPLA membership cards to show that there were no opposition parties behind their protest.

Gwinyayi Dzinesa is senior Researcher in the Conflict Prevention and Risk Analysis Division of the ISS.

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