Washington, DC — The interim leader of the former Angolan Unita rebel movement, General Paulo Lukamba "Gato", has just completed a lecture and lobbying visit to the United States, before heading to Portugal and France. General Gato heads the management committee that is coordinating Unita's activities until it holds its upcoming congress. He was a senior Unita commander and a long-time associate and military strategist for the late Jonas Savimbi, the lifelong leader of Unita.
After three decades of civil war in Angola, interspersed with brief respites of peace, Unita agreed to a ceasefire with the MPLA government after Savimbi was killed by Angolan troops in February. A memorandum of peace was signed between the former belligerents on 4 April.
In the first of a two-part interview with allAfrica.com's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, General Gato outlines the future for Unita, which has spent more time in the bush, fighting against the Luanda government, than taking its proposed programmes for a much-trumpeted "better Angola" to the people.
General Gato, what are your main hopes and concerns, now that you have come out of the bush and Unita is part of the political process in Angola?
Our first priority is to fight for the survival of the party as an independent political party, with its own identity -- to improve our performance on the political stage, by displaying a united front and internal cohesion, before we hold our 9th congress which will see the election of a new leadership for Unita. And, of course, we will have to consolidate a new strategy for the party so that we prove that we are capable of taking on whatever is politically at stake in Angola.
Isn't one of the problems that Unita itself is in disarray, disorganised and divided?
Yes, indeed. That is absolutely true. There are divisions within Unita, and the process we have begun, since we got to Luanda, is the process of trying to reunify the party and the larger Unita family. Yes, there are hurdles, but we consider these artificial obstacles, because they were created, encouraged and financed by the government.
But we think that the patriotic spirit and party discipline of Unita members will help will us find our way and reconcile ourselves, so that we can rebuild our party, a party which will play its role and find its own political milieu, yes, and guarantee its own political 'space' if you like. Also we will be proposing an alternative political path to our fellow Angolans, a new way for the community, a new way of being and of doing politics in Angola.
So are you confident that all the factions of Unita can be unified and reunited, including those who may not have wanted a ceasefire?
You know, we had to do some quick political education before we began the negotiations with the Luanda government. And you can tell, from the speed with which our people have been gathering at the quartering centres, that they have got the message from the leadership of Unita. We have succeeded and I'd give us ten out of ten. Since we signed the peace memorandum of understanding, there has not been the slightest military incident, not even a skirmish, anywhere in the country. So that shows that the leadership has the effective and total control of all its troops.
So, would you say that the war is truly over for ex-Unita soldiers?
Absolutely. That is a decision that is born of the political will of the Unita leaders, and we are moving forward very seriously towards the consolidation of the process of demobilisation and quartering. We are really moving towards peace. So, the war has ended, but we must reach peace within the society. We are deeply involved in making sure that this happens.
Are you sure that you can reunite all the branches of Unita -- what about Unita Renovada, the breakaway branch of the party that moved to Luanda?
Certainly. It's an enormous challenge, but the current Unita leadership is surely up to the task. In fact, we have already started discussions with them. And the signs are encouraging. I think that, as soon as I get back to Luanda, we can continue along this route. Sooner or later we will again witness the established and familiar unity at the heart of Unita, as well as the traditional dynamism one has come to expect of the party.
What about the current leadership of Unita, General Gato? You are now the interim leader of Unita since the death of Jonas Savimbi in February. You were the secretary-general. Do you think that you are going to be elected the new leader of Unita? Will party members rally behind you?
First of all, I am still the secretary-general of the party. I am heading a commission which is managing the affairs of Unita until we hold our congress. But I took a personal decision not to stand in the leadership election of the party. I took that decision when I got to Luanda.
May I ask why?
I won't be withdrawing from active politics, no. On the contrary, I'm going to be extra vigilant, listening to all sides so that I can help the party rediscover unity and energy. It's a personal decision (not to put myself up for the leadership election). But we'll see what happens between now and the beginning of 2003. In principle though, I will not be a candidate for the leadership of Unita right now.
You say personal, but may I ask what these 'personal reasons' are?
There is not a personal reason as such. It's more of a political motive. You see, I would not want anyone to say that I took advantage of my interim leadership position, the current role I'm in, after the death of our President Jonas Savimbi. My job has been to regroup, to patch together the pieces and lead the party in the negotiations and towards reunification. I wouldn't want it to be said that I exploited my position to take any sort of political advantage as a potential leadership candidate.
That's why I have decided to stay on the sidelines. But, as I told you, I am going to be just as vigilant as ever. I will also be very active within the party and I will certainly continue to make a contribution.
Let's come to the main problems facing Unita now. You have said yourself that you had 80,000 men under arms, and 80,000 men have now been quartered. But there are problems aren't there?
The main problem is with their material existence. The Luanda government completely underestimated the numbers of Unita soldiers who would come to the quartering camps. The government was not properly prepared for this enormous task. The authorities had not done their budgeting properly for this whole operation. And this has been going on for about a month and a half.
So, once again, it has been up to the leadership of Unita to persuade our men to be patient. But you know, it means that, once again, they have been subjected to hardship and will have to continue suffering until the situation gets better.
We acknowledge that the government had made an effort to try to assist these men and women and their families (up to 350,000 family members) who are quartered, with what they need to survive. But we are also calling on the international community to support us with additional assistance, so that we can give these men and women a life of dignity in the quartering camps. That is even before we begin to consider their future, the future of these 80,000 men. Only 5000 of them will be integrated into a new national army and the police force.
That leaves approximately 75,000 men to be demobilised, who will have to be reintegrated into society. It will require an enormous additional financial injection. We will need to offer these men and women technical, professional and vocational training. They will require the necessary means to be able to manage whatever funds they are given so that they can live properly.
So, we have an enormous challenge ahead of us which will require an enormous effort from the government. Peace comes at a price. It has to be paid for. Yes, the peace dividend comes at a price. But we believe that, whatever the price of peace, it will always be far cheaper than the cost of the war. That is why it is absolutely worth whatever price for us to ensure that we have lasting peace in Angola.
Now there are reports that some of these former Unita soldiers are fleeing the quartering areas and that some women and even some children may have died. Can you confirm this?
Yes, absolutely. There have been deaths, especially among the most vulnerable sections of society -- the young and the old.
And, because the situation is so difficult in the camps and people are finding it hard to live, some men have chosen to desert the quartering areas. But we think that the situation will improve, slowly but surely, while we are able to gain complete control of all these men, to ensure that the demobilisation exercise and the peace process are guaranteed success.
You say the government is not doing enough? Who do you hold responsible for this humanitarian 'crisis' as it's being called? Do you blame the government, do you blame the international community, the UN or the NGOs for the fact that Unita family members are actually dying?
We are sons and daughters of a land that is particularly rich in natural resources. Today, there is just no way that we can say that the war is the reason for the lack of money; that is simply not justifiable. The war is over, so we have to harness the resources of Angola and use them for the peace process. That is absolutely fundamental.
It is vital for the future of our country. The responsibility for this lies fairly and squarely with the government. It is solely responsible for the current situation. That is what was stipulated in the peace agreement; that it was incumbent upon the government to manage and provide all the means so that these 80,000 Unita men could live properly. That is why we are saying that the government is trying, but it totally underestimated, right from the start, just how many Unita soldiers there were. Slowly, slowly, they are facing the reality of the situation. We think that, with the assistance of the international community in the coming days and weeks, the situation will get better.
So do you think you will be able to avoid a humanitarian crisis, or is Angola already in it?
We are already in the midst of a humanitarian crisis. We are already bang in the middle of a crisis because of this war. What we have to do is to push the government so that it invests everything it can into ending this humanitarian crisis. But we must also call on the international community so that it can also help these men and women who, for years and years, have been the victims of this war. Unita is ready to contribute to this effort to mobilise the world community. That has been our objective during our stay here in the United States. We will be doing the same thing in Portugal (the former colonial power in Angola) and in France, so that the global community can give us a hand, once again, can help the Angolan people to stabilise the humanitarian situation in our country.
In the second and final part of allAfrica's interview with General Gato tomorrow, he discusses the impact of the death of the Unita leader, Jonas Savimbi, in February, on his movement and on the long-running civil war in Angola. General Gato also outlines Unita's strategy ahead of planned elections and its chances in any national polls.