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Africa needs fresh momentum

Recent months have brought hopeful signs in Africa, from elections in South Africa and Nigeria to budding peace initiatives in Congo, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Sierra Leone.

But these positive steps aside, Africa remains torn by 11 wars involving 16 nations and countless rebel and splinter movements. Largely internal in origin, these have a nasty habit of metastasizing into regional conflicts. Eight-million refugees and uncounted millions more internally displaced people bear witness to the awesome toll of conflict. Africa's heartland, from the Red Sea to the South Atlantic, remains at war.

Consider the hard cases. Sudanese have been fighting on and off since 1955, with an estimated 2-million dead from war or war-induced famine.

In Congo, the agreement signed by six governments last month is a noble list of aspirations, but its timetable is hopelessly ambitious, and it is unclear whether the foreign backers of President Laurent Kabila or the rebels are supposed to withdraw first.

Without pressure and support from regional and outside powers, the accord could become simply a disguise for de facto partition and a protracted war. But at least some agreement is on the table, giving the Congolese factions, the neighbors and the United Nations something to work with.

In Angola, a country which has seen little peace since an anti-colonial rebellion broke out in 1961, perhaps the most tragic scene is unfolding. On July 15, an impressively varied grouping of Angolan political, religious and civil leaders signed an appeal for peace and reconciliation. As if to underline what's at stake, the Unita rebel group responded several days later by launching a punishing attack on a town near the nation's capital.

No African nation is as sadly recidivist as Angola. Agreements to end the power struggle between the rebels led by Jonas Savimbi and the government have been within reach in 1975, 1991 and 1994, but never successfully grasped. What's the problem?

Most African and Western governments blame Savimbi, whose ambition is said to impede any deal that does not give him the presidency. His refusal to accept the outcome of the 1992 election and his return to armed struggle is a case in point. The rebels only went through the motions of carrying out a 1994 power-sharing arrangement in which they would join the government as a junior partner.

Today, Savimbi's forces have the military initiative in much of the country, and are pushing civilians they cannot feed into the government-controlled cities, deliberately creating conditions for a popular explosion. Using guerrilla logic mastered during 35 years in the bush, Savimbi aims to isolate the regime in the cities, cut power and water supplies, and sow panic.

The United States and other countries are now trying to isolate, punish and coerce the rebels, while stepping up support for the government in Luanda. The Security Council is trying to cut off Savimbi's access to the billions in diamond revenue that has helped him to sustain a war against an oil-rich government.

Earlier this year, Washington and Luanda set up a special commission to boost cooperation in various fields, from military to humanitarian.

But this approach is no more likely to bring peace to Angola than previous attempts. Despite massive military spending and imports of new artillery and aircraft, Angola's top soldiers have few illusions about winning: Angola is too big, and the Unita guerrillas have too many advantages and are too skillful for that.

The military's game is a long one, involving defense, containment and attrition. Over time, it hopes to wear the rebels down, raise their costs and bleed their forces, while squeezing their ability to sustain arms imports. It is the strategy of comfortable incumbents who know their limits and believe they can deny Savimbi victory.

On Unita's side, meanwhile, the war itself represents a tolerable definition of survival, and survival is a form of victory.

The rebel group obtains external supplies through various networks and channels that flourish in a world of weak, destabilized states and porous borders. Moreover, Unita has always captured a big portion of its supplies from the government itself.

Opportunists with a Leninist sense of power are in charge on both sides in Angola. Neither places a high priority on peace or people. Barring victory, they prefer war over peace.

But for the people of Angola the permanent war is intolerable. In some war zones, land mines are being planted faster than crops. The World Food Program regularly revises upward its estimates of emergency food requirements but has received less than 40 percent of what it needs.

Once eradicated diseases such as polio are thriving once again in Angola's inaccessible areas. Infant and child mortality rates are rising to appalling levels.

Perhaps, instead of debating which political bed to jump into tomorrow, the United States would be better advised to engage not only with the government but with Angola's fragile civil society institutions, the churches, the humanitarian agencies and those "autonomous" leaders who are now speaking out against the unconscionable behavior of incumbent elites.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan is right to call for the real friends of Angola to engage in the search for peace, as he did last week. But one wonders if this is best done by having American military and diplomatic resources placed at the disposal of the recognized but unaccountable government of Angola. We need a broader regional effort: The conflicts in the Congo and Angola have fed off each other and continue to do so.

The drama in Central Africa requires more than picking a favored side. It demands a coherent strategy building on the recent Congo pact to create a fresh momentum for peace.

Chester A. Crocker, a professor of strategic studies at Georgetown University, was assistant secretary of state for African affairs in the Reagan administration.

New York Times News Service