The year 2001 began with small signs of hope for an end to Angola's 26-year civil war. As the year end approaches, the prospect of a peaceful settlement seems no clearer than it did twelve months ago, analysts say.
In a speech to a conference at Agostinho Neto University, President José Eduardo dos Santos called on UNITA leader Jonas Savimbi to say when he was ready to stop the war. It was a small step, but a significant one. Previously the Angolan authorities had recognised only the breakaway UNITA-Renovada faction as the interlocutors for the Lusaka Accord, signed with the rebels in 1994.
But the fact that Dos Santos was now addressing himself to the leader of the rebel faction was greeted as a breakthrough. In various statements issued in the subsequent months, Savimbi likewise indicated that he might under certain circumstances be prepared to negotiate with a government which he continues to regard as illegitimate.
But any optimism engendered by these remarks faded, as both sides continued to insist that the other be the first to call a ceasefire. And despite the apparently reconciliatory words, the adversaries continued to step up their military activity during the course of the year.
UNITA staged a series of spectacular guerrilla attacks in the northwest of the country, the traditional heartland of support for the ruling MPLA party. The town of Caxito, only 60 km from Luanda, suffered the first of these attacks at the beginning of May. Over 100 people were killed, and 60 children abducted from an orphanage.
The raid on Caxito came as UN special representative Ibrahim Gambari was in Angola to discuss ways of taking the peace process forward. UNITA's actions were interpreted as a signal to Gambari that the rebel movement was not about to disappear, and needed to be taken seriously in any future negotiations.
Similarly, a visit by a US State Department delegation looking at the viability of elections was marked by a UNITA attack on a train near Zenza do Itombe in Kwanza Norte province. About 200 people were killed.
In these and other cases, the rebels claimed that they were attacking primarily military targets. The 60 children abducted from Caxito were handed over to a Catholic mission, after a UNITA official admitted their capture had been a "mistake". The rebels claimed that the train they attacked had been carrying soldiers and weaponry - even though the vast majority of those killed and injured were civilians.
But while it was these attacks near the capital which attracted most of the media attention, fighting continued to be a way of life in the centre and east of the country. Soldiers from both sides of the conflict reportedly raided villages and ambushed vehicles in their search for food. UNITA soldiers expelled by the Angolan armed forces (FAA) from one village would usually simply disappear into the bush, and reappear later on at another location.
From June, the army bolstered its operations in the eastern province of Moxico, with the stated intention of destroying the last UNITA bases in a province which has long been considered a UNITA stronghold, and capturing Savimbi. According to humanitarian sources, there is evidence that the army is carrying out a scorched earth campaign, often forcibly evacuating the peasant population in its attempts to cut off the rebels' food sources.
By the end of the year, the Angolan government's rhetoric had become uncompromisingly hawk-like once more. On independence day, 11 November, Dos Santos declared that a military victory over UNITA was in sight. While UNITA military activity continued in the centre and east of the country, their wave of high-profile guerrilla attacks in the northwest appeared to be tailing off. Independence day passed peacefully, and when Gambari's visited again, in December, predictions that he would be greeted by another UNITA attack proved unfounded.
The military stalemate has been matched by conflicting signals on the political front. In August, Dos Santos announced that he would not put his candidacy forward for the next presidential election. Many political observers have their doubts as to his sincerity. In any case, the date of the next election - which will be the first since 1992 - remains doubtful.
The government is talking of late 2002, subject to the restoration of peace in the country. It is highly unlikely that that condition will be met. The choice for the government will then be to postpone the election once more, or to press ahead with a poll which is unlikely to have much credibility internationally.
But as the two warring parties hinted at peace and kept on fighting, the call for peace within wider society became stronger. Various groups have pointed out the shortcomings of the Lusaka protocol which the UN Security Council and the Angolan government both see as the basis for peace, and which commits the rebels to disarmament. Civil society groups are now demanding that a settlement in Angola take into account the views of groups other than the two belligerents.
In September, the Catholic church launched a campaign calling on both the government and UNITA to lay down their weapons. They argued that what Angolans want most is an end to war, and that this must come before political differences. During Gambari's December visit, a group of humanitarian, religious and human rights organisations, as well as traditional chiefs, presented the UN special representative with a similar argument.
In a country with no tradition of popular activism, the movement within civil society for peace is small, confined to the cities, and receives scant official recognition. If it continues to grow and to consolidate its gains, it could yet provide a way out of the political deadlock that has kept Angola at war for so long.