How France fuelled Angola’s civil war.The conviction of Pierre Falcone for arms trafficking is an embarrassing blow to Angola’s president

Rafael Marques de Morais, Sunday 1 November 2009 11.00 GMT Article historyThe convictions of Pierre Falcone, Arcadi Gaydamak, ex-president’s son Jean-Christophe Mitterrand and Charles Pasqua in a French court for arms trafficking to Angola have exposed the impunity with which arms traffickers supplied weapons to Angola during its 27-year civil war.

In an effort to stem the conflict, the United Nations imposed an arms embargo on both the government and the rebels. Both parties contravened the international decision during the second (1992-94) and third (1998-2002) periods of the civil war. The Angolan government employed primarily the services of Pierre Falcone and Gaydamak to procure the arms, while the main arms dealer supplying Unita rebels was the infamous Ukrainian Victor Bout, who is currently sitting in jail in Thailand.

In order to understand the significance of these convictions it is important to focus on one key player, Pierre Falcone, and his relationship with the Angolan leadership.

The Angolan president, José Eduardo dos Santos, publicly hailed him as a national hero. Critical newspapers dubbed him as the “vice-president of Angola” for his privileged access to the president, and for his handling of sovereign state affairs. His influence made a laughing-stock of the former Angolan prime minister Marcolino Moco, who had only two private audiences with Dos Santos during his four years in the job. It coincided with the period of arms trafficking for which Falcone has just been convicted.

In 2004, for instance, Dos Santos’ office called for the prosecution of Falcone to be abandoned:

During a difficult moment of the recent Angolan history, Mr Pierre Falcone, by his volition and at his own risk, made funds available to the Angolan government for it to exercise its right of sovereignty, a right that was almost denied by the international community. It was, thus, decisive, at that time, the financial support from some private entities.

The ideological divide of the cold war had enabled the MPLA regime to seek international military protection from Cuba and the former Soviet Union between 1975, the year of Angola’s independence, and 1989. Economic liberalisation and the new world order led Dos Santos to shift, during the 1992 post-electoral civil war, to the use of private foreign intermediaries to perform sovereign responsibilities and to enable the ruling elite to enrich themselves illicitly, including the presidential family.

Angola’s riches sustained and prolonged the civil war. The government traded oil for weapons, while Unita paid for arms with diamonds. These deals fuelled the conflict and contributed to the killings of tens of thousands of Angolans, the devastation of the country’s infrastructure, and helped to institutionalise corruption. Furthermore, the corrupt channels established by arms trade, oil and diamonds set the stage for a culture of impunity, plunder of the state assets by the ruling elite, and the “legalisation” of such criminal acts in peace time.

It is in this context that Falcone has also become a key player in Angola’s state contracts with China, which are worth billions of dollars. His conviction is a serious blow to Dos Santos’ arrogance as an untouchable political figure. It imperils the president’s form of private indirect government – a term used by the academic Achille Mbembe to describe the privatisation of sovereignty as its various functions and obligations are transferred to private operators and for private ends.

* This article was amended shortly after publication. Viktor Bout is imprisoned in Thailand, not Singapore, as originally stated.
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