Jonas Savimbi: Washington’s Freedom Fighter,” Africa’s “Terrorist”"

Peace is back on the agenda, if not yet on the horizon in Angola. With the death of rebel leader Jonas Savimbi and the state visit to Washington by Angolan president Jose Eduardo dos Santos, there is again a glimmer of hope that the country’s 27-year-long civil war may finally be coming to a real end. As Salih Booker, Director of Africa Action, puts it, “Savimbi’s death removes the principal obstacle to peace in that country. So long as he was alive, it seemed virtually impossible that Angolans would ever be able to conclude and implement a peace settlement. But his death does not automatically ensure that peace will follow.”

Following the February 22nd ambush and murder of the 67-year-old veteran rebel leader by the Angolan army, obituaries in the American press have described his remarkable charisma and ferocious drive for power. He is, indeed, an African paradox, who as leader of sub-Saharan Africa’s longest running civil war, continues to perplex and shame many of his own co-conspirators. Savimbi is widely seen as responsible for a nearly nonstop war that has taken nearly one million lives and as the principal spoiler of the Angolan elections and United Nations-backed peace plans in the early 1990s. As the Namibian government said in announcing his death, “Savimbi chose the way of terrorism and turned Angola into a land of many killing fields.” When news of Savimbi’s death reached the Angolan capital of Luanda, people took to the streets chanting, “The terrorist is gone.”

The United States bears some blame for Angola’s brutal civil war because Savimbi was long the darling of American right-wing, conservative politicians and the CIA. Some fifteen years ago, President Ronald Reagan invited Savimbi to the White House and hailed him a “freedom fighter” for his efforts to oust dos Santos and the leftist Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA)–the party that has ruled Angola since its independence in 1975.

President George W. Bush’s meeting with dos Santos, just four days after Savimbi’s death is both illustrative of the Washington’s erratic involvement in Angola and a signal that these days Washington is more interested in Angola’s resources–oil and diamonds–than its ideology. But, if war is to end in this troubled country, the international community must work quickly and persistently to broker a peace deal and disarm the rebel combatants.

Savimbi first took to the bush in the early 1960s as Angolans began organizing against 400 years of Portuguese colonial rule. Billed as an anticommunist during the height of the cold war, Savimbi was actually no more than a power-hungry opportunist who changed his colors to suit the tastes of his particular financial backers. His enigmatic character confounded a great number of powerful people over the years. In 1999, for instance, one former U.S. diplomat told me in an informal conversation just how unsettling Savimbi’s personality could be. This official, who had met the rebel leader over 25 times while he was in hiding, conceded each time he felt that he was in the presence of “pure evil.” He explained that Savimbi was “so charming, intelligent, articulate, and dangerous” that he frequently had to spend return flights to Luanda “deprogramming African-American delegations who were charmed into thinking that Savimbi’s vision for Angola was the right one.”

Jonas Savimbi, a member of Angola’s largest ethnic group, the Ovimbundu, was born and raised in the southern Angolan province of Moxico. A bright, charismatic, former doctorate student, Savimbi became fluent in more than six languages–including Portuguese, French, and English. His knack for learning languages boosted his credibility among the various groups with whom he negotiated. His gift in European languages facilitated his dealings with political opponents, diplomats, and foreign reporters, while he switched into Umbundo when rallying his followers among the Angolan people.

At the start of the Angolan independence struggle in 1961, Savimbi originally tried to acquire a leadership post within the MPLA, the principal national liberation group. However, the MPLA, which was backed by the Soviet Union, only offered him a rank-and-file militant position. Feeling rebuffed, Savimbi aligned with rebel commander Holden Roberto’s anti-colonial group, the Union of Peoples of Angola (UPA), as it offered him a more prestigious rank as minister in its government in exile.

By 1964, Savimbi decided to resign from the UPA, claiming that Roberto (who was related to and backed by Zaire’s pro-American dictator Mobutu Sese Seko) was a stooge for the “American imperialists.” In 1966, Savimbi launched a third movement, the United Front for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA). Savimbi and other top UNITA leaders had received guerrilla warfare training in China from 1965 to 1966. And, over the next decade, China supplied the rebel movement with weapons and war material.

Since the start of the Angolan liberation struggle, Savimbi had touted himself as a nationalist fighting for independence from Portuguese colonialism. However, Savimbi showed more hostility toward the other indigenous freedom parties and forged a clandestine alliance with the Portuguese colonial government and its secret police, PIDE, according to University of Southern California professor Gerald Bender and a series of subsequently released documents. As part of this alliance, code-named “Operation Timber,” Savimbi and PIDE engaged in military actions against rival movements, and Savimbi provided the Portuguese with information regarding the activities of the opposition forces. After the Portuguese withdrew from Angola in 1974, Savimbi thwarted an agreement for multiparty, nationwide elections in November 1975, returned to the bush, and plunged the nation into another two decades-plus of war.

During the liberation struggle when Savimbi was receiving most of his aid from China, he boasted to reporters of his Maoist ideology. However, following independence, Savimbi strove to cut a better deal in the West. Declaring himself a capitalist, the charismatic rebel leader had, within a short time, joined Holden Roberto on the CIA’s payroll in a civil war against the Soviet-backed MPLA.

Roberto soon fell by the wayside, but Savimbi, as Washington’s favorite, received in the early 1980s over $15 million in covert military aid from the Reagan administration, and, in the late 1980s, another $15 million from the Bush Sr. administration. This thrust the U.S. into an unsavory alignment with white-ruled South Africa, which not only supplied UNITA with money, arms, and material, but also frequently deployed troops into Angola and launched air strikes on MPLA positions. The U.S. was repeatedly warned against aligning with South Africa and backing UNITA. In a January 1986 statement, the Organization of African Unity (OAU) said, “Mr. Savimbi is a known agent of apartheid South Africa, and has been responsible for the wanton killing of civilians, the destruction of economic infrastructure of the country, and the destabilization of the legitimate Government of the People’s Republic of Angola. Any American involvement in the internal affairs of Angola … will be considered a hostile act against the OAU.”

Even U.S. officials warned against such unsavory alliances. Wayne Smith, a former career Foreign Service officer, cautioned that entering into a joint U.S.-South African pact would “undermine U.S. relations with black Africa for years to come.” Richard Moose, former Assistant Secretary of State, also advised against the U.S. joining with South Africa in its battles against the Angolan government. In testimony in 1986 before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Moose cautioned that to join or replace the South Africans as Savimbi’s primary supporter “would be more than the Russians could hope for.” Moose speculated, “In fact, I sometimes wonder whether Savimbi, educated in Marxism and trained by the Maoists, is not still the Communists’ secret weapon in southern Africa.”

Whatever the case, Savimbi certainly showed his skill as a political chameleon. In 1988, several former UNITA members reported to the Portuguese newsweekly, Espresso, that UNITA’s political elite all followed the precepts of Savimbi’s Practical Guide for the Cadre, which was described as “a manual of dialectical materialism and Marxism-Leninism with a distinct trait of Stalinism and Maoism.” The UNITA dissidents claimed that the Guide was taught in a room filled with Lenin and Mao Tse-Tung busts, where the anthem of the Communist International was sung every day. These former UNITA members denounced as fraudulent Savimbi’s widely publicized pro-Western ideology and defense of democracy. They pointed out that there was a huge discrepancy between what UNITA claimed abroad as its objectives (i.e., negotiations with the MPLA, reconciliation, and coalition) and what the Guide taught. The Guide, said to be written by Savimbi, was considered a secret book accessible only to the political elite of UNITA.

For decades, Savimbi’s forces fought Angola’s MPLA government, which was supported militarily by the Soviet Union and thousands of Cuban troops–and was recognized by every country in the world except South Africa and the United States. In order to instill terror in the population and to undermine confidence in the government, Savimbi ordered that food supplies be targeted, millions of land mines be laid in peasants’ fields, and transport lines be cut. As part of this destabilization effort, UNITA frequently attacked health clinics and schools, specifically terrorizing and killing medical workers and teachers. The UN estimated that Angola lost $30 billion in the war from 1980 to 1988, which was six times the country’s 1988 GDP. According to UNICEF, approximately 330,000 children died as direct and indirect results of the fighting during that period alone. Human Rights Watch reports that because of UNITA’s indiscriminate use of landmines, there were over 15,000 amputees in Angola in 1988, ranking it alongside Afghanistan and Cambodia.

In the early 1990s, as the cold war and South African apartheid both ended, Jonas Savimbi could no longer claim to be a bulwark against communism. With Russian and U.S. support suddenly withdrawn, both the MPLA and UNITA agreed to a ceasefire in 1991 and elections in 1992. However, despite the MPLA’s internationally recognized electoral win, Savimbi, the perennial rebel fighter, proved incapable of adapting to the new era of pragmatic democracy. In his quest for power, Savimbi quickly scuttled the elections and ordered his forces to return to battle.

In Washington, the new Clinton administration made a grave error in not recognizing the election results, granting diplomatic recognition to the MPLA government, or explicitly calling for Savimbi to abandon violence. Although the rest of the world (except South Africa) had officially recognized the new Angolan government, the U.S. rationalized its decision to delay recognition as a means to pressure the MPLA government to offer UNITA a greater share of power. In his confirmation hearings, Secretary of State Christopher Warren practically gave UNITA the go-ahead to continue fighting when he said U.S. diplomatic recognition depended on the Angolan government demonstrating effective control of its territory.

In May 1993, acting on the advice of the State Department and the National Security Council, the Clinton administration finally announced its recognition of the government of President Jose Eduardo dos Santos. This signaled the end of U.S. support for Jonas Savimbi. Yet it did not halt Savimbi’s rampage.

Instead, Savimbi quickly launched an attack on the diamond-rich areas of northern Angola, established control of the region, and proceeded to wage the war almost entirely through the trade of diamonds for arms. Diamonds enabled Savimbi to sustain a military force at a relatively high level of sophistication. Although the United Nations eventually imposed a ban on the purchase of UNITA diamonds in 1998, it came too late to hold any promise for prospective peace.

When I arrived to Angola in January 1993, the country and its citizens were fully engaged in another serious bout of bloodshed and suffering. UNITA was aggressively attacking and invading five provinces considered MPLA strongholds. In December 1992, UNITA troops had invaded a school for orphans in the northern province of Bengo. The 75 students fled their school, walking the long and rough terrain to an alternate school at which I worked in Luanda’s slum district of Cazenga. These kids, most of whom had seen their parents killed by Savimbi’s forces, described how UNITA soldiers had robbed their school of money, food, and clothes and then taken up residence in the children’s dormitory. For a period of nearly six months, UNITA consistently launched attacks on Luanda’s main water source and electrical plant. People throughout the city stood in lines and paid for whatever water that they could locate, as the water shortage caused an increase in cholera and dysentery. According to the UN, more than 100,000 people may have been killed during this period alone and another 3 million Angolans were put at risk of starvation. When the MPLA government finally regained control of Bengo province, I joined the children on their first trip back to their school. In addition to the discarded UNITA uniforms, ammunition shells, and UNITA propaganda graffitied across the kids’ bedroom walls, we uncovered several landmines.

Savimbi’s death offers an opportunity for the U.S. to help end such brutalities. As Salih Booker explains, “I think the Bush administration, being very much oriented toward the oil sector and with many of its key officials coming from the oil industry, sees Angola as a strategically important country in economic terms … in terms of energy, specifically.” As Africa’s second largest oil producer and with more potential oil reserves off its coast, Angola could conceivably entice the Bush administration to play a constructive role, together with other countries under the auspices of the United Nations, in brokering a permanent peace deal in this war-torn country.