Jonas Savimbi

Jonas Malheiro Savimbi was an Angolan political
and military leader. He founded and led the National Union for the Total Independence
of Angola. UNITA first waged a guerrilla war against
Portuguese colonial rule, 1966–74, then confronted the rival People’s Movement for
the Liberation of Angola during the decolonization conflict, 1974–75, and after independence
in 1975 fought the ruling MPLA in the Angolan Civil War until his death in a clash with
government troops in 2002. Early life
Savimbi was born on August 3, 1934, in Munhango, Moxico Province, a small town on the Benguela
Railway, and raised in Bié Province. Savimbi’s father, Lote, was a stationmaster on Angola’s
Benguela railway line and a preacher of the Protestant Igreja Evangélica Congregacional
de Angola, founded and maintained by American missionaries. Both his parents were members
of the Bieno group of the Ovimbundu, the people who later served as Savimbi’s major political
base. In his early years, Savimbi was educated mainly
in Protestant schools, but also attended Roman Catholic schools. At the age of 24, he received
a scholarship to study in Portugal. There he finished his secondary studies, with the
exception of the subject “political organization” that was compulsory during the regime established
by António de Oliveira Salazar, so that he was unable to start studying medicine as originally
intended. Instead he became associated with students
from Angola and other Portuguese colonies who were preparing themselves for anti-colonial
resistance and had contacts with the clandestine Portuguese Communist Party. He knew Agostinho
Neto, who was at that time studying medicine and who later went on to become president
of the MPLA and Angola’s first state President. Under increasing pressure from the Portuguese
secret police, Savimbi left Portugal for Switzerland with the assistance of Portuguese and French
communists and other sympathizers, and eventually wound up in Lausanne. Here he was able to
obtain a new scholarship from American missionaries and studied social sciences. He then went
on to the University at Fribourg for further studies.
While there, probably in August 1960, he met Holden Roberto who was already a rising star
in émigré circles. Roberto was a founding member of the UPA and was already known for
his efforts to promote Angolan independence at the United Nations. He tried to recruit
Savimbi who seems to have been undecided whether to commit himself to the cause of Angolan
independence at this point in his life. Military career
Savimbi sought a leadership position in the MPLA by joining the MPLA Youth in the early
1960s. He was rebuffed by the MPLA, and joined forces with the National Liberation Front
of Angola in 1964. The same year he conceived UNITA with Antonio da Costa Fernandes. Savimbi
went to China for help and was promised arms and military training. Upon returning to Angola
in 1966 he launched UNITA and began his career as an anti-Portuguese guerrilla fighter. He
also fought the FNLA and MPLA, as the three resistance movements tried to position themselves
to lead a post-colonial Angola. Portugal later released PIDE archives revealing that Savimbi
had signed a collaboration pact with Portuguese colonial authorities to fight the MPLA.
Following Angola’s independence in 1975, Savimbi gradually drew the attention of powerful Chinese
and, ultimately, American policymakers and intellectuals. Trained in China during the
1960s, Savimbi was a highly successful guerrilla fighter schooled in classic Maoist approaches
to warfare, including baiting his enemies with multiple military fronts, some of which
attacked and some of which consciously retreated. Like the People’s Liberation Army of Mao Zedong,
Savimbi mobilized important, although ethnically confined segments of the rural peasantry – overwhelmingly
Ovimbundu – as part of his military tactics. From a military strategy standpoint, he can
be considered one of the most effective guerrilla leaders of the 20th century.
Civil war As the MPLA was supported by the Soviet bloc
since 1974, and declared itself Marxist-Leninist in 1977, Savimbi renounced his earlier Maoist
leanings and contacts with China, presenting on the international scene as a protagonist
of anti-communism. The war between the MPLA and UNITA, whatever its internal reasons and
dynamics, thus became a sub-plot to the Cold War, with both Moscow and Washington viewing
the conflict as important to the global balance of power.
In 1985, with the backing of the Reagan administration, Jack Abramoff and other U.S. conservatives
organized the Democratic International in Savimbi’s base in Jamba, in Cuando Cubango
Province in southeastern Angola. The meeting included several of the anti-communist guerrilla
leaders of the Third World, including Savimbi, Nicaraguan Contra leader Adolfo Calero, and
Abdul Rahim Wardak, then leader of Afghan mujahideen who later became as Afghanistan’s
Defense Minister. Savimbi was strongly supported by the influential,
conservative Heritage Foundation. Heritage foreign policy analyst Michael Johns and other
conservatives visited regularly with Savimbi in his clandestine camps in Jamba and provided
the rebel leader with ongoing political and military guidance in his war against the Angolan
government. The African-American Texas State Representative Clay Smothers of Dallas was
a strong Savimbi supporter. Savimbi’s U.S.-based supporters ultimately
proved successful in convincing the Central Intelligence Agency to channel covert weapons
and recruit guerrillas for Savimbi’s war against Angola’s Marxist government, which greatly
intensified and prolonged the conflict. During a visit to Washington, D.C. in 1986, Reagan
invited Savimbi to meet with him at the White House. Following the meeting, Reagan spoke
of UNITA winning “a victory that electrifies the world.”
Two years later, with the Angolan Civil War intensifying, Savimbi returned to Washington,
where he was filled with gratitude and praise for the Heritage Foundation’s work on UNITA’s
behalf. “When we come to the Heritage Foundation”, Savimbi said during a June 30, 1988 speech
at the foundation, “it is like coming back home. We know that our success here in Washington
in repealing the Clark Amendment and obtaining American assistance for our cause is very
much associated with your efforts. This foundation has been a source of great support. The UNITA
leadership knows this, and it is also known in Angola.” Complementing his military skills, Savimbi
also impressed many with his intellectual qualities. He spoke seven languages fluently
– four European, three African. In visits to foreign diplomats and in speeches before
American audiences, he often cited classical Western political and social philosophy, ultimately
becoming one of the most vocal anti-communists of the Third World.
Some dismiss this intellectualism as nothing more than careful handling by his politically
shrewd American supporters, who sought to present Savimbi as a clear alternative to
Angola’s communist government. But others saw it as genuine and a product of the guerrilla
leader’s intelligence. Savimbi’s biography describes him as “an incredible linguist.
He spoke four European languages, including English although he had never lived in an
English-speaking country. He was extremely well read. He was an extremely fine conversationalist
and a very good listener.” These contrasting images of Savimbi would play out throughout
his life, with his enemies calling him a power-hungry warmonger, and his American and other allies
calling him a critical figure in the West’s bid to win the Cold War.
As U.S. support began to flow liberally and leading U.S. conservatives championed his
cause, Savimbi won major strategic advantages in the late 1980s, and again in the early
1990s, after having taken part unsuccessfully in the general elections of 1992. As a consequence,
Moscow and Havana began to reevaluate their engagement in Angola, as Soviet and Cuban
fatalities mounted and Savimbi’s ground control increased.
By 1989, UNITA held total control of several limited areas, but was able to develop significant
guerrilla operations everywhere in Angola, with the exception of the coastal cities and
Namibe Province. At the height of his military success, in 1989 and 1990, Savimbi was beginning
to launch attacks on government and military targets in and around the country’s capital,
Luanda. Observers felt that the strategic balance in Angola had shifted and that Savimbi
was positioning UNITA for a possible military victory.
Signaling the concern that the Soviet Union was placing on Savimbi’s advance in Angola,
Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev raised the Angolan war with Reagan during numerous U.S.-Soviet
summits. In addition to meeting with Reagan, Savimbi also met with Reagan’s successor,
George H. W. Bush, who promised Savimbi “all appropriate and effective assistance.”
1990s In January 1990 and again in February 1990,
Savimbi was wounded in armed conflict with Angolan government troops. The injuries did
not prevent him from again returning to Washington, where he met with his American supporters
and President Bush in an effort to further increase US military assistance to UNITA.
Savimbi’s supporters warned that continued Soviet support for the MPLA was threatening
broader global collaboration between Gorbachev and the US.
In February 1992, Antonio da Costa Fernandes and Nzau Puna defected from UNITA, declaring
publicly that Savimbi was not interested in a political test, but on preparing another
war. Under military pressure from UNITA, the Angolan government negotiated a cease-fire
with Savimbi, and Savimbi ran for president in the national elections of 1992. Foreign
monitors claimed the election to be fair. But because neither Savimbi nor Angolan President
José Eduardo dos Santos obtained the 50 percent necessary to prevail, a run-off election was
scheduled. In late October 1992, Savimbi dispatched UNITA
Vice President Jeremias Chitunda and UNITA senior advisor Elias Salupeto Pena to Luanda
to negotiate the details of the run-off election. On November 2, 1992 in Luanda, Chitunda and
Pena’s convoy was attacked by government forces and they were both pulled from their car and
shot dead. Their bodies were taken by government authorities and never seen again. The MPLA
offensive against UNITA and the FNLA has come to be known as the Halloween Massacre where
over 10,000 of their voters were massacred nationwide by MPLA forces.
Alleging governmental electoral fraud and questioning the government’s commitment to
peace, Savimbi withdrew from the run-off election and resumed fighting, mostly with foreign
funds. UNITA again quickly advanced militarily, encircling the nation’s capital of Luanda.
One of Savimbi’s largest sources of financial support was the De Beers corporation, which
bought between $500 and $800 million worth of illegally mined diamonds in 1992–93.
In 1994, UNITA signed a new peace accord. Savimbi declined the vice-presidency that
was offered to him and again renewed fighting in 1998. Savimbi also reportedly purged some
of those within UNITA whom he may have seen as threats to his leadership or as questioning
his strategic course. Savimbi’s foreign secretary Tito Chingunji and his family were murdered
in 1991 after Savimbi suspected that Chingunji had been in secret, unapproved negotiations
with the Angolan government during Chingunji’s various diplomatic assignments in Europe and
the United States. Savimbi denied his involvement in the Chingunji killing and blamed it on
UNITA dissidents. Death
After surviving more than a dozen assassination attempts, and having been reported dead at
least 15 times, Savimbi was killed on February 22, 2002, in a battle with Angolan government
troops along riverbanks in the province of Moxico, his birthplace. In the firefight,
Savimbi sustained 15 gunshot wounds to his head, throat, upper body and legs. While Savimbi
returned fire, his wounds proved fatal almost immediately.
Savimbi’s somewhat mystical reputation for eluding the Angolan military and their Soviet
and Cuban military advisors led many Angolans to question the validity of reports of his
2002 death. Not until pictures of his bloodied and bullet-ridden body appeared on Angolan
state television, and the United States State Department subsequently confirmed it, did
the reports of Savimbi’s death in combat gain credence in the country. Savimbi was
interred in Luena Main Cemetery in Luena, Moxico Province. On January 3, 2008, Savimbi’s
tomb was vandalised and four members of the youth wing of the MPLA were charged and arrested.
Legacy Savimbi was succeeded by António Dembo, who
assumed UNITA’s leadership on an interim basis in February 2002. But Dembo had sustained
wounds in the same attack that killed Savimbi, and he died from them ten days later and was
succeeded by Paulo Lukamba. Six weeks after Savimbi’s death, a ceasefire between UNITA
and the MPLA was signed, but Angola remains deeply divided politically between MPLA and
UNITA supporters. Parliamentary elections in September 2008 resulted in an overwhelming
majority for the MPLA, but their legitimacy was questioned by international observers.
In the years since Savimbi’s death, his legacy has been a source of debate. “The mistake
that Savimbi made, the historical, big mistake he made, was to reject and go back to war,”
Alex Vines, head of the Africa program at London-based Chatham House research institute
said in February 2012. University of Oxford Africa expert Paula Roque says Savimbi was
“a very charismatic man, a man that exuded power and leadership. We can’t forget that
for a large segment of the population, UNITA represented something.”
He was survived by “several wives and dozens of children,” the latter numbering at least
25. In popular culture
Savimbi is a minor character in Call of Duty: Black Ops II, a video game released in 2012.
Savimbi and the player take part of a fictional battle against the MPLA in 1986. He is voiced
by Robert Wisdom. See also
Blood diamond Kimberley Process Certification Scheme
Books The War Against Soviet Colonialism: The Strategy
and Tactics of Anti-Communist Resistance, Policy Review 35, Winter 1986 .
Further reading Bridgland, Fred, Jonas Savimbi: A Key to Africa,
Hodder & Stoughton, ISBN 0-340-42218-1 . Chilcote, Ronald H, Emerging nationalism in
Portuguese Africa, Hoover Institutions publications, Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press, Stanford
University, ISBN 0-8179-1971-6 . Messiant, Christine, Les Églises et la dernière
guerre en Angola. Les voies difficiles de l’engagement pour une paix juste [The Churches
and the last war in Angola: the difficult paths of engagement for a fair peace], Social
sciences & missions: 75–117 . Notes References External links
Biographical Entry at Jonas Savimbi at the Notable Names Database.
“White House Statement on the President’s Meeting with Jonas Savimbi”, June 30, 1988.
“Genocide of Christians in Angola, UN and the resistance of UNITA” at the Wayback Machine,
2000. “Angola Rebels Demand Death Probe”, BBC News,
February 28, 2002. Speeches and essays
“The Coming Winds of Democracy in Angola”, Jonas Savimbi speech to the Heritage Foundation,
October 5, 1989. Policy Review vol. 35, contains Savimbi’s
1986 essay “The War Against Soviet Colonialism”. Video
French interview of Jonas Savimbi, 1978. Jonas Savimbi speaks in Angolan capital of
Luanda, 1991 on YouTube.

Comments 3

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *