The Late Jonas Savimbi

Jeremy Harding

The sight of a man in fatigues stalking around a poor country is guaranteed to arouse the interest of ideologues in richer ones, whatever their persuasion. Yet the recent ‘martyrdom’ of Jonas Savimbi, the leader of the Unita rebel movement in Angola, has had nothing like the same effect as the death of Che Guevara 35 years ago in Bolivia, mourned by millions of vicarious guerrilleros around the world. The bodies of both men were put on display to satisfy the scepticism of the international press and demoralise the local following. Both were transmitted to most parts of the world: Che in Deposition with the Third Day pending, as it still is for some; Savimbi rotting in his socks, caught like a chicken-thief who thought to creep into the coop.

Jonas Savimbi stole just about everything and he should not be pitied. His greatest wish was to take possession of Angola, not as a common felon but as a feudal grandee, a Naipaulian Big Man, who would stride out of the bush, fully empowered by elections or force majeure – it didn’t much matter – and preside over the capital Luanda, the decadent enemy heartland of half-castes, Marxists, philanderers and oil-profiteers. This was not possible. In the attempt, which lasted roughly thirty years, he robbed Angolan peasants of just about everything and several well-known politicians of their plausibility. Jeane Kirkpatrick, the Reagan Administration’s henchperson at the UN, described him as ‘one of the authentic heroes of our time’, and Reagan himself is reported to have likened him to Abraham Lincoln. Even as he ceased to serve the purposes of Washington and Pretoria at the end of the Cold War, he continued to persuade Western right-wing lobbyists and anti-Communist crusaders to part with their money: ‘hearts, minds and purses’ was the Savimbi strategy on this front and it paid off handsomely. He also pilfered and cannibalised greater reputations to advance or tweak his own: he proclaimed himself a Maoist before Maoism became an anathema and a devotee of Che when fashion features in the Face were still decking out pretty boys from Epping or Harrogate to look like jungle revolutionaries. Ingenuity, coupled with immense reserves of courage, cruelty and amour propre, was the ingredient that allowed him to continue his ‘armed struggle’ in Angola for so long, and to turn the country into one of the unhappiest on earth. At the same time, he was a consequence of Angola’s place in the Cold War jigsaw, and the speed at which the Angolan anti-colonial struggle became an internationalised civil war fought by large numbers of non-nationals.

The Portuguese were very unhappy about leaving Angola. Like the Pieds Noirs, they were a settler community, much of it of peasant stock, which had done well. Angola was resource-rich. There were, and still are, diamonds and oil. In the central highlands, you could raise cattle and crops; where the land sloped down towards sea level, coffee grew in abundance. This was not a place to leave with good grace. It’s said that in the bay of Luanda, as Independence approached in 1975, the ships bound for Europe were loaded with as much as they could hold and what they couldn’t, including brand new cars, generators, office switchboards, anything that could have been useful in the new Angola, was tipped into the sea. Savimbi was by this time fighting flat out against the MPLA, the movement that was about to assume power in Luanda. His comrades in the field were the South African Defence Force.

This was an extraordinary alliance for an avowed anti-colonialist, but the situation in Angola was tangled and Savimbi’s methods were unorthodox. For a start, neither of the two rival liberation movements in Angola, the MPLA and the FNLA, which were active from the early 1960s, could get the edge over the other until the very eve of Independence, by which time the MPLA had a decisive advantage in the form of Cuban military support on the ground. Savimbi was another matter. He had parted company with the FNLA in 1964 and put his own arrangements together. By 1966, Unita was a functioning organisation. On the face of it, the movement should never have amounted to much, but as the marginal player in what had become a triangular struggle for power it enjoyed two slow-burn benefits which assured its survival. The first was tribalism. Savimbi belonged to the Ovimbundu people of the highlands, geographically remote from the stamping grounds of the two main movements. These, too, had tribal bases (the MPLA were mostly Mbundu and the FNLA Bakongo) but their tribalism was diluted by a modicum of urbanity and, too, by Marxism-Leninism, with its fraternal this and that. Once the Cubans had done for the FNLA and helped to install the MPLA in Luanda, Unita slowly but surely took on the characteristics (and frightening strengths) of an ethnic movement, like Inkatha in South Africa or Karadzic’s Serbian Democratic Party in Bosnia. (Both Savimbi and Karadzic preferred to be addressed as ‘Doctor’. Perhaps it will be ‘Dr Karadzic’ if and when he stands trial at the Hague. Savimbi got his doctorate in Switzerland and used to sign his letters ‘Jonas Malheiro Savimbi, licensed in legal and political sciences, University of Lausanne’.)

Even though Unita had begun by carrying out armed actions against the Portuguese, the authorities were far too preoccupied with the other two movements to give it a great deal of thought. This was its second advantage. Gradually a sort of entente seemed to grow between Savimbi and the colonial enemy. It became more businesslike with the arrival of Francisco da Costa Gomes, who took command of the military effort in Angola in 1970. (He later served as Portugal’s first post-Fascist President.) The result was a shaky non-aggression pact, observed on some days but not others, and it involved Savimbi in gathering information about the MPLA for the Portuguese, while undermining it as best he could. None of his right-hand men, some of whom would become Unita’s most able commanders and diplomats in the 1980s, seems to have known what was going on.

Unita’s prospects were somewhat improved by the coup in Lisbon, in April 1974. With Iberian Fascism entering its final stage, decolonisation became inevitable in Portugal’s possessions and, with Franco’s death, in Spain’s. The results in both cases – they included the occupation of the Spanish Sahara by Morocco and of East Timor by Indonesia – were disastrous. The superpowers’ interest in Angola had by early 1975 become nearly obsessional. Unita was suddenly a useful point of counter-pressure against the MPLA, which was heavily backed by Moscow and supported by the Cubans. According to the head of the CIA’s Angola Task Force at the time, Washington divided about $30 million (mid-1970s values) between the FNLA and Unita in the five months prior to Independence – the start date of this high-alert funding period coincided with the fall of Saigon. America’s generosity was a boon to Unita. It couldn’t give the movement a seat at the table, but it was respectable seed capital for the long business of murder, starvation, intimidation and mayhem that became Unita’s purpose in Angola from then on.

Savimbi’s good fortune was to have become an anti-Communist in Southern Africa when the tide was turning against the values of the ‘free world’, which in those days meant white minority rule. The MPLA was strictly a Marxist-Leninist movement with a non-starter economic policy and, as time went on, a penchant for self-enrichment. Like Islam and Christianity in many parts of Africa, Marxism-Leninism was a malleable doctrine, susceptible to many local heresies, but the MPLA was rigorous in its discourse, and the persecution of its enemies, if nothing else. As the party of power, it was also forced to become a war machine, for the killing only intensified after Independence. In this, Savimbi was crucial. He could rail and cajole and smarm and pontificate to enthusiastic foreign audiences about the evils of Communism in Angola and then pass the hat. He had a regional domino theory which cited the three main Muscovite movements – the ANC, Swapo of Namibia and Joshua Nkomo’s Zimbabwe African People’s Union – as well as Mugabe’s Zanu and, in Mozambique, Frelimo going hell for leather with another Marxism-Leninism cargo-cult.

Insofar as there was any urgency in Savimbi’s lucrative anti-Communist gospel, it lay four-square in Angola, the main target of Pretoria’s external business after 1975. South Africa – a ‘free world’ stalwart at the time – had a counter-domino theory of its own, later known as the ‘total strategy’, which would have been hard to implement without some warlord leverage in Angola, and that is what Savimbi provided. Mozambique and other Frontline states also harboured ANC fighters, but Angola was a far tougher target, and a more important one. Under the MPLA it became a base area for armed South African and Namibian anti-apartheid forces, supported on the spot by detachments from Havana and advisers from Moscow, complete with armour and, eventually, very effective air power. Angola’s was a gloomy internationalism, for sure. The country was full of dour apparatchiks, broken idealists, condescending Russians and Soviet-satellite expatriates, Stasi trainees and homesick, exasperated Cubans, but it was nearly unassailable, for it had oil revenues and a more than halfway decent Army, whose best brigades were adequately equipped and reasonably led. (A handful of officers were Portuguese, well versed in counter-insurgency, but politically inclined to stay the course as Angolans alongside a movement with which they were in sympathy.) By 1980, then, the contest stood as follows: the MPLA, Swapo and the ANC on one side, backed by the Eastern Bloc and Havana; Unita and apartheid special forces on the other.

Matters were hard for Savimbi after Carter cut him off in 1976. His reliance on Pretoria was so thorough that he was regarded as little more than an apartheid stooge. But the South Africans set him up with Jamba, his well-appointed base in the remote south-east of the country, and serviced his needs in accordance with their own. They became, in effect, a standing presence in that part of Angola – referred to by Pretoria as ‘the force in being’ – and a tremendous source of anxiety for the MPLA, whose military sweeps against Savimbi were deepening Ovimbundu resentment and slowly creating the density of ethnic support that would carry him for a few years to come.

Savimbi, meanwhile, could argue that the MPLA was the brutal agent of Communist domination he had always said it was, not only over his own people, who were being bombed and displaced by the campaigning, and often horribly abused, but over the region as a whole. His tirades against the corruption of the MPLA were becoming truer as time went on; that it was repressive and arrogant was also correct. But his dislike of its mixed-race, paleface composition became more pronounced – and his black nationalist ideology became blacker by degrees. This, as critics were apt to point out, did not square with the sale of the Ovimbundu soul to the devil in Pretoria, but Savimbi had no problem with a powerful, obliging white man, while white people of the kind he cultivated liked nothing more than a ‘real black man’ (this was the secret of Buthelezi’s fortunes, before they declined).

The tap that Kissinger had turned on, and Carter had turned off, was opened again in 1981, when Ronald Reagan approved a covert aid package for Unita. South African Special Forces were good at what they did. Unita’s performance was already much improved by comparison with its half-hearted exertions against the Portuguese. Even so, Washington’s financial and diplomatic backing was an immense boost. The country, which was now a Cold War cockpit, remained undefeatable, but it could be comprehensively ruined, and this is what happened. The figures for war-related deaths, and child deaths in particular, leapt dramatically in the 1980s. Towns and villages were deserted or shelled to extinction. The countryside was a living death. There were landmines and limbless people everywhere (there still are). Young men were press-ganged into the burgeoning rabble of the Angolan Army, where the discipline of the elite units could not hope to reach. Unita kidnapped and abducted its fighters or picked up the homeless, traumatised survivors of Government offensives. Some of them were so-called ‘child soldiers’ – ‘premature adults’ is a better description. Provincial capitals became slum havens for hundreds of thousands of displaced people. Savimbi’s struggle, subsumed though it was in a large-scale offensive driven by South Africa and paid for in the United States, had come home to Angola. But of course the Government had enough in the way of oil revenues to sustain a major war effort, while the Angolan commanders, some of them, were just as good as Unita’s, often better, and they had the benefit of a Cuban contingent whose numbers were steadily growing, partly in response to Washington’s aggressive posture. With battle-hardening came a grim hardening of party political practice – a kind of Stalinism, as Basil Davidson later came to think of it – mirrored in the bases of the Namibians and South Africans. Swapo ‘traitors’ were tortured by their commissars, while ANC dissenters were shoved in pits or executed.

The balanced view is that Moscow and Havana must take their share of responsibility for what happened to Angola in the 1980s. No doubt. But the country had become the site of a bitter clash between anti-colonialism and anti-apartheid, on the one hand – with support from the regimes whose ‘socialist’ ideology informed them – and, on the other, a pair of monsters, the United States and apartheid South Africa, who were prepared to defend their version of the free world to the death – almost always someone else’s, which is where Savimbi came in. (Once at least, South African armour, retreating in haste, mowed down Unita infantry.) In Angola, that defence would have meant, very simply, running the country from Pretoria with the help of a subaltern in Luanda. The man in question would have done the job rather well. Without the Cuban presence, quite likely this is what would have happened. It’s possible that Angolans might have suffered less, or differently, under such a dispensation, just as black South Africans might have suffered less, or differently, had they settled for apartheid. For most people in Angola at the time, these choices couldn’t even be formulated, let alone expressed in any real way.

There appears, all the same, to have been a margin of distinction in people’s minds between MPLA supremacism, with its bullying ways and its contempt for the idiot majority – the ‘idiocy of rural life’, that is; especially Ovimbundu rural life – and a powerful, military-industrial racial supremacism, with its contempt for everything except its own survival. Angola was apartheid’s bloodiest battlefield, but the distinction – in more or less stark forms – was the same elsewhere in the region. The polls in Southern Africa, from Rhodesia in 1980 to South Africa in 1994, tell us what millions of people thought of as the lesser evil.

In 1988, with the battle for Angola turning in the Government’s favour, Savimbi’s private foreign supporters did all they could to further his cause. The UK branch of the Western Goals Foundation, an influential rightist ‘mover-and-shaker’ organisation, brought him to Britain to speak. In the US in the same year, the right-of-right Conservative Caucus – created in the Ford years under the auspices of Jesse Helms and Richard Viguerie – put up $221,054 for its ‘victory over Communism in Southern Africa’. Savimbi was on the organisation’s list of priority concerns. In military terms, the Cubans were doing well in Angola, at a price, and the South Africans rather worse than they had in the past. The Cold War, crucially, was drawing to a close, and a regional settlement opened up. By the end of the year, the deal was all but done. There was a timetable for Cuban withdrawal. A large detachment of South African troops stuck in the south of the country was allowed to retreat without being mangled. South Africa, it was agreed, would also leave Namibia and the UN would supervise a Namibian election. Similar moves were afoot in Mozambique. Mandela, clearly, was going to be freed. There would be elections – majority rule – in South Africa, too. Elections everywhere, in fact – even in Angola.

Washington’s great anti-Communists – the Somozas, Bothas, Marcoses, Pinochets, Mobutus and the like – were never great democrats. Neither was Savimbi. It was clear before the elections in Angola that the democratic spirit was not something his foreign admirers expected to find in him. The adulation nonetheless continued as the election drew closer. Savimbi’s praises were sung at length by the British branch of the International Freedom Federation – patronised by Jimmy Goldsmith and John Aspinall, and run by a yoofish wild bunch who had come up through the Federation of Conservative Students in the second Thatcher term. When Savimbi rejected the results of the elections in 1992 (which proved the country’s preference for the lesser evil of an oil-rich clique in Luanda, as opposed to an old apartheid stooge with murder on his mind), his foreign friends cleared their throats and turned to more pressing business: untrammelled market freedom in Eastern Europe and, nearer home, the horrors of Maastricht. Savimbi took Angola back to war.

He was widely ostracised for doing so, but he could still knock on a few doors. There were unmarked supply flights from South Africa – old friends in Special Forces – and in Zaire in 1995 you could see an illegal airlift operating almost daily. Another peace package had been signed in Lusaka the year before: Unita was using the lull to re-equip. Savimbi’s great coup in these costly years was the control of the diamond trade, which enabled him to rebuild his army into a significant force, as it had been when Unita worked in tandem with the South Africans. There was nonetheless a conscientious international effort to choke off his arms supplies and freeze the movement’s assets. In 2000, the UN’s sanctions began to be more carefully monitored and enforced than they had been in the 1990s. It was also becoming hard for Savimbi to trade his diamond reserves.

Since the elections, he had lost friends, especially in Unita itself. A number of top men were now in government in Luanda. Some senior Unita figures remained behind only because they were too frightened by the prospect of what Savimbi would do to their families if they left. His former admirer Fred Bridgland, who published a lionising biography in the 1980s, had long since turned against him. Savimbi didn’t like that. Ten years ago Bridgland told me the death threats were so serious that De Klerk’s people had given him security minders. He had begun to catalogue the murders Savimbi committed inside Unita. Many of his victims were members of his own entourage, and more specifically of the top echelon of Unita’s leadership. Accusations of Witchcraft were prevalent and so, too, were public burnings. In one case, Savimbi ‘discovered’ a woman spying on him by flying over his house at night. There were also tough penalties, according to Bridgland, for those who tried to deny his sexual advances. Ten years after the defeat of Communism, Savimbi was the dark residue of post-war anti-Communism at its most ruinous and superstitious.

Between 1975 and the ceasefire that led to the elections of 1992, about 300,000 people are thought to have died in Angola as a direct or indirect result of the war. The figure for Savimbi’s second war (or second and third wars, if you count the Lusaka accords of 1994 as a hiatus) is probably between 100,000 and 300,000. I went to Angola before and after the elections. Three visits in all, yet I think I’m right in saying I never set eyes on a body, which is an eerie thing in view of the statistics. But the nearly dead, the dying and the horribly injured could be found wherever you went. Children in stinking, ill-equipped hospitals with festering bullet-wounds; inert infants dying from dysentery; the living, whimpering, unspeakable remains of a boy in Huambo who had just stepped on a landmine; a soldier at Cuito Cuanavale cut through the midriff by shrapnel when our trucks were shelled by the South Africans. Somewhere in all this, there is the no less vivid memory of a large, convivial man in a dark collarless suit, with gold on his hands and wrists, addressing a meeting in London a year or so before Angola’s only elections. It was Jonas Savimbi proposing to put Angola out to tender after his victory at the polls. Markets and joint ventures: Angola as the land of opportunity it always was, for outsiders above all. It was odd to hear an erstwhile admirer of Che Guevara with so little to say, beyond a vague promise of ‘rural development’, about the country’s majority of subsistence farmers. They were the people hardest hit by the war, although, as it turned out, he still hadn’t finished with them. Since 1998, four million people have been displaced by the violence of both sides in Angola; that’s nearly a third of the population. At the time of writing, the numbers are reported to be rising as the war continues – beyond Savimbi’s control, at last, but still very much of his making, and that of the men who made him.