I wouldn’t call Jonas Savimbi a close friend, but after spending many days with him at war in the African bush, I developed a deep respect and strong liking for the Angolan guerilla leader.
Last week, Savimbi was killed in an ambush by government troops. Seeing pictures of his body riddled by 16 bullets filled me with sorrow, and reminded me once again how ‘freedom fighters,’ when no longer useful, are discarded, or demonized and declared ‘terrorists.’ .
I first met Savimbi in 1986 at Jamba, his base deep in the remote bush country of SE Angola. Savimbi had already been fighting the Angolan communists, and their Cuban, Russian, and East German allies, for a decade. The Marxist officers who overthrew Portugal’s rightwing regime in 1974 handed over the crumbling Portugese Empire’s colonies of to local communist insurgents, leaving non-communist liberation groups out in the cold.
Angola, and its capital, Luanda, were given to the communist MPLA movement, which soon received powerful military assistance from the Soviet bloc. Savimbi’s pro-western Union for the Total Independence of Angola(UNITA) was driven into the bush, from where it waged guerilla war against the communists. South African forces fought their way to the outskirts of Luanda, but were then ordered to retreat by an irresolute Henry Kissinger, who had a last-minute failure of moral..
For the next 20 years, communist forces and UNITA waged a bloody bush war. Some 55,000 Cuban combat troops, including an armored division, backed by troops, pilots, and advisors from the USSR and East Germany were sent to help the MPLA to secure control of Angola. Moscow planned to use Angola as a base to invade mineral-rich South Africa, just as it sought to use Afghanistan as the corridor south to Pakistan and the Arabian Sea.
UNITA was actively supported by South Africa and the CIA from its Kamina base in southern Congo. The fighting killed one million Angolans and displaced 2 million. I was with UNITA and its South African allies during numerous clashes with communist forces, including the battle of Mavinga where South Africa’s superb G-5 155mm guns, designed by the brilliant Canadian Gerald Bull, shattered communist attacks, and terrifying, pointblank shootouts in the bush between South African armored cars and Cuban T-55 tanks.
President Ronald Reagan welcomed Savimbi to the White House in 1986, proclaiming him a ‘freedom fighter.’ He was hailed as ‘America’s best friend in Africa.’ When liberals in Congress denied arms aid to UNITA because of its support from South Africa, CIA organized a secret supply and funding operation to sustain Savimbi, run by ‘expendable’ agents led by the notorious Edwin Wilson, who was later buried alive in federal prison in order to hide the details of America’s secret war in Angola.
Jonas Savimbi was far more than just an American ‘asset’ fighting the communists. He was a highly intelligent, well-educated man who studied medicine and philosophy in Europe, then Maoism and guerilla warfare in China. Savimbi was the leader of his Ovimbundu people, who comprise 40% of Angola’s 13.3 million people. Besides being a charismatic, often messianic, leader, Savimbi was also a gifted political thinker who believed Angola could be uplifted from its current misery and poverty through discipline, honest leadership, and hard work.
Savimbi was the only African leader I have ever known who was on time. He insisted his subordinates, aides, and soldiers observe punctuality, the lack of which is one of modern Africa’s scourges. Savimbi was certainly an African tribal autocrat, in spite of his claims to favor democracy, but he was also determined to build a free market economy in Angola and develop its riches. Studies have shown that Angola alone, if properly governed and farmed, could feed all of black Africa. Bad, corrupt government , not bad luck, colonialism or slavery, is what has kept Africa in poverty and misery. Savimbi’s leadership was an exception.
A big, burly man with a locomotive’s power and an explosive sense of humor, Savimbi was charming and impressive. But he outraged leftists everywhere, who could not forgive this black nationalist for accepting aid from the hated white South Africans. Savimbi become the b?te noire of the international left.
After the USSR collapsed, it seemed UNITA might take power. But large deposits of oil were discovered in Angola, and the US threw its support behind the totalitarian Marxist regime in Luanda which controlled the oil wells. By the late 1990’s, Angola had become a major oil supplier to the US. Washington forced UNITA into elections with the Marxist MPLA, which crudely rigged the vote and tried to murder Savimbi and his lieutenants. Any fair elections would have resulted in a UNITA victory, since Savimbi’s Ovimbundu people were Angola’s majority ethnic group.
Savimbi returned to the bush to continue the war, now financed by UNITA-controlled diamond mines. Washington, focused on oil, ordered Savimbi to stop making trouble, and got the UN to impose sanctions on his beleaguered guerilla fighters. Isolated and friendless, Savimbi soldiered on, fighting a hopeless war from the deep bush. Washington, the UN, and the western media denounced and demonized former ‘freedom fighter’ Savimbi as a ‘terrorist’ and arch-criminal for daring to trouble the US-mandated Pax Africana.
Like the Afghan mujihadin, Jonas Savimbi had become an inconvenience. His death was cheered in Washington, Luanda and Havana, proving that oil makes strange allies, and is certainly thicker than blood. As Kissinger rightly observed on another occasion, it’s far more dangerous being America’s ally than its enemy.