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Jonas Savimbi in 1989
August 3, 1934|
Munhango, Moxico Province
|Died||February 22, 2002
Lucusse, Moxico Province
|Years of service||1964 – 2002|
|Battles/wars||Angolan War of Independence
Angolan Civil War
Jonas Malheiro Savimbi (August 3, 1934 – February 22, 2002) was an Angolan political and military leader. He founded and led the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA), a movement that first waged a guerrilla war against Portuguese colonial rule, 1966–1974, then confronted the rival Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) 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.
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. Eventually, at the age of 24, he was given 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 (PIDE), 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 (União das Populações de Angola) 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.
Following Angola's independence in 1975, Savimbi gradually drew the intrigue 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 Chinese Red 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.
While Savimbi originally sought a leadership position in the MPLA by joining the MPLA Youth in the early 1960s; rebuffed, he joined forces with the National Liberation Front of Angola (FNLA) 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 formally launched UNITA and began his career as an anti-Portuguese guerrilla fighter, but also fought the FNLA and MPLA, as the three resistance movements tried to position themselves to lead a post-colonial Angola. Portugal would later release PIDE archives revealing that Savimbi in fact signed a collaboration pact with Portuguese colonial authorities to fight the MPLA.
As the MPLA was supported by the Soviet bloc since 1974, and declared itself "Marxist-Leninist" in 1977, Savimbi repealed his earlier Maoist leanings, and contacts with China, posing 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 (CIA) 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."
In January 1990 and again in February 1990, Savimbi was wounded in armed conflict with Angolan government troops. But 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 U.S. military assistance to UNITA. Savimbi's supporters warned that continued Soviet support for the MPLA was threatening broader global collaboration between Gorbachev and the U.S. On 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 (40%) nor Angolan President José Eduardo dos Santos (49%) 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. But 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 1992–1993. In 1994, UNITA signed a new peace accord, but Savimbi declined the vice-presidency that was offered to him and again renewed fighting in 1998. Savimbi also purportedly purged some of those within UNITA who he may have seen as threats to his leadership or questioned 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.
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.
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 (the election) 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.
Savimbi is a minor character in Call of Duty: Black Ops II, a video game released in 2012. Savimbi and the player takes part of a fictional battle against the MPLA in 1986. He is voiced by Robert Wisdom.