Obituary: Jonas Savimbi, UNITA’s local boy

Jonas Savimbi: Spent most of his adult life as a guerrilla leader. Savimbi was said to run Unita's territory as a personal fiefdom

By Chris Simpson
Former BBC correspondent in Angola

Jonas Savimbi founded his Unita movement in March 1966 in Muangai, in Angola’s eastern province, Moxico.

According to Unita’s own official history, 200 delegates, including dozens of local chiefs, attended.

Muangai supposedly marked the beginning of Savimbi’s career as a guerrilla leader.

Thirty-six years later his corpse was put on display at Lucusse, just 100 kilometres (60 miles) east of Muangai.


Savimbi has died a pariah.

Over the past decade his Unita movement has become increasingly isolated, accused of perpetuating a bloody civil war for its own interests and exposed to international sanctions as a consequence.

Unita’s deteriorating image owed much to Savimbi’s autocratic and quixotic style of leadership.

White House visit

But in his heyday, Savimbi had a formidable selection of allies and acolytes.

Fighting against an Angolan Government which deployed thousands of Cuban troops and enjoyed strong support from the former Soviet Union, Unita’s cause was taken up by apartheid South Africa and by the United States under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush senior.

In 1986 Mr Reagan welcomed Savimbi to the White House and talked of Unita winning “a victory that electrifies the world and brings great sympathy and assistance from other nations to those struggling for freedom”.

African leaders, like Felix Houphouet-Boigny of Ivory Coast and Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire were open supporters, other presidents cultivated strong diplomatic and commercial ties right until the end.

Savimbi assiduously courted western journalists as well as politicians, presenting his bush headquarters in Jamba in the far south-eastern corner of Angola as the centre of a huge struggle against communism.

Some visitors returned deeply impressed by Savimbi’s leadership qualities and the dedication of his cadres, others hinted at a much darker regime, dismissing Savimbi as a power-hungry propagandist.

Modest beginnings

Jonas Savimbi was born and raised in the province of Bie, a lush, green region of rolling hills and small rivers, now once again devastated by war.

Savimbi made much of his roots in Angola’s Central Highlands. The station-master’s son – whose childhood home can still be found near the town of Andulo – always presented himself as a local boy made good, and later as the region’s representative, champion and leader.

Savimbi’s life breaks into several chapters, with much of the detail still in dispute and many questions unanswered. It was always wise to address him as “Doctor”.

But the PhD in question, supposedly from the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, was probably never awarded. Unita’s own official biography of Savimbi claims he spent two years as a medical student in Portugal, but abandoned his studies to engage in the anti-colonial struggle.

‘Fictitious campaigns’

Savimbi formed Unita after failing to find common ground with other nationalist movements, notably the Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA).

Savimbi’s critics say Unita’s military campaigns against the Portuguese regime were fictitious and later published documents linking Savimbi to Portuguese intelligence, suggesting he was a paid informer.

Savimbi’s first chance of power came with the end of Portuguese colonialism. But though promised a share in a transitional government Unita lost out as full-blown civil war broke out.

Despite the backing of South Africa and the United States, Unita was unable to compete with the Cuban troops and Soviet firepower put at the disposal of the MPLA.

A new government was proclaimed in Luanda, while Unita retreated deep into the interior.

Savimbi, once a self-proclaimed Maoist, described Unita as having embarked on its own “long march” at this point, recovering slowly from defeat and betrayal to rediscover itself as a movement, drawing on the courage of a few dozen survivors.


But Unita’s survival owed much to its alliance with South Africa, which remained at war with Angola for much of the next 15 years, and to the US.

With the ending of the Cold War and the steady erosion of apartheid, southern Africa became less of a battle-ground and there was an opportunity for peace.

Savimbi and Angolan President Jose Eduardo dos Santos signed a peace agreement in Bicesse in Portugal in May 1991, paving the way for elections 16 months later.

Savimbi returned to the capital, Luanda, for the first time in 15 years and began campaigning for the presidency.

Thousands dead

As the news broke of his own and Unita’s election defeat, Savimbi refused to accept the results and flew to Huambo, Angola’s second city.

The UN, backed by Russia, Portugal and the United States, tried to keep the peace, but in vain.

The conflict which followed was infinitely worse than anything which had gone before, with thousands of civilians perishing.

Savimbi was widely blamed for the catastrophe, particularly after he scuppered a six-week round of peace talks in Ivory Coast in 1993.

But while the UN imposed oil and arms embargoes on Unita and President Bill Clinton formally recognised the government in Luanda, Savimbi laughed off international condemnation, establishing his capital in Huambo.

Unita’s military fortunes dipped as the government reorganised, clawing back territory.

Facing military humiliation, Unita signed a UN-brokered peace deal in Lusaka in November 1994. Savimbi was not there in person, his absence showing a distaste for compromise.

Once again, the UN was mandated to keep the peace, this time with 7,000 troops. Unita agreed to demobilise its forces. National reconciliation became the key objective.

Damning critiques

The peace process limped on for close to four years, marked by endless delays and recriminations.

But despite the offer of the vice-presidency, along with a new house in Luanda, Savimbi remained in the Central Highlands and Angola drifted back to war.

By the end, Savimbi had lost much of his lustre.

Most of the obituaries have been predictably damning. Some of the harshest criticism has come from those who once knew and admired Savimbi, but have since admitted they were duped by his charisma into overlooking serious character flaws.

A former backer in Washington once conceded ruefully: “Savimbi is probably the most brilliant man I’ve ever met, but he’s also dangerous, even psychotic”.


Published by Victor Vaughn

Anti-revisionist Marxist-Leninist, National Secretary of the American Party of Labor (APL).

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