Jonas Malheiro Savimbi, a despoiler of Angola, died on February 22nd, aged 67
HIS death had been reported at least 15 times before. So when the news broke that Jonas Savimbi had been shot dead by government troops, Angolans bottled up their glee until they could be sure. Then they saw television pictures of his corpse, laid out on a table, perforated with bullet holes, and they celebrated in the streets. With the country’s most brilliant, energetic and ruthless rebel leader dead, Angolans dared to hope that their wretched land might find peace at last.
Mr Savimbi was not the sole cause of Angola’s civil war, but he was probably the most important reason why it has lasted so long. When one casus belli disappeared, he always found another. The war started as a struggle to liberate Angola from Portuguese rule. But when the Portuguese left in a hurry in 1975, pausing only to block the drains with cement, the fighting continued. Mr Savimbi fought to oust the new ruling party, the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), largely because he was not in charge of it. His soldiers followed him, largely out of tribal loyalty. The United States and the apartheid regime in South Africa supplied him with cash, missiles and reinforcements, largely because the MPLA was Marxist, and received help from the Soviet Union and Cuba.
Charming and multilingual, Mr Savimbi told potential supporters whatever they wanted to hear. When seeking military aid from China, he claimed to want to build a Maoist state that would somehow accommodate the local culture. To his South African allies, he billed himself as a bulwark against communist imperialism. When wooing Ronald Reagan, he pretended to be a democrat and an avid fan of the free market. To fellow members of the Ovimbundu tribe, Angola’s largest, he presented himself as a king, who would restore their ancient glory and drive the mestiços who ruled Angola into the sea.
His only sincere belief, however, was that he ought to be president of Angola. When the cold war ended, the superpowers stopped squabbling over the country and pushed both sides to stop shooting. An election was held in 1992. Mr Savimbi was sure he would win, but he lost. Furious, he cried foul and went back to war.
Evil in a red beret
Jonas Malheiro Savimbi was born in 1934, into a proud family. His grandfather was an Ovimbundu chief who led a revolt against the Portuguese in 1902. Defeated, he was deprived of his chieftainship. Savimbi is said to have grown up resenting the humiliation. He went to Portugal in 1959 to study medicine, but soon ditched his studies to become a revolutionary. He started modestly, with 11 men, some knives and a pistol. His band of guerrillas grew, and was named the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) in 1966.
For most of the rest of his life, Mr Savimbi lived in the bush with his guerrillas. In the early years, he was popular. He cut a dashing figure in his fatigues and red beret, and peasants at all-night rallies found his oratory entrancing. His sheer energy kept UNITA going: he walked thousands of miles between remote villages, preaching war and organising his followers into revolutionary cells. Legends circulated of his stamina, his incredible sexual appetite, and his seeming invulnerability. He was said never to sleep two nights running in the same bed—inconvenient, no doubt, for his family, which reportedly included several wives and dozens of children.
Mr Savimbi’s popularity waned, however, as his tactics grew more vicious. He ordered his men to plant millions of mines in Angola’s fertile soil, to raze villages and to drive hordes of refugees into the cities, where he hoped they would become a burden on the government. Fearing that some of his officers might want to supplant him, he had them killed, along with their families. Other suspected waverers were accused of witchcraft and burned alive, or cast into UNITA’s “prisons”: deep pits, sealed with logs and earth, pitch black and inescapable.
In his last decade, Mr Savimbi had no outside support, so he kept his army supplied with bombs and bullets by selling diamonds mined in areas he controlled. A global embargo on “conflict diamonds” reduced his takings, but only somewhat. Diamonds are small, precious, and easy to smuggle. To secure adequate food for his men, he encouraged them simply to seize it at gunpoint from the peasants among whom they lived. His brutality ended up strengthening the government he was trying to overthrow. The war gave the MPLA an excuse to jail and harass its civilian opponents. When anyone wanted to know what had happened to Angola’s oil revenues, ministers cited national security and kept mum.
A biographer, Fred Bridgland, tells a story which may be apocryphal but sounds true. When Jonas Savimbi was a boy, he owned a football. The missionaries at his school arranged a match between their students and some white boys from a neighbouring town. Jonas provided the ball, and the white boys brought a Portuguese referee. The white team surged ahead. Jonas accused the referee of bias, picked up the ball and walked off, spoiling the match. Mr Savimbi died as he lived, a despoiler with a gun in his hands.