Jonas Savimbi, the Leader of UNITA

Jonas Savimbi
Jonas Savimbi in 1988

While the Cold War reached every corner of the globe, some conflicts such as the Korean War or the Vietnam War  became important parts of history and our culture while other conflicts are not really known in the West due to their obscurity. It was one of these conflicts, the Angolan Civil War, that gave rise to an individual who has come to be known as one of the greatest guerrilla warfare leaders of the twentieth century. Like the proxy wars that comprised the Cold War, this individual was multi-layered and sometimes controversial, and was known as Jonas Savimbi.

Born Jonas Malheiros Savimbi in Munhango in central Angola on August 3rd, 1934, Savimbi’s country at the time was a colony of Portugal. However, unlike many peoples living under colonial rule, Savimbi was able to attain much more education than his fellow Angolans. He had attended two missionary schools, as well as two secondary schools before receiving a scholarship to attend university in Lisbon, the capitol of Portugal. During his time in Lisbon, Savimbi studied anti-colonialism (and developed leanings towards communism) and was arrested by the Portuguese secret police three times prior to his transfer to a different university. Savimbi then studied political science when he attended Fribourg University in Switzerland, then the University of Lausanne. He finished his studies in 1965, and would refer to himself as “Doctor” after studying medicine.

Flag of UNITA

After spending so much time on education, Savimbi was unsure of how to proceed with his goal on Angolan independence. In 1961, he had joined the Union of Angolan People (UPA) in which he served as Secretary General, and then in 1962 the UPA and the National Front for the Liberation of Angola (FNLA) combined to form the Government of the Republic of Angola in Exile (GRAE), in which Savimbi acted as Foreign Minister. However, in 1964 Savimbi left the GRAE because of disagreements with the leadership. Eventually Savimbi would be taken to the People’s Republic of China and trained in guerrilla warfare (the kind used by Mao Zedong) at the Nanking Military Academy, and formed UNITA in 1966, or the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola.

UNITA soldiers
UNITA soldiers

As the leader of UNITA, Savimbi led his forces against the Portuguese during the Angolan War of Independence, although there were two factions fighting for independence. There was the FNLA, and there was the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola, or the MPLA. The MPLA was also a communist organization, although they were aligned with Marxist-Leninism and the Soviet Union whereas Savimbi had initially been aligned with Marxist-Maoism and the PRC. However, there were also cultural differences. UNITA mostly drew support from the Ovimbundu group people of Angola, whereas the MPLA drew from the Ambundu group. Another key aspect was how Savimbi claimed that UNITA would establish a government that was multi-ethnic and implement a decision-making process that was based on consensus and tradition, whereas the MPLA wanted a more top-down and centralized form of leadership.

AngolaWhen the Angolan War of Independence ended in 1974, Savimbi was a major figure in the talks with Portugal and hoped that the three groups (UNITA, the FNLA and the MPLA) could unite and allow for a era of independence. Unfortunately, what would follow would be the twenty-seven year Angolan Civil War which, aside from being fraught with genocides and war crimes, would lead to the most controversial periods of Savimbi’s life and secure his place in Cold War and African history. Despite being a former Communist himself, Savimbi would become perhaps the most important anti-Communist leader on the African continent and renounced his ties with the PRC, although China would still send aid to anti-MPLA forces. Initially, the PRC had supported the MPLA, although aid would switch to UNITA due to the Sino-Soviet Split and the Soviet Union’s support for the MPLA. Eventually, the United States and certain NATO countries would send aid to UNITA. Part of this was because of Savimbi’s education, which he used to greatly improve UNITA’s image for people in the First World countries. He could speak six languages fluently, including four European languages such as English although Savimbi himself had never lived in an English-speaking country and could speak clearly and without a heavy accent.

Cuban soldiers during the Angolan Civil War
Cuban soldiers during the Angolan Civil War

There was also Savimbi’s ties with the Angolan people, as the majority of his time was spent either traveling across the countryside of eastern and south-eastern Angola rallying villagers to UNITA’s cause or at his headquarters in Jamba. He also maintained the same image of him wearing a beret and military fatigues while carrying a swagger stick, and it is almost impossible to find an image of him wearing anything else. The presence of Cuban soldiers also helped Savimbi’s image with the Angolan people, as Savimbi frequently referenced “Cuban colonialism” and stated he would only agree to peace talks if the Cubans left first. Cuban tactics played a large role, as they helped the MPLA murder Angolans in certain regions over the age of ten to prevent them from joining UNITA, and frequently used flamethrowers and napalm on Angolan villages.

South African soldiers of the 32nd Battalion
South African soldiers of the 32nd Battalion

However, there was one ally whom Savimbi made that made him extremely controversial among African and Western countries. Despite being seen by some in the West as an important bulwark against the Soviet-backed MPLA (whom had committed numerous war crimes such as genocide) and the MPLA-aligned Cuban troops in Angola, Savimbi also made allies with South Africa. At the time, apartheid was still in affect and South Africa had been boycotted by countries in both the West and the East (prompting South Africa to take measures such as developing its own firearms and nuclear weapons). This relationship with South Africa greatly increased the controversy around Savimbi, as he was already a former Communist fighting other Communists, and he had also fought the Portuguese to gain independence but was now allied with the racist Afrikaner government of South Africa. Some accused Savimbi of being power hungry, others accused him of being a warmonger. However, due to his ability to gain support from the West (eventually the CIA would provide funds and equipment), his alliance with South Africa, and the loyalty of the Ovimbundu (gaining the trust of peasants was a key aspect of his Maoist training), Savimbi was able to continue UNITA’s war against the MPLA for a very long time, and at certain points almost seemed on the edge of victory.

SavimbiEventually by 1988 after the deaths of some 350,000 people, Cuban troops agreed to withdraw from Angola, South Africa would give independence to Namibia, and the warring factions in Angola agreed to a cease-fire which would allow for peaceful elections. Savimbi began campaigning and frequently made speeches that suggested the fighting would resume if he did not win at the ballot box. Unfortunately, the fighting did resume as Savimbi lost the election, and despite 300 UN observers claiming that the elections had been fair, Savimbi claimed the elections had been rigged and UNITA once again went on the offensive. This time, Savimbi had also lost the support of the West but was able to secure roughly 70% of Angola, although this period of the Angolan Civil War saw 150,000 more people killed. By the mid-90’s, Savimbi attempted to broker peace which would allow both UNITA and the MPLA to share power, and although the MPLA offered Savimbi the vice presidency and a mansion, Savimbi refused again and by 1998 the fighting resumed.

Savimbi continued his guerrilla war until February 22nd, 2002, when MPLA forces launched an attack on his headquarters and shot Savimbi fifteen times in the legs, upper torso, throat and head. Even though Savimbi returned fire, he was killed instantly. His death was not immediately believed by the Angolan people, as he had managed to evade the MPLA and the Soviet and Cuban advisers for the entire duration of the Angolan Civil War, and it was not until his dead body was broadcast on state television and the U.S. State Department confirmed it that Savimbi was finally believed to be dead. Although the fighting ended shortly afterwards, and the MPLA holds the majority of the government, the country of Angola is still very much divided between the MPLA and UNITA.

Savimbi as he appears in
Savimbi as he appears in “Call of Duty: Black Ops 2”

Today, there are few figures from the proxy wars of the Cold War that stand out, and few as notable as Jonas Savimbi. He came from an area most could not find on a globe, and yet his intelligence and speaking skills were able to win him allies in places such as the Reagan administration while fighting a somewhat successful guerrilla war from 1975 until 2002 against an enemy trained and equipped by the Soviets and Cubans. It has commonly been agreed that his largest mistake had been refusing the elections and continuing the war, and some UNITA defectors have claimed that Savimbi himself was an autocrat rather than a noble defender against Communism. Perhaps that is what is so striking about Savimbi, in a way he symbolizes the contradictions and multiple layers that permeated the Cold War.


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