Jonas Savimbi, leader of one of numerous terrorist organizations funded and supplied by the US during the Cold War, was born on this date in 1934.
Trained in Maoist guerilla tactics by the Chinese military during the early 1960s, Savimbi shuttled between several anti-colonial resistance movements, all of which sought to expel the Portugese from Angola, the land they had begun to colonize five centuries before. When Angolan independence came in 1975, Savimbi’s group -- the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) -- joined the struggle for power as the country quickly descended into a civil war. By 1976, UNITA had been more or less defeated by the Soviet-backed Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA).
Driven into the bush, UNITA continued the war. Rejuvenated by hundreds of millions of dollars in covert funds from the CIA, UNITA laid waste to the nation’s agricultural regions, kidnapped and conscripted children, laid mines along public roads, and publicly roasted women accused of witchcraft. Over time, many of Savimbi’s associates met with grisly ends.
Backed by the United States, South Africa, Israel and a host of other rightist African allies, Savimbi was hailed by Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Herbert Walker Bush as a “freedom fighter,” in spite of his extraordinary personal ego and his apparent disinterest in the emergence of actual democracy in Angola. Among Savimbi’s staunch defenders and promoters was a young activist named Jack Abramoff. Abramoff, who worked at the time for a conservative group known as Citizens for America, organized a 1985 “summit” of “freedom fighters” in Jamba, Angola; due in part to Abramoff’s efforts, the Reagan administration offered greater sums of covert aid to extend the violence. Meantime, the Soviet Union did its part as well to export the Cold War’s bloodshed far from its own soil, providing billions of dollars in military assistance to the MPLA.
When the Cold War evaporated and the Angolan civil war was halted long enough to hold free elections, Savimbi waged a campaign for president. When he lost in 1992, Savimbi refused to accept the results and resumed his guerilla war against the MPLA. Deprived of support from the US, he turned instead to revenues acquired from diamond, smuggled to Europe through Namibia, Rwanda, and other nations. Meantime, nations like Russia and Portugal -- who were supposed to be helping mediate a truce to the war -- shipped weapons to the Angolan government, prolonging the conflict in their own right.
While roughly ten percent of the country’s population was displaced, thousands of Angolans died in subsequent fighting -- the last of 500-600,000 who perished in Africa’s longest post-colonial conflict. Committed to the bitter end, UNITA shelled cities like Malanje and Kuito, causing hundreds of civilian casualties.
Jonas Savimbi himself eventually became one of those casualties, shot at least fifteen times in the head during a February 2002 ambush in Moxico, Angola. His death brought jubilant celebrations in Luanda, the nation’s capital.
Labels: civil war, cold war