Legacy of an Angolan opportunist

March 03, 2002|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

IT WAS in February 1986, a few weeks after the space shuttle Challenger blew up, that Jonas Savimbi visited Washington. Because of the disaster, President Ronald Reagan was seeing few people, but he found a spot on his schedule for Savimbi, leader of the rebel group fighting against the Marxist post-colonial rulers of the southern African country of Angola.

Along with others promoted as heroes in anti-communist liberation struggles - contras from Nicaragua, mujahedin from Afghanistan - Savimbi was feted by the Conservative Political Action Committee in a Washington hotel ballroom. In an introduction, former United Nations Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick called him a "linguist, philosopher, poet, politician, warrior," according to reports at the time.

"Savimbi has admirers all over the world, and I have long been one of them," she said, before leading cheers for giving his UNITA rebels "real weapons ... real helicopters ... real ground-to-air missiles."

Arranged through a public relations agency filled with movement conservatives, Savimbi's Washington tour was a triumph. It came after Congress had repealed a 1976 law that forbade any assistance to rebel groups in Angola and led directly to an authorization for $15 million in military assistance, including Stinger missiles.

"If Jonas Savimbi were an American citizen, he would be the presidential candidate of the conservative movement in 1988," said Conservative Caucus Chairman Howard Phillips.

Savimbi, then 50, was hailed by then-Vice President George Bush and Republican Senate leader Bob Dole. Later that year, Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, a Utah Republican, took a flight to Savimbi's headquarters in the Angolan bush. Many other conservative leaders followed.

Few, if any, of those voices were heard mourning when Savimbi's death was announced more than a week ago by the Angolan government. He died at age 67 as he had led most of his life, fighting for control of Angola.

In 1986, the Cold War was burning with the intensity of a light bulb in that millisecond before it blows out. If you weren't for Savimbi, you were for the communists. The right adopted a tactic long used by the left - romanticizing the armed struggle.

If the left could have Che Guevera, the right could have Savimbi, fighting for freedom heroically, not with words but with weapons. It was too easy in those polarized times to overlook that Savimbi long admired Che, that he learned his tactics from the Chinese Communists, and that he took money from the apartheid leaders of South Africa who also sent troops to his aid.

In hindsight, it seems so clear - not that there weren't plenty sounding the warning at the time - that Savimbi was an opportunist. With the Soviet Union supporting the government of Jose Eduardo dos Santos and his party - the People's Movement for the Liberation of Angola - which took over when the Portuguese left in 1975, his rival Savimbi declared himself an anti-communist and opened the money taps from America for his UNITA party - the Union for the Total Independence of Angola.

Eventually, all learned that Savimbi was not anti-communist or pro-capitalism. He was pro-Savimbi. That became clear in 1992 when the end of the Cold War dried up the funds that had fueled the fighting and both sides agreed to an election. The charismatic Savimbi was heavily favored, but his bellicose campaign went over poorly in the war-weary country. Despite 17 years of inept corruption, dos Santos won. Savimbi cried foul and went back to war.

It was about a year later that I visited Angola. Savimbi's troops, who had never disarmed as they were supposed to before the election, had taken over most of the countryside but few of the people as most fled to government-guarded cities.

The capital, Luanda, perched above a natural harbor, could be one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Instead, it was a squalid mess. Its population had quadrupled to 4 million as buildings left half-finished when the Portuguese packed up were turned into makeshift refugee camps. The spectacular beach was fouled by excrement as many used the tides for their toilet.

By all accounts, the situation has deteriorated further in the last decade. Luanda's population is up to 7 million. Without foreign benefactors, the combatants turned to looting Angola's abundant resources. Oil paid for the government's war, diamonds bought UNITA's weapons, countless millions of dollars that could have built schools and paved roads.

It can be left to post-colonial scholars to deconstruct the odd career of Savimbi, the whiz-kid son of a preacher and railroad stationmaster, the top-of-the-class graduate of an elite Portuguese high school who earned a doctorate in Switzerland, the man who left his country littered with so many landmines that it leads the world in amputees.

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