27 February 2002

Angola: Jonas Savimbi: Who Was He?


THERE is an age honoured Bemba saying that 'ubushiku insofu ifwile nelyashi lya nsofu' (the day an elephant dies, it is the talk of the village).

True to the saying the entire Southern Africa has been abuzz with the talk of the fall of Africa's best known warlord in the name of Jonas Malheiro Savimbi, the man who has been at the centre of Angola's almost 30 years of a crushing civil war.

But just who was this tenacious, elusive and unusually cunning politician-cum-guerrilla fighter?

Widely condemned as the villain of the region in Southern African Development Community (SADC) circles and the world as a whole - at least in the last decade - Savimbi's death at the hands of Angolan government troops was expected to create the kind of excitement it seems to have.

The dark complexioned, bushy bearded, squat faced, flat nosed fighter had thrown ice on every national, regional and international effort to end the agonising war which has cost almost a million lives and left several hundred thousand poor Angolans homeless.

Why was the man so stubborn and insensitive to the suffering that the civil war had wrought on his country's ordinary population?

How had he managed to survive offensive after massive offensive by MPLA troops even after he had been ditched by his embarrassed backers, the United States and South Africa?

Savimbi was a very difficult person to understand as he did not project a specific personality. He always presented himself in a manner that suited his purpose.

Veteran journalist and researcher Alec Russel who has covered the Angolan war has made a serious attempt to peel the mask to reveal the true Savimbi, not the dazzling figure the public has been fed on through television, newspapers and magazines. That was for show.

Abroad, says Russel, Savimbi presented the picture of a learned capitalist who was fighting the scourge of institutionalised corruption and voluntary servitude.

Back in the jungles of Bailundo there was an eloquent, fiery peasant socialist who resented capitalism and anything that was associated with it.

In his book Big Men, Little People, Russel calls Savimbi a 'Cold War Crooner' in reference to the clever manner in which the bush warrior successfully fooled the Americans and their Western allies into bankrolling his armed insurgency under the delusion that he was their stooge and pawn in their fight against Communism.

The Savimbi that comes out of Russel's research, however, which included face to face interviews with the man himself and his closest aides, is completely different from the public one.

Perhaps some snippets of Russel' s findings during the time he walked the paths of Huambo will help the reader to understand why Savimbi was so single track minded that the word peace to him was anathema.

The environment in which he was born and bred coupled with the blood of militancy that coursed through his veins, and later his obsession for political power combined to carve Savimbi into Africa's most ruthless, blood-thirsty terrorist.

According to Russel Savimbi must have picked up the militancy from his grandfather, Sakaita Savimbi, a chief of the Ovimbundu, Angola's largest tribal group which makes up one third of the country's entire population.

"Outraged by a second wave of colonisation by Afrikaner and Portuguese farmers and devastated by falling rubber prices, Sakaita led an ill-fated rebellion against the Portuguese in 1902 in the central town of Bailundo, which 90 years later was to become Savimbi's base," he writes.

As expected the uprising was doused in its infancy. It was brutally crushed and many tribesmen and workers were killed in four months.

As punishment Chief Sakaita was stripped of his chieftainship and subjected to a lot of humiliation. However, he became a hero and a symbol of African dignity and defiance among the black natives.

He never lost hope that one day another Savimbi would take up his cause and free his people from the yoke of oppression.

The realisation, or partial realisation, of Sakaita's dream, however, came in a most unusual way, as chronicled by Russel.

To express his resentment for white oppressors Sakaita severed all contacts between his family and the white community. He even banned his children from attending white run schools.

But his son, Loth Savimbi, defied the ban and went to a missionary school, which marked the beginning of his own encounter with the harsh realities of colonial rule.

He received sufficient education to crawl out of the lowest rungs of his community to become a pastor. But he ran into heavy debt to a traditional healer for unpaid for services and was forced to seek employment in the Benguela Railway which was regarded by the blacks as the symbol of colonial oppression.

By virtue of his ability to speak and write fluent Portuguese Loth won his acceptance into the elite ranks. He was among the few, about a hundred, blacks who qualified as assimilados, enjoying a privileged status.

Russel here presents a frustrated Loth who is afraid of losing his new status while craving for acceptance and understanding by his own people.

The assimilados are like those black Zambians who managed to penetrate the clerical level in the mines in the pre-colonial era who were contemptuously called 'bamakobo', a despised, meek, tasteless species of fish.

It was during that period that Jonas Savimbi was born. Little Jonas learned tribal languages and his tribe's folklore from his vanquished grandfather Sakaita, which were later to prove vital in his quest for the support of the rural poor and rallying them to his cause.

Russel writes, "Embittered by his very different experiences, Loth reared the young Savimbi to believe he had to play a role in changing Angola. To ensure his son accomplished this commission Loth took young Savimbi to Protestant missionary schools.

"It was these same missionaries who are said to have organised a legendary football match between their black pupils and white children from the local town, Andulo, which, if true, provides a telling insight into Savimbi's mindset," narrates Russel.

The writer says Savimbi himself first proudly told this story to his biographer, Fred Bridgland, in vivid detail.

"The arrangement was that Savimbi provided the ball and the whites provided the referee. All went according to plan until the game started and the Portuguese referee disallowed every goal the black pupils scored.

"So enraged was the young Savimbi that he walked off the pitch with his ball in his hands. 'My own team shouted that I could not do it because the administrator's son was playing,' he told Bridgland. I carried on walking and the game had to be abandoned".

Russel says that the stubborn streak is one of the few consistent strands in Savimbi's subsequent career.

After graduating to a higher school young Savimbi, Russel writes, had another confrontation with colonialism. He defied the ban on ballroom dancing which was then the vogue among educated young black Africans. To make matters worse the Portuguese had banned would be assimilados from 'primitive' traditional dances. His father tried to pacify the boy, but he could not have any of the stuff and continued dancing ballroom at the risk of expulsion.

Again, young Savimbi defied his father and walked all the way to Silva Porto where, through his own efforts, he won a prestigious scholarship to study in Lisbon, Portugal mainly reserved for white children.

Later it was to be discovered that Savimbi wanted to get education from the white colonists so that he could later employ it to fight them and drive them out of Angola. It was to prove useful to his cause.

Writes Russel, "He soon, however, transferred his passion to a national stage as politics began to predominate over the desire for a profession.

"While in Europe in his early 20s he met many of the icons of black nationalism, including (Jomo) Kenyatta and (Kwame) Nkrumah, who kindled his revolutionary spirit."

After a brief association with some exiled freedom fighters he broke away saying they derided his village upbringing and, using the education and important contacts he had cultivated he forged an alliance with the Chinese who recognised in him a true black revolutionary.

Driven by their resentment of the West and the bitter memories of the Korean War the Chinese trained Savimbi into a deadly, cunning guerrilla fighter and let him off the leash.

"...He slipped into Angola in 1966 with 10 other Angolans and later the same year officially founded the Union for the Total Liberation of Angola (UNITA) and went into the bush to wage a murderous guerrilla war which he had been fighting for 27 years with barely a break until he was stopped by government bullets last week.

A devoted student and admirer of Chairman Mao's 'Long March' Savimbi embraced peasant socialism in preference to Soviet style socialism. The truth is that Savimbi was a Communist through and through but he cleverly manipulated the Americans and their allies' phobia for Communism.

He denounced Communism and showered praise on capitalism in public for the Western governments' ears and became the darling of the West. They fell over themselves to supply him with military hardware and ready cash. Back in the jungles Savimbi was a dyed-in-the-wool peasant socialist-Communist whose hatred for whites knew no bounds.

It took the Americans more than two decades to realise their grave mistake. By ditching Savimbi in the late 1980s they in fact just fueled his congenital hatred for imperialism.

That is a glimpse into the bi-faceted life of Jonas Malheiro Savimbi, the Cold War crooner, as Russel describes him. The question is does his death mark the dawn of healing and relief for the traumatised Angolans? The world is waiting to see.

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