18 March 2002

Africa: Brush With Jonas Savimbi

When Cameron Duodu was invited to be part of a Ghanaian delegation on the status of groups that were parading about as African liberation movements, he had no idea that he could have helped shape the continent's history. Nearly 30 years on, he would have done things differently to stop a cancer called Jonas Savimbi

Some journalists dream of becoming an actor on the political stage, instead of remaining a recorder of what the actors do. I admit I have not been unaffected by this virus in my time. Fortunately, each attack has left me with a bitter taste in my mouth.

In 1972, politics and journalism crossed lines in a spectacular way in my life. I had the opportunity to interview, on Ghana television, some of the most glamorous African liberation leaders of the time, including Amilcar Cabral of Guinea-Bissau, Samora Machel of Mozambique, Agostinho Neto of Angola, Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe and Sam Nujoma of Namibia.

Impressed by these interviews, the Ghanaian foreign minister, a debonair young major called Kwame Baah, invited me to be part of Ghanaian delegations to important African events.

So when Cabral was assassinated in January 1973, I flow with Baah to Freetown, from where we drove across Sierra Leone to Conakry to attend the incredibly grandiose funeral organised by the late President Sekou Toure of Guinea.

Sekou Toure received us at his palace, and gave us permission to go and visit the Villa Sylla, where Ghana's former president, Dr Kwame Nkrumah, had spent most of his years in exile, following his overthrow by his army in February 1966.

Nkumah had died in Bucharest the previous year but the Villa Sylla had been preserved as it was when he lived in it.

As I walked round Nkrumah's modest rooms, I had occasion to philosophise about the transient nature of political power, as encap- sulated in the Latin phrase: hic fugit gloria mundi (thus flees the glory of the world).

In 1974, Baah again appointed me in a two-man delegation to take part in a crucial meeting of the Liberation Committee of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), called to decide whether the OAU should recognise several groups that were claiming to be African 'liberation movements'. OAU recognition was important to these groups. Apart from financial assistance from the OAU, recognition brought virtual diplomatic status in many African countries, which, in turn, gave them respectability - and access - in their relations with the rich and powerful nations of the world.

The conference was to take place in Lusaka.

We got our first jolt when we descended to breakfast at the Lusaka Intercontinental Hotel on the first morning to find our chairman, a Nigerian brigadier, and his fellow delegate, a diplomat, at a table with a bottle of champagne sitting next to it in an ice-box.

What? Champagne at breakfast on such a serious mission?

Among the organisations that had applied for OAU recognition was the Union for the Total Liberation of Angola (Unita) led by Jonas Savimbi. Savimbi did not come to see us himself but sent his extremely loquacious 'Foreign Minister' Jorge Sangumba.

There had been many reports that Savimbi had been providing information to the Portuguese secret police, PIDE, that had led to the deaths of many soldiers of the MPLA, the main Angolan movement fighting against Portuguese colonial rule.

The Paris-based magazine, Afrique-Asie, had published documentary evidence of these contacts between Savimbi and the PIDE but none of my fellow delegates had heard about it.

Fortunately, I was carrying with me a copy of the London Sunday Times newspaper, which gave details of a secret meeting between Savimbi and the Portuguese military commander in Guinea-Bissau, General Antonio de Spinola. When Sangumba came to see us, I questioned him vigorously on the report. He looked us straight in the eye and denied everything as "MPLA communist propaganda."

Afterwards, we noted informally that whether we liked it or not, Unita was a military force on the ground all right, and that if the OAU did not recognise Unita, it could lead to a delay in Angola's independence. If Unita continued to supply information to the Portuguese it would weaken the liberation war being waged by the MPLA. Also, OAU recognition would give it some leverage with Unita, we reckoned.

We left Lusaka without having come to a firm, formal conclusion, however. The intention was to reconvene to finalise our report just before the OAU held a summit meeting in June 1974.

Unknown to me, however, my tough questioning of Unita had been reported, through powerful channels favourable to Savimbi, to the Ghanaian government. So I was inexplicably dropped from the delegation that was going to finalise our report. (At the time, the Central Intelligence Agency was assisting Savimbi to bolster Unita's diplomatic and military clout.)

The committee met without me in final session and recommended that Unita be recognised. And the OAU heads of state accepted the recommendation at their meeting in Mogadishu in June 1974. The OAU also gave Unita an initial grant of $32,000.

Savimbi's biographer, Fred Bridgland, described this as "Unita's biggest diplomatic triumph" ever.

Indeed, Unita grew in strength and was able to launch a full-scale war against the MPLA after Portugal withdrew from Angola in November 1975. South Africa and the USA sided with Unita openly, and were it not for Cuba, which helped the MPLA, Unita would have captured Luanda.

And Angola would have become a colony of apartheid South Africa in all but name.

The Angolan civil war has now lasted nearly 30 years. The number of lives lost is put at about a million. Would this have happened if the OAU had not recognised Unita in 1974? With hindsight, I wish I had campaigned more strongly against Savimbi when I had the chance.

I could have lobbied to be put back on the second delegation. I had thought at the time that fighting for a place on a delegation was infra dig: beneath my dignity. But if I had realised what a cancer Savimbi was going to be in the African body politic over the next 30 years, I would have thrown dignity to the winds.

By the way, according to Bridgland's gushing biography of Savimbi, the Unita 'Foreign Minister' who came to mislead us, Jorge Sangumba, was murdered some years later by Savimbi.

Savimbi used to conduct bizarre rituals in the bush, in which Unita officials disloyal to him (that is those who had opinions that differed from his) were denounced as witches and burnt to death on a bonfire.

Savimbi will have a lot to answer for in the nether world.

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