Angola: Don't Simplify History, Says Savimbi's Biographer

interview

Johannesburg — The veteran British journalist, Fred Bridgland, became well known in the 1980s for his biography of Angolan rebel leader Jonas Savimbi and his writings about Unita, the movement that Savimbi led. When Jonas Savimbi: A Key to Africa hit the bookshops, some readers called Bridgland an apologist for Savimbi, a label Bridgland has always rejected.

Critics accused the writer of extolling the virtues and charisma of the Unita leader, charging that Bridgland seemed to endorse the Unita founder as a credible alternative to a corrupt, left-wing government in the capital Luanda. But Bridgland played another role as well. When reports began to emerge of Savimbi's torture and killings of his own close associates, Bridgland began revealing these atrocities in his writings.

Since Savimbi was killed by Angolan government troops in February, fighting has ceased and peace seems to be at hand, following a peace agreement between the two belligerents signed on April 4.

Bridgland remains close to the story, having recently been appointed Africa correspondent of the Evening Standard and Sunday Telegraph of London, based in Johannesburg. In this retrospective interview with Ofeibea Quist-Arcton of allAfrica.com, he reviews the life of the man whose life he chronicled for several decades.

Fred Bridgland, were you an apologist for Jonas Savimbi, as many people called you, or were you Savimbi's biographer?

Savimbi's biographer, not an apologist for Savimbi -- far from it.

Many would say that, certainly in your first book, you were touting for a man who became a monster.

Yes, I think some people would say that, but I think I can make an easy defence of that. I think the strategic analysis of my book on Savimbi stands up to this day. I think, I know that when I discovered what was going on internally in Unita, I was the first to reveal it.

Before I wrote the book on Savimbi, I was the person who actually revealed the South African invasion of Angola.

So do you reject the accusations from those who say Fred Bridgland was an apologist for Jonas Savimbi, that you were the man who, publicly as a journalist, made Savimbi sound like good news.

I can't reject that entirely, obviously, because when I wrote the book I didn't have the subsequent information I got after 1989. But I think the point is that Unita had a case when the Angolan civil war began.

You have to remember that one of Unita's main arguments was that there should be elections in Angola. That is a generally accepted fact of life even in Africa these days.

And there were no elections in Angola for 17 years. And that was what Unita, and I emphasise Unita, fought for -- for the holding of general elections in Angola. And those were only held in 1992, 17 years after Angola became independent.

What was the draw of Jonas Savimbi?

I think anybody who had been in his presence was certainly charmed by him. He was a very charming man, he was a very witty man.

And a remarkable...

Certainly an incredible linguist. He spoke four European languages, including English although he had never lived in an English-speaking country. He was extremely well read. He was an extremely fine conversationalist and a very good listener. I had conversations with him sometimes that went on for more than 24 hours. I just found him very fascinating, very interesting.

But the legacy of Savimbi, surely, is that he will be seen as one of Africa's potential, but failed, leaders who set back perhaps a third of the continent...

Well I don't think there's any doubt at all that the legacy of Savimbi, in the post-election era, is that he is going to be condemned for the way he behaved at that time. But this is not a simple story.

I think one of the problems about the interpretation of Angola is that journalists, particularly, divide both sides into goodies and baddies. I think it's an insult to history to flatten history by interpreting it simplistically.

You had a situation where Unita arrived at the 1992 election and, already -- although people didn't know it, though I have to say I had begun to find out -- that Savimbi had begun killing his entire second-tier leadership. That had begun.

But even though he had done that, you have to remember that Savimbi and Unita almost won the presidential and parliamentary elections in Angola. It wasn't one white man who supported Savimbi and raised him to power, it was Angolan people who supported him and loved him and believed his cause was right.

Are we talking about 'Angolan' people or 'his' people, the Ovimbundu, who supported Unita?

Well, largely the Ovimbundu, but not only the Ovimbundu. I think all parties in Angola had their tribal bases. But all of them had support beyond that tribal base, but yes largely they were tribally based.

So in 1992, we had the Savimbi who wanted to be the leader of his country and the Savimbi who lost the elections, rightly or wrongly -- he says wrongly -- and then seemed only to be interested in single-mindedly becoming president of Angola. After that, he became in a way a dangerous, damaging, pillaging man who had been an instrument of South Africa, of the west, of the Cold War, didn't he?

I think he was only an instrument of himself after the 1992 elections. The fact is that a lot of his senior generals, very outstanding people -- and I do want to emphasise that there were a lot of very outstanding people in Unita, particularly in the second tier leadership after the elections -- when Savimbi insisted on going back to war, a lot of his senior generals, who had stuck with him till then, defected.

And one particular man I know, someone I 'yomped' across Angola with and watched him lead his battalion into battle - actually near the spot where Savimbi was killed - a guy called General Geraldo Nunda, he defected immediately after Savimbi went back to war. Nunda said, 'look the people are tired of war, there is no justification for this, Savimbi is now demonstrating that he is insane'.

In fact, Nunda and other generals were part of the operation that finally killed Savimbi.

So they turned their back on him and, in the end, ratted on him...

I think that's very emotional language. I think they were loyal to the original cause of Unita. They were not loyal to the cause of Savimbi. Savimbi by the end, long before the end, wanted to become an all-powerful, oligarchic, dictatorial ruler. And these people were not prepared to accept that.

And Savimbi at the end, unfortunately, was left with no men of real quality in the Unita movement. And this is possibly why his guerrilla war collapsed over the past ten years.

I met Jonas Savimbi on a number of occasions, in Paris, in Abidjan and in Unita-controlled territory in Angola for the last time in 1994. I was discussing with a fellow journalist who also interviewed him who said it is rare in Africa that people really wish someone dead, or gone, good riddance. But Savimbi had become a pest, a troublemaker, a plague, he said, a man who threw it all away...

I think that's right. I think, in the end, Savimbi was his own worst enemy. Savimbi defeated himself.

The person who gave me the crucial insight into Savimbi was his one-time foreign secretary, a good and noble man by any standards, Tito Chingunji.

Who was killed by Savimbi...

Tito was Savimbi's foreign secretary. And I was very close to Tito.

He was a very popular, handsome, brilliant young man and some say a potential rival to Savimbi for the leadership of Unita...

And my closest African friend, a very dear friend and a good man by any standards. But Tito, long before the 1992 elections, told me what was really going on inside Unita, the extent of the killings and the barbarity of the killings. And he predicted to me his own death.

For many years, I campaigned through Amnesty International and other bodies to try to save Tito's life, but I couldn't go public, because Tito had given me this information confidentially. If I had gone public with it, he would have been executed immediately.

Why didn't men like Tito Chingunji, who was eventually assassinated by Jonas Savimbi, jump ship? He was his foreign secretary, he was always all over the world, trumpeting Unita and promoting its cause...

It's a very good question. But you've got to remember that most of Tito's family was held hostage by Savimbi at his headquarters and in prisons in Angola against Tito continuing to do a brilliant diplomatic job in the outside world.

And, in fact, his family urged him not to come back. They said never mind us. But Tito told me 'no, you know I can't desert my family. I'm going to go back and one day I might not return. And if I don't return, you will know the time has come to do something'.

I suppose I campaigned with diplomats and organizations like Amnesty International for the best part of three years. But we now know that Tito was shot dead in 1991 -- by Savimbi's chief executioner, Kamy Pena, who really should be tried as a war criminal -- along with Tito's wife and Tito's children, including one-year old twins, who were picked up by their legs and beaten to death against tree trunks. Also Tito's sisters, brothers, mother, father -- the whole lot. Possibly 60 to 70 people, maybe more.

And they were only just the tip of the iceberg with the killings that were going on.

What we are talking about is really Pol Pot style killings, not quite on the same numerical scale, but in style very similar.

So Jonas Savimbi was a brutal executioner?

Yes, certainly. He was a man who betrayed himself and betrayed his own followers.

What about the South African connection with Unita and Angola because, here in Africa, apartheid was a much bigger issue than communism or Marxism and Savimbi was really on the wrong side in the end, wasn't he? He did a deal with the devil.

I'm thinking about this one. I think for people outside Angola, yes, he did a deal with the devil. For the people within Angola, Savimbi had a great deal of support at the time that he "did a deal with the devil".

Earlier in this interview I talked about the need to respect history. If we're going to respect history, then we mustn't oversimplify it. Savimbi at the beginning was hailed as the peacemaker in Angola. He tried to get a peace deal between all three movements. When it began to break down - and now we don't want to get into the discussion about how it did break down because it's very complicated and very controversial -- he actually first went to western capitals and said, look, the promise we had for elections at independence, it's not going to happen. He said the Russians are now pouring a lot of arms in for the MPLA (current government), what are you going to do about it?

And it was the West that was responsible for the South African invasion of Angola, it wasn't Savimbi. Savimbi asked for Western help. The West gave the green light to the South Africans to invade Angola, which the South Africans did. And when a journalist discovered that they had invaded Angola, which was me, and reported it, it changed the course of the war. The South Africans said to the west, 'look now we've been found out are you going to stand up and be counted if you want us to go on?' Of course the west said 'sorry'.

So was Jonas Savimbi a pawn of the Cold War, of America, of those who saw communism as the red devil, as the red scare?

All the Africans in Angola were pawns of the Cold War. Angola was the hot focus of the Cold War. The FNLA was the pawn of the CIA initially. The MPLA was the pawn of the Russians and the East Germans. Savimbi, initially, was China's man. And when he found that the Chinese help was insufficient....

What he once said to me is that when you're a drowning man in a crocodile-infested river, you don't argue about who is rescuing you until you're safely on the bank. And I think that was a reasonable argument. And he used to point also to the fact that Britain, during the Second World War, made an alliance with Joseph Stalin, who had wiped out 33 million people in the 1930s.

So, people make, all people make, all statesmen make alliances of convenience, cynical alliances of convenience everywhere around the world. On that score, I don't particularly condemn Savimbi. But what I do condemn him mightily for, and I revealed it, is the killing of his own very fine people. That can never be justified.

So are you absolutely sure that Unita is finished militarily?

For certain. I'm absolutely certain in my own mind. As I keep saying, Savimbi had destroyed his second tier leadership, with a few possible exceptions.

Is the Cold War over in Africa? Are the proxy wars of the west and their African partners over? I ask that, because Jonas Savimbi is, I suppose, the last Cold War icon on the continent...

Yes, but it was no longer an ideological war. It was a war being conducted by a man who wanted dictatorial power. He wanted supreme power. He had achieved supreme power within his movement. He had ended any last vestige of democracy within Unita and, finally, he was fighting for absolute power in Angola. But certainly the Cold War was over, we were talking about sheer human demagogy in the end.

Coming back to the MPLA government in Luanda, led by President Jose Eduardo dos Santos, do you think the MPLA's critics will continue supporting Unita as a movement, because they see the Angolan elite in Luanda as being over-weaning, greedy, corrupt rulers?

Personally, I'm not going to get involved in a criticism of the MPLA. I think that's the job of the people who, in the past, told us that the MPLA was the greatest thing since sliced bread. I've done my job on the side of the war that I reported.

Unita is finished as a military force, absolutely finished. There will be a few desultory bands of fighters perhaps spread around the country who will eventually be corralled.

But now the government of the MPLA needs to show real wisdom and creativity in creating transparent government and transparent economic management and recognizing the fact that there is great diversity in Angola of all kinds. There is great diversity of thought, great diversity of language, great diversity of culture, and Unita had a legitimacy. Savimbi squandered that legitimacy. He made Unita illegitimate. But in its early days, it had a real legitimacy and that legitimacy continues. And there are good Unita people in Luanda at the moment.

Let me put you on the spot, such as whom?

I think, say, a man I knew very well like Jaka Jamba. I think he was education secretary and information secretary of Unita for a while. He was as nice a man as I've known in Africa and as educated a man as I've known in Africa, Jaka Jamba.

I think someone like Abel Chivukuvuku, who had the courage to walk away from Unita when he realized it was falling apart.

Perhaps people like Brigadier Geraldo Nunda who, although he is fighting with the Angolan army now, was an absolute Unita loyalist in the early days. He was very clear that Savimbi betrayed the Unita cause, he betrayed the people who felt they had a real cause. So there are real people of talent still there.

I think if the MPLA is sensible, it will create the conditions under which all the fragmented bits of Unita can eventually get their act together and begin to operate as an effective political party and opposition.

Do you have any regrets, Fred Bridgland? I know you maintain you were not an apologist for Jonas Savimbi, but a lot of people saw you that way in his heyday. Any regrets at having promoted the man?

I wouldn't accept the language of your question, for a start. But of course, many regrets because a lot of people I knew very well were killed.

But I don't have any regrets about the strategic analysis of the book. I think it stands up to this day. I think it's accurate and I think anyone wanting to understand how this happened needs to read this book. It was called Jonas Savimbi, and I don't want to tell you the second part! It was called: A Key to Africa. A lot of people used to say a 'rusty' key! But, if I hadn't stuck with the story also, I would not have discovered and begun to reveal the atrocities that were carried out in Unita under Savimbi. And it was me who initially revealed the atrocities.

I would not have got to know some very fine men in Unita. Tito Chingunji is as good a man as I've known everywhere. And to this day, I love him as my brother. So, that is not a regret. I think in the end I told the full story.

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