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Jonas Malheiro Savimbi (August 3, 1934 – February 22, 2002) led UNITA, an anti-Communist rebel group that fought against the MPLA in the Angolan Civil War until his death in a clash with Government troops in 2002.

With support from the governments of the United Statesmarker, the People's Republic of Chinamarker, South Africa, Israelmarker, several African leaders (Félix Houphouët-Boigny of Côte d'Ivoiremarker, Mobutu Sese Seko of Zairemarker,However, Mobutu has always personally denied this. See Blaine Harden, Africa: Dispatches from a Fragile Continent, p. 51, and Sean Kelly, America's Tyrant: The CIA and Mobutu of Zaire, p. 4 King Hassan II of Moroccomarker and Kenneth Kaunda of Zambiamarker), and foreign mercenaries from Portugalmarker, Israelmarker, South Africa, and Francemarker, Savimbi spent much of his life battling Angola's Marxist-inspired government, which was supported by weapons and military advisers from the Soviet Unionmarker, Cubamarker, and Nicaraguamarker (under the Sandinistas). The war ultimately became one of the most prominent Third World conflicts of the Cold War.

Early years

Jonas Savimbi was born on August 3, 1934 in Munhango, a smalltown on the Benguela Railway and raised in Angola's central province of Biémarker, which together with Huambomarker later served as his power base during the civil war. Savimbi's father, Lote, was a stationmaster on Angola's Benguela railway line and a Protestant preacher. Both of his parents were members of the Ovimbundu tribe, which later served as Savimbi's major political base.

Savimbi was an unusually bright student and was accepted to a Portuguesemarker high school, where he graduated at the top of his class. In 1958, he was accepted to medical school in Lisbonmarker. In Lisbon, Savimbi began his political involvement, calling for an end to Portuguese colonialism in Angola. His opposition drew the ire of the Portuguese secret police, which tried to get Savimbi to reveal the names of those in Angola who shared his view. Under this pressure, Savimbi fled Portugal for Lausannemarker, Switzerlandmarker. In Lausanne, Savimbi abandoned the study of medicine for that of politics, ultimately obtaining his doctorate in 1965 from the University of Lausannemarker, where his courses were taught in French.

Following Angola's independence in 1975, Savimbi gradually drew the intrigue of powerful Chinesemarker and, ultimately, Americanmarker policymakers and intellectuals. Trained in Chinamarker during the 1960s, Savimbi was a highly successful guerrilla fighter schooled in classic Maoist approaches to warfare, including baiting his enemies with multiple military fronts, some of which attacked and some of which consciously retreated. Like the Chinese Red Army of Mao Zedong, Savimbi mobilized large segments of the rural peasantry as part of his military tactics. From a military strategy standpoint, he is generally considered one of the most effective guerrilla leaders of the 20th century.

While Savimbi originally sought a leadership position in the Marxist MPLA, he later denounced Marxism and joined forces with the FNLA in 1964. The same year he conceived UNITA with Antonio da Costa Fernandes. Savimbi went to China for help and was promised arms and military training. Upon returning to Angola in 1966 he formally launched UNITA and began his career as an anti-Portuguese guerrilla fighter, but also fought the FNLA and MPLA, as the three resistance movements tried to position themselves to lead a post-colonial Angola. Portugal would later release PIDE archives revealing that Savimbi in fact signed a collaboration pact with Portuguese colonial authorities to fight the MPLA.

Complementing his military skills, Savimbi also impressed many with his intellectual qualities. He fluently spoke seven languages, including four European languages and three African languages. In visits with foreign diplomats and in speeches before American audiences, he often cited classical Western political and social philosophy, ultimately becoming one of the most vocal anti-communists of the Third World.

Some dismiss this intellectualism as nothing more than careful handling by his politically savvy American supporters, who sought to present Savimbi as a clear alternative to Angola's regime. But others saw it as genuine and a product of the guerrilla leader's raw intelligence. Savimbi's biography describes him as " 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."

These contrasting images of Savimbi would play out throughout his life, with his enemies calling him a power-hungry warmonger, and his American and other allies calling him a critical figure in the West's bid to win the Cold War.

Savimbi's Washington allies

Savimbi's war against Angola's Marxist government became a sub-plot to the Cold War, with both Moscowmarker and Washington viewing the conflict as important to the global balance of power. In 1985, with the backing of the Reagan administration, Jack Abramoff and other U.S. conservatives organized the Democratic International in Savimbi's base in Jambamarker, in Cuando Cubango Provincemarker in southeastern Angola. The meeting included most of the anti-communist guerrilla leaders of the Third World, including Savimbi, Nicaraguan contra leader Adolfo Calero, and Abdul Rahim Wardak, then leader of Afghanistanmarker's mujahideen who now serves as Afghanistan's Defense Minister.

Equally important, Savimbi also was strongly supported by the influential, conservative Heritage Foundation. Heritage Foundation foreign policy analyst Michael Johns and other conservatives visited regularly with Savimbi in his clandestine camps in Jamba and provided the rebel leader with ongoing political and military guidance in his war against the Angolan government. Savimbi's U.S.-based supporters ultimately proved successful in convincing the Central Intelligence Agency to channel covert weapons and recruit guerrillas for Savimbi's war against Angola's Marxist government, which greatly intensified and prolonged the conflict.

During a visit to Washington, D.C.marker in 1986, Reagan invited Savimbi to meet with him at the White Housemarker. Following the meeting, Reagan spoke of UNITA winning "a victory that electrifies the world."

Two years later, with the Angolan Civil War intensifying, Savimbi returned to Washington, where he was filled with gratitude and praise for the Heritage Foundation's work on UNITA's behalf. "When we come to the Heritage Foundation", Savimbi said during a June 30, 1988 speech at the foundation, "it is like coming back home. We know that our success here in Washington in repealing the Clark Amendment and obtaining American assistance for our cause is very much associated with your efforts. This foundation has been a source of great support. The UNITA leadership knows this, and it is also known in Angola."

Savimbi's military success

As U.S. support began to flow liberally and leading U.S. conservatives championed his cause, Savimbi won major strategic battles in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and Moscow and Havanamarker began to reevaluate their engagement in Angola, as Soviet and Cuban fatalities mounted and Savimbi's ground control increased. At the height of his military success, Savimbi controlled nearly half the country and was beginning, in 1989 and 1990, to launch attacks on government and military targets in and around the country's capital, Luandamarker. Observers felt that the strategic balance in Angola had shifted and that Savimbi was positioning UNITA for a possible military victory.

Signaling the concern that the former Soviet Union was placing on Savimbi's advance in Angola, former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev raised the Angolan war with Reagan during numerous U.S.-Soviet summits. In addition to meeting with Reagan, Savimbi also met with Reagan's successor, George H. W. Bush, who promised Savimbi "all appropriate and effective assistance."

In January 1990 and again in February 1990, Savimbi was wounded in armed conflict with Angolan government troops. But the injuries did not prevent him from again returning to Washington, D.C., where he met with his American supporters and President George H. W. Bush in an effort to further increase U.S. military assistance to UNITA. Savimbi's supporters warned that continued Soviet support for the MPLA was threatening broader global collaboration between Gorbachev and the U.S.

Under military pressure from UNITA, the Angolan government negotiated a cease-fire with Savimbi, and Savimbi ran for president in the national elections of 1992. Foreign monitors claimed the election to be fair. But because neither Savimbi nor Angolan President José Eduardo dos Santos obtained the 50 percent necessary to prevail, a run-off election was scheduled.

In late October 1992, Savimbi dispatched UNITA Vice President Jeremias Chitunda and UNITA senior advisor Elias Salupeto Pena to Luanda to negotiate the details of the run-off election. But on November 2, 1992 in Luanda, Chitunda and Pena's convoy was attacked by government forces and they were both pulled from their car and shot dead. Their bodies were confiscated by government authorities and never seen again. The offensive against Chitunda, Pena and other UNITA officials has come to be known as the Halloween Massacre.

Alleging governmental electoral fraud and questioning the government's commitment to peace, Savimbi withdrew from the run-off election and resumed fighting, mostly with foreign funds. UNITA again quickly advanced militarily, encircling the nation's capital of Luanda.

One of Savimbi's largest sources of financial support was the De Beers Corporation, which bought between $500 and $800 million worth of illegally mined diamonds in 1992-1993. In 1994, UNITA signed a new peace accord, but Savimbi declined the vice-presidency that was offered to him and again renewed fighting in 1998.

Savimbi also purportedly purged some of those within UNITA who he may have seen as threats to his leadership or questioned his strategic course. Savimbi's foreign secretary, Tito Chingunji and his family, were executed in 1991 after Savimbi suspected that Chingunji had been in secret, unapproved negotiations with the Angolan government during Chingunji's various diplomatic assignments in Europe and the United States. Savimbi denied his involvement in the Chingunji killing and blamed it on two UNITA dissidents.

2002: Killed in combat

After surviving more than a dozen assassination attempts, Savimbi was killed on February 22, 2002, in a battle with Angolan government troops - and, reportedly, South African mercenaries and Israeli special forces - along riverbanks in the province of Moxicomarker, his birthplace. In the firefight, Savimbi sustained 15 machine gun bullets to his head, throat, upper body and legs. While Savimbi returned gun fire, the blows proved immediately fatal.

Savimbi's somewhat mystical reputation for eluding the Angolan military and their Soviet and Cuban military advisors led many Angolans to question the validity of reports of his 2002 death. Not until pictures of his bloodied and bullet-ridden body appeared on Angolan state television, and the United States State Departmentmarker subsequently confirmed it, did the reports of Savimbi's death in combat gain credence in the country.

Savimbi was interred in Luena, Moxico Provincemarker, in east central Angola. In January 2008, his gravesite was vandalized by MPLA party activists, two of whom were arrested.

UNITA after Savimbi

Savimbi was succeeded by António Dembo, who assumed UNITA's leadership on an interim basis in February 2002. But Dembo had sustained wounds in the same attack that killed Savimbi, and he ended up dying from them ten days later. Dembo was succeeded by Paulo Lukamba. In 2003, Lukamba was succeeded by Isaías Samakuva, who served as UNITA's ambassador to Europe under Savimbi and has headed UNITA ever since.

Six weeks following Savimbi's death, a ceasefire between UNITA and the MPLA was signed, but Angola remains deeply divided politically between MPLA and UNITA supporters. Parliamentary elections in September 2008 resulted in an overwhelming majority for the MPLA, but their legitimacy was questioned by international observers. Presidential elections are planned for 2009.


  • "I am not communist because it serves no purpose. Nor am I a capitalist. Socialism in this country is the only answer. Those who led the country to independence cannot become the exploiters of the people. We want a socialist system, but which? There is the orthodox one and the extremist one. We want the democratic one, social democracy." - Savimbi on his ideology
  • "I am against nationalization; it is a disease which saps the strength of a national economy. The real question is the renegotiation of allowable profits. Foreign companies need their profits, they would not invest without them. But the people of Angola need their share. When Angola is independent the investors must know that the people will have a greater share."
  • "We support completely the atmosphere of détente. There is a need to live together peacefully in this area, that is a must. That is why we back completely the initiatives of Presidents Kaunda, Nyerere and Seretse Khama. Prime Minister Vorster is an intelligent leader and he must know that the independence of Angola will have an effect on South Africa. I hope the future leader of this country will be realistic. We have a dam at Cunenemarker. We have investments involving South Africa. Should we ostracize them? I hope that a leader here will be realistic enough to cooperate with any country despite differences in political systems."
  • "Only elections — free elections — under OAU control can provide a final solution. But first there will have to be a short period of transitional government in which both sides would be represented. But in the end, the ballot must decide, not bullets."


  • The War Against Soviet Colonialism: The Strategy and Tactics of Anti-Communist Resistance, Winter 1986. Policy Review, Volume 35.

Further reading

  • Bridgland, Fred. Jonas Savimbi: A Key to Africa. Hodder & Stoughton General Division. ISBN 0340422181
  • Christine Messiant, "Les Eglises et la dernière guerre en Angola. Les voies difficiles de l'engagement pour une paix juste", LFM. Social sciences & missions, No.13, Oct. 2003, pp.75-117


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