Jonas Malheiros Savimbi

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Jonas Malheiros Savimbi

Jonas Malheiros Savimbi (born 1934) was a founder and the leader of UNITA (National Union for the Total Independence of Angola) which first fought against Portuguese rule in Angola and later against the socialist government led by the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA).

Jonas Malheiros Savimbi was born on August 3, 1934, at Munhango, in the Moxico province of central Angola. His father was a longtime employee of the Benguela railroad. Savimbi attended the Protestant missionary school in his father's home village in Bie province and later transferred to another missionary school at Dondi. He then attended secondary school, first at Silva Porto (now called Bie), the largest town in central Angola, and then at Sa da Bandeira (now called Lubango) in the south.

Savimbi had already received far more education than most Angolans, who under Portuguese colonial rule had little opportunity of going to school. In 1958 his abilities were further recognized when he won a scholarship from the United Church of Christ to study in Lisbon. In 1960 he transferred to Fribourg University and then to the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, where he studied political science.

The Struggle for Independence

He was soon to put his knowledge to practical use as one of the leaders of Angolan resistance to Portuguese colonialism. Savimbi, however, maintained that his real training in politics came through his participation in the struggle for independence itself.

Savimbi credited the Kenyan nationalist leader Tom Mboya, whom he met at a students' conference in 1961, with persuading him to enter politics full-time. He joined a liberation movement called the Popular Union of Angola and within a year had been appointed first as general secretary and later as foreign minister of the government in exile. Disillusioned with the leadership of this group, Savimbi broke away and started to lay the groundwork for a new liberation front which was to draw most of its support from the people of central Angola, the Ovimbundu, to whom Savimbi himself belonged. In 1966 his work culminated in the founding of UNITA (National Union for the Total Independence of Angola) at a secret meeting in the remote bush country of eastern Angola. From this time Savimbi launched the armed struggle of UNITA against the Portuguese government in the Angolan capital, Luanda.

After the Portuguese dictatorship was overthrown in a military coup in 1974, Savimbi emerged from the guerrilla war to conclude a cease-fire with the new Portuguese leaders. He also signed an agreement with the two other Angolan liberation parties in 1975 in the hope that the three groups might come together and lead their fellow citizens in a peaceful transition to independence. This was not to be, however. Civil war broke out, and Jonas Savimbi then entered into one of the most controversial periods of his political career.

Civil War

Savimbi continued this war from 1975 into the 1990s. His enemies maintained that UNITA was a puppet organization in the hands of South Africa, the most hated regime on the African continent. UNITA also received arms and medical supplies from the United States and other Western powers. Savimbi claimed that he had a great deal of popular support among Angolans, especially in the central region of the country where the Ovimbundu live, a people downtrodden and dominated by their compatriots to the north during colonial rule. The success of UNITA early in the guerrilla war fluctuated. At times it controlled about one-third of the country, but mostly in thinly-populated regions in eastern and southeastern Angola. The most serious threat to the MPLA government was UNITA's sabotage of the Benguela railroad, which was crucial to the Angolan economy.

A Controversial Figure

Savimbi attracted some admiration throughout his career, for he was a natural politician, dynamic, charismatic, and a first-rate orator. He spent most of his time in the bush country of eastern and southern-eastern Angola, at his headquarters at Jamba, or traveling about in order to rally villagers to his party and to his guerrilla army. He also traveled in search of external support, as he did in 1986 when he was received at the White House and by some American congressional leaders who supported his resistance to the Cuban-supported government of MPLA. The burly, bearded guerrilla chief was seldom seen without his combat fatigues, beret, and swagger stick, in keeping with his image as a resistance fighter. In spite of his ability to gain foreign support (including from the United States during President Reagan's second term), the potential long-term success of Savimbi and UNITA was doubtful as a result of its association with the racist South African regime.

Still, Savimbi enjoyed considerable support among conservatives in the United States and other western countries, who saw UNITA as a foil to communist ambitions, here embodied by Cubans aiding the MPLA. Arms flowed to UNITA, despite U.S. leaders' reluctance to support the war effort openly for fear of antagonizing surrounding African countries. According to Savimbi, U.S. interests also subsidized the MPLA through $2 billion per year in oil revenues flowing into Luanda.

Critics of U.S. support for Savimbi argued he was a strange bedfellow for a country which purportedly despised tyrants. Savimbi was described variously as an opportunist and a butcher by those who found it strange that a former self-described Marxist would befriend a white racist South Africa, that a follower of Mao Tse-tung and Ché Guevara would be welcomed in the United States by conservative senator Jesse Helms. Savimbi, meanwhile, thundered that his Angolan opponent, Eduardo do Santes, was a puppet of Russian and Cuban imperialism.

Human rights watchers throughout the world worried that Savimbi was reported to participate actively in the execution of supposed witches, some of whom, coincidentally, were his opponents in UNITA. In September 1983, Savimbi allegedly participated in the burning of twelve women and three children accused of witchcraft, purportedly firing his trademark ivory pistol at one woman attempting to escape.


In December 1988, the logjam was temporarily broken by a tripartite agreement in which South Africa assented to granting independence to Namibia, Cuba agreed to pull out of Angola, and the warring sides in Angola began talks leading to elections. Zambian President Kenneth Kaunda hinted that Savimbi would go into voluntary exile, a report that proved incorrect as the UNITA leader went on the campaign trail instead after a cease-fire was negotiated to end the decade. For 17 months, a 16-year civil war which had left 350,000 people dead came to a standstill.

Savimbi's speeches were marred by threats of violence and statements, that by definition, an election would be unfair if he did not win. Despite the word of 300 foreign observers that the 1992 elections were indeed fair, Savimbi refused to accept a loss at the polls and resumed fighting six weeks later.

The civil war thus entered a particularly tragic chapter, during which another 150,000 people died and tremendous damage was done to what remained of a potentially prosperous country. Western support for Savimbi crumbled, though he was able to obtain enough weapons to regain control of about 70 percent of the country at first. By the mid-1990s, Savimbi's grip on the country weakened, however, and he once again entered talks with Dos Santos, agreeing to end 19 years of hostilities and demobilize UNITA forces in exchange for a power-sharing arrangement between UNITA and the MPLA.

Further Reading

For general background on Angola see Lawrence W. Henderson, Angola: Five Centuries of Conflict (1979), and Basil Davidson, In the Eye of the Storm (1972). On Savimbi's participation in the nationalist struggle against the Portuguese see John Marcum, The Angolan Revolution, two volumes (1969 and 1978). On the role of Savimbi and of UNITA in Angolan politics after 1975, see Arthur Jay Klinghoffer, The Angolan War (1980) and Michael Wolfers and Jane Bergerol, Angola in the Front Line (1983).

A student of the conflict in Angola will find numerous reports, many of them conflicting, in the world press. Information presented here was obtained from Internet postings by International Peacekeeping News, Reuter Information Service, The Associated Press, the South African Mail & Guardian, and Voice of America. □