The end of Savimbi

Print edition : March 02, 2002

IT was the kind of news that the African continent had been waiting for a long time. Since the Angolan government announced in the third week of February that UNITA leader Jonas Savimbi had been killed in action there have been spontaneous celebrations all over the country. The 66-year-old Savimbi met his bloody end in a remote part of Angola, 700 km east of Luanda, the capital.

Savimbi was undoubtedly a candidate for the title of the world's leading terrorist. The United States, however, did not accord him that privilege even after September 11, highlighting Washington's double standards on the issue. Many other non-decrepit personalities figure in the U.S. State Department's updated list of terrorist and terrorist organisations.

Jonas Savimbi, in death.-ANOLAN TV/APTN/AP

Savimbi and his UNITA rebel movement were responsible for the death of more than a million Angolans. One-fourth of the Angolan population of 12 million lives as internal refugees, most of them in cities like Luanda. More than 40 per cent of the country's children are malnourished. The long-running civil war destroyed much of the educational system. The Angolan landscape is strewn with mines, most of it the handiwork of the rebels.

In recent months, UNITA rebels were responsible for a series of attacks on civilians. They attacked a train and massacred more than 300 innocent passengers late last year. Remote rural areas bore the brunt of UNITA hit-and-run attacks. Because of the intransigence and personal ambition of Savimbi, the country had not known peace since it gained independence in 1975. Angola had the potential to become one of the richest countries in the world, blessed as it is with phenomenal mineral and hydrocarbon deposits. Today, thanks mainly to UNITA's depredations, the country has been reduced to a basket case.

The main supporter of Savimbi and his UNITA movement was the U.S. Savimbi himself was a creation of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). He was hailed as a "freedom fighter" by President Ronald Reagan and accorded in the late 1980s a welcome reserved for visiting heads of state at the White House. His other main supporter was the apartheid regime in South Africa. Savimbi was reviled as a mercenary and a bandit throughout sub-Saharan Africa. In the 1970s and the 1980s UNITA and the South African Army made an audacious attempt to overthrow the legitimate government in Angola. It was the combined force of the Angolan army and a Cuban military force, which was in Angola at the invitation of the government, that thwarted the attempt. They inflicted a heavy military defeat on the South African Army in the historic battle of Cueto Cuenavale. That battle led to the withdrawal of South African troops from Angola and the signing of a broad internationally brokered agreement that led to Namibia's independence and the unravelling of the apartheid regime in South Africa.

But Savimbi lived to fight and spread mayhem for almost another decade and a half. The U.S. continued to back him almost until the mid-1990s and he had some very influential friends in the region, most notably Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire. Authoritarian leaders in other African countries such as Togo, Burkina Faso and Ivory Coast, helped Savimbi, in exchange for diamonds and money. A United Nations report released two years ago documented the diamond smuggling and money-laundering activities of UNITA. That report forced multinationals such as De Beer's to stop buying diamonds smuggled out of Angola.

It was Savimbi's control over the lucrative diamond-yielding areas that helped him continue with his senseless war even after most of his erstwhile allies had either disappeared from the scene or stopped supporting him. The West withdrew military and diplomatic support after Savimbi reneged on the 1994 peace accord signed between him and President Eduardo dos Santos. An earlier peace accord in 1989 had provided Savimbi an honourable way to enter the political mainstream. Internationally supervised elections were held then and the government had agreed to share ministerial portfolios with the UNITA and integrate its personnel into the bureaucracy.

However, Savimbi re-ignited the civil war when he lost the presidential elections. The government in Luanda was caught napping as UNITA fighters opened new military fronts all over the country. The second international attempt at brokering peace was not successful either. Both UNITA and the Angolan Army were to disarm under U.N. supervision. While the government kept its commitment, Savimbi backtracked on his commitments. This helped UNITA to hold the upper hand between 1998 and 1999.

It is estimated that in the past five years, UNITA earned around $5 billion dollars through the illegal export of diamonds. But the tide turned irreversibly for Savimbi as a better-equipped and trained Angolan Army has had the upper hand for the past two years (Frontline, August 3, 2001). The fact that Savimbi no longer had bases outside Angola helped the Army. Until the mid-1990s, regimes in Africa that were the beneficiaries of Savimbi's largess provided UNITA with bases and safe passage. Today Angola is among the most influential countries in the region.

Senior Angolan officials had told this correspondent in the middle of last year in Luanda that their country was back on the road to reconstruction. Former associates of Savimbi who now hold senior positions in government had said that Savimbi's days were numbered. The government was successful in resisting pressure from the West to negotiate with Savimbi once again.

With Savimbi now out of the way, there are reasons to be optimistic about the future of Angola. Although the second-rung leaders of the UNITA are threatening to keep the fight going, it has nowhere to run to or hide now.

The Angolan government is not in a celebratory mood. It has instead emphasised that this is the time for renewed efforts at reconciliation. President Eduardo dos Santos has once again asked the remnants of UNITA to lay down arms. The government has offered to hold multi-party elections so that UNITA can legally participate in the democratic process. Dos Santos had said last year that he planned to bow out of office. A new generation of Angolans want to bring the curtain down on the gory past and start a new chapter.

John Cherian

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