Angola’s Jonas Savimbi Was No Freedom Fighter

Piero Gleijeses, a professor of U.S. foreign policy at Johns Hopkins University, is author of "Conflicting Missions: Havana, Washington and Africa, 1959-1976" (University of North Carolina Press, 2002).

Friend and foe acknowledged the abilities and charisma of Jonas Savimbi, the Angolan rebel leader who was killed by government troops last month.

“Savimbi is very intelligent,” Lucio Lara, a senior aide to his bitter rival, Agostinho Neto, once admitted.

Savimbi also never deviated from his overriding goals or principles. It is odd, however, that Americans have failed to appreciate what these goals and principles were.

During Angola’s war of independence against the Portuguese in 1961-1974, Savimbi was an impressive guerrilla leader, but his movement, the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola, or UNITA, was far weaker than Neto’s Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola, or MPLA.

In February 1972, Savimbi proposed to have his forces cooperate with the Portuguese to “eliminate” the MPLA. The Portuguese responded favorably, and for the next 18 months Savimbi was their ally. But in late 1973, Lisbon broke the agreement and attacked UNITA. And so Savimbi became known, much against his will, as a “freedom fighter,” even though he was still trying to forge a new alliance with Lisbon when the Portuguese regime was overthrown in April 1974.


By 1977, the story of Savimbi’s betrayal of the Angolan independence movement was public knowledge in Western Europe. In 1979, the mainstream Lisbon weekly Expresso concluded: “The fact that Savimbi collaborated with the Portuguese colonial authorities has been so amply proven that no one can question it in good faith.”

No one, that is, but Americans.

Savimbi’s betrayal of the independence struggle has been overlooked in the thousands of press reports and scores of books written about Angola, and, even now, in the articles about his death.

America’s love story with Savimbi began in 1975, when he became our protege in the covert operation Henry Kissinger unleashed in Angola. And even earlier, he had mesmerized the South Africans.

Within weeks of the collapse of the Portuguese dictatorship, Savimbi approached the white rulers in Pretoria for help in the impending civil war in Angola. If he won, he promised to maintain friendly relations with the apartheid regime. How tempting, particularly when the MPLA vowed that there would be no peace in southern Africa until apartheid had been defeated.

In July 1975, with Washington’s blessing, South Africa began its covert operation in Angola to support Savimbi.

Yet Savimbi was not a South African puppet. He was simply being true to himself. He was a warlord whose overriding principle was absolute power, and if this required an agreement with Portuguese colonial authorities first, and then a dalliance with apartheid, so be it.

In October 1975, with Washington’s urging, South African troops invaded Angola. Crashing through MPLA resistance, they would have taken Luanda, the MPLA stronghold, had Fidel Castro not sent Cuban soldiers to Angola in early November. Contrary to U.S. reports of the time, Castro did so without consulting Moscow. He was no client. “He was probably the most genuine revolutionary leader then [1975] in power,” Kissinger writes in his memoirs.

By April 1976, the Cubans had pushed the South Africans back into Namibia, and Savimbi had resumed guerrilla war. Ronald Reagan feted him--with supreme contempt for the facts--as a freedom fighter.

In 1992, the Angolan government was forced to grant free elections, which Savimbi lost. Predictably, he resumed fighting.

By then, stories were appearing in the Western press about his reign of terror in territories he controlled. But this no longer mattered. The Cold War was over, and Savimbi had lost his relevance.

History is usually written by the victors. They have a tendency to celebrate their good deeds and overlook the dark corners. The death of Jonas Savimbi provides an opportunity to look again at our policy in southern Africa during the Cold War and to reflect on our inability to see him for what he really was.