International Papers

Death of a Charismatic Monster

Angolan strongman Jonas Savimbi, killed last Friday by government troops, was, according to France’s Le Monde, “a mirror of the international community’s inconsistency.” In his 36 years of armed struggle, Savimbi was, variously, a resistance hero in the fight against Portuguese colonialism, a Maoist inspired by Che Guevara, the toast of Ronald Reagan’s White House during the Cold War, a “servant of apartheid” during the 1980s, and ultimately a pariah stung by U.N. sanctions. A couple of British obituaries presented Savimbi as the anti-Mandela. The Guardian said he was “for 20 years, a figure as important in southern Africa as Nelson Mandela, and as negative a force as Mandela was positive.” The Independent declared, “Savimbi was closer to Robert Mugabe than to Nelson Mandela.”

The Independent seemed almost to admire Savimbi’s constant drive for power: “History may say that at least he was honest. His ambition was summed up in the title and motto of his movement. The National Union for the Total Independence of Angola, Unita, stood for Socialism, Democracy and Negritude.” As the Independent saw it, Savimbi and his dark-skinned southern comrades simply wanted to overthrow the mixed-race Portuguese-speaking urban elite who “traded slaves and fed off Africa but always resented Portuguese imperial rule and taxes.” During the war of independence, these anti-imperialists formed the MPLA and allied with the Soviet Union. In the 27 years since Angola gained its independence, Savimbi’s UNITA never gave up its fight against MPLA, which currently rules the country.

For the Guardian, this was revisionist nonsense. Savimbi “was a willing tool of the cold war, the key figure in America’s and apartheid South Africa’s destruction of independent Angola’s nationalist ambitions, and responsible for suffering and death on a scale barely comprehensible outside his ruined country.” His forces, bankrolled by the CIA and white South Africa, “sabotaged” much of Angola during the 1980s: “Swathes of the countryside were cut off from agriculture by minefields, mine victims and malnourished children swamped the hospitals and tens of thousands of children were also kidnapped by Unita troops.”

Everyone agreed Savimbi was a charming monster. The Financial Times described Savimbi as “one of Africa’s most awesomely charismatic politicians of past decades,” whose “genius lay in persuading western governments during the cold war that his brutal rebel movement, styled on Maoist principles, was in fact a group of pro-capitalist freedom fighters battling a dangerous communist threat.” The Times called him as “a charismatic nationalist,” who “had become, by the time of his death, the single biggest obstacle to peace, a symbol of the corrupting influence of ambition, mineral wealth and the grinding brutality of war.”

Despite a consensus that Savimbi’s death can only help the prospects for peace in Angola, the Independent warned, “[F]or brutal cynicism the MPLA government was a match for Savimbi, letting thousands of people starve or forcing them back to their mine-seeded villages. The death of Savimbi removes only one scourge of the people of Angola.”