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Jonas Malheiro Savimbi (August 3, 1934–February 22, 2002) was a rebel leader in Angola who founded the UNITA movement in 1966, and ultimately proved a central figure in 20th century Cold War politics.
With support from the Republican government in the United States, the apartheid government in South Africa, and African leaders such as Félix Houphouët-Boigny of Côte d'Ivoire and Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire, Savimbi spent much of his life battling Angola's Marxist, Soviet-aligned government, which was supported by weapons and military advisors from the Soviet Union and Cuba. Savimbi remains an extremely important figure in Angolan history, viewed by some as a "freedom fighter" and by others as a war-monger who perpetuated a lengthy Cold War conflict.
Jonas Savimbi was born and raised in Angola's eastern province of Moxico, which later served as his power base during the civil war that broke out in 1975, following Angola's independence from Portuguese rule. The war was an extremely bloody and costly one, causing the deaths of many thousands.
Despite the bloodshed of Angola's civil war, Savimbi gradually drew the intrigue of powerful Chinese and, ultimately, American policy makers and intellectuals. He 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. From a military strategy standpoint, he was generally considered one of the most effective guerrilla leaders of the late 20th century.
Complementing his military skills, Savimbi also impressed many with his intellectual qualities. He fluently spoke four European languages, including English, in addition to his African dialect. 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 Marxist regime. But others saw it as genuine and a product of the guerrilla leader's raw intelligence.
These contrasting images of Savimbi would play out throughout his life, with his enemies calling him a power-hungry war-monger, and his (mostly American) 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 Moscow and Washington viewing the conflict as important to the global balance of power. In 1986, for instance, Savimbi was invited by U.S. President Ronald Reagan to the White House. Reagan spoke of UNITA winning "a victory that electrifies the world...."
Equally important, Savimbi also was strongly supported by the extremely influential Heritage Foundation. Heritage Foundation foreign policy analyst Michael Johns and other conservatives visited regularly with Savimbi in his clandestine camps in southern Angola 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 to Savimbi's war against Angola's Marxist government, which greatly intensified the conflict.
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 1980's and early 1990's, and Moscow and Havana 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 1990, to launch attacks on government and military targets in and around the country's capital, Luanda. 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.
Under military pressure from UNITA, the Angolan regime negotiated a cease-fire with Savimbi, and Savimbi ran for president in 1992. But he questioned the legitimacy of the election when he lost, and resumed fighting. 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.
2002: Death in Combat
After surviving more than a dozen assassination attempts, Savimbi was killed four years later, in February 2002, in a battle with Angolan government troops along riverbanks in the province of Moxico, his birthplace. In the firefight, Savimbi reportedly sustained some 17 machine gun bullets to his head, upper body and legs, and while Savimbi returned gun fire, his blows proved overwhelming and immediately fatal.
Savimbi's nearly mystical reputation for eluding the Angolan regime and their Soviet and Cuban military advisors and troops 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 newspapers, and the United States State Department subsequently confirmed it, did the reports of Savimbi's death in combat gain credence in the country.
Six weeks following Savimbi's death, a ceasefire between UNITA and the MPLA was signed, though Angola remains deeply divided politically between MPLA and UNITA supporters. A national election is scheduled for 2006.
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