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Angola's Savimbi still haunts 10 years on

By Joshua Howat Berger
By Joshua Howat Berger

2/21/2012 12:50:00 PM -

JOHANNESBURG (AFP) - Jonas Savimbi, the vicious, charismatic rebel who fought Angola's socialist government in a 27-year civil war, died 10 years ago Wednesday, leaving behind a haunting legacy of violence.

Savimbi was killed in a firefight with government forces on February 22, 2002, the denouement of a brutal conflict that grew out of Angola's messy independence from Portugal in 1975 and lasted until the signing of a peace treaty six weeks after his death.

His legacy, spread in part by his enemies, is that of a man who turned his back on peace when his rebel group, the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (Unita), lost a UN-organised election to the ruling People's Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) in 1992.

Savimbi condemned the vote as a fraud, withdrew from a runoff against President Jose Eduardo dos Santos and returned to the bush to do what he knew best: wage a war of terror designed to make the oil-rich southern African country ungovernable.

But Savimbi's memory remains a difficult one, even for one-time supporters. Unita, now a political party with just a fraction of its former support, treats his memory warily.

"Unita doesn't distance himself from what he represents, although individuals clearly admit that tactically he made a series of mistakes," said Alex Vines, head of the Africa programme at Chatham House research institute in London.

"Even 10 years on, it's still painful."

"The mistake that Savimbi made, the historical, big mistake he made, was to reject (the election) and go back to war," Vines said.

Savimbi was in part a product of larger historical forces that turned his newborn country into a Cold War battlefield as the United States and apartheid South Africa, on one hand, and the Soviet Union and Cuba, on the other, fed the conflict with soldiers, arms and cash.

Unita received some $250 million in US covert aid between 1986 and 1991, the second-largest beneficiary after Afghanistan's mujahidin.

But even as the geopolitics shifted, Savimbi kept fighting.

The war ended only after the government broadcast images of his bullet-riddled body on television, the 67-year-old's bushy black goatee unmistakable above his blood-stained fatigues.

Justin Pearce, the BBC's correspondent in Angola at the time of Savimbi's death, said the guerrilla leader was a victim of his own hubris.

"It was a huge error of judgement by Savimbi to think that he could prevail by using the military option after 1990," he told AFP.

"He really believed it was his destiny to be the true leader of Angola."

Savimbi authorised the torture and killing of suspected dissidents in his own movement, terrorised civilian populations and became one of the first warlords to fund his army with so-called "blood diamonds".

Yet even detractors remember him as immensely charismatic, a gifted strategist and an intellectual force to be reckoned with. He was fluent in seven languages, including English, which he mastered despite never living in an English-speaking country.

"He was a very charismatic man, a man that exuded power and leadership," said Paula Roque, an Angola specialist at the University of Oxford.

She defended Savimbi's role in opposing the MPLA, a party founded by urban elites that has always taken a wary view of democracy.

"We can't forget that for a large segment of the population, Unita represented something," she told AFP.

"It was a rural-based movement, a movement that celebrated its African origins and called for the respect of traditions."

Like many historians, Roque pointed out that the MPLA government also committed its share of atrocities, itself resuming hostilities after the 1992 polls by massacring thousands of Unita supporters in and around Luanda.