It was dawn, I was in a Unita rebel camp, deep in the Angolan bush, when, on June 5, 1989, I heard a crackly BBC news bulletin containing three items: Ayatollah Khomeini was dead, tanks had rolled into Tiananmen Square, and Solidarity had triumphed in Poland’s first partly free elections. I looked at the rebel guards huddling around camp fires, and suddenly wondered what I was doing in the middle of Africa.
I had spent several weeks that summer traveling with rebels in Jonas Savimbi’s National Union for the Total Independence of Angola, known as Unita. I was with Unita soldiers when they attacked a government convoy on the Huambo-Bie highway, destroyed several trucks and captured weapons, food supplies and the entire archive of a local Communist Party organization. I saw charred bodies on top of the trucks, and guerrillas making for the bush with “liberated” typewriters on their heads.
Still, everybody was hoping that we had seen the last battle of the war. The Cold War was drawing to a close; not long after I heard the BBC news bulletin, Savimbi and his opponent from the Soviet and Cuban-backed Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola, or MPLA, President Eduardo dos Santos, even shook hands on a cease-fire that was supposed to lead to power-sharing and free elections.
A week ago, any hopes of a Unita victory died along with Jonas Savimbi in a bloody battle between his rebels and the MPLA. Yet in my mind any notion that Savimbi and his followers could offer a legitimate alternative to the MPLA or bring peace to a country that has seen half a million of its people slaughtered over a quarter century of civil war died years ago when I first met the Unita rebels.
I had come to Angola as a Unita supporter. I had been a young Solidarity sympathizer and empathized with Unita’s struggle to free Angola from the MPLA’s brutal brand of Marxism. Before arriving, I had spent three years traveling with the Afghan mujahedeen and expected the Unita rebels to be equally gallant freedom-fighters. They did, after all, share our common cause of resisting Soviet expansionism.
But by the time I heard the BBC news bulletin, I had my doubts about Unita. True, their headquarters in Jamba--with its airfield, immigration control, field hospitals, schools, church, soccer field and comfortable visitors’ center--had no equivalent in Afghanistan. But that wasn’t the only difference between the two. Most Afghan commanders carried on their war against the Soviets with the finesse of age-old tribal traditions of robbing caravans on the Silk Road. The Angolans acted like proper soldiers, with intelligence gathering, operations planning, coordination between units and strict subjugation of military activities to political ends.
Nevertheless, some things jarred. Perhaps because I had been brought up in Communist Poland, I could not help noticing the ubiquitous personality cult of Jonas Savimbi. His picture adorned every hut we stayed in, every village sang the same Savimbi songs to greet us. Every quarter of an hour, Unita’s “Voice of the Black Cockerel” radio station played Mendelssohn’s Wedding March followed by a triumphant citation: “Long live Unita’s great leader, the staunchest patriot, the inspired commander, the scourge of the Cubans and Russians, our beloved president, Comrade Doctor Jonas Malheiro Savimbi.”
As time went on, my impressions worsened. Whereas Afghans would routinely exaggerate their accounts of valor--if the Afghans told you they saw 500 Soviet tanks, you could be sure there were no more than 50--Unita’s lying was pervasive, controlled and sinister. Where in Afghanistan I spent a month traveling from Herat to the Pakistani border with only a commander’s letter for protection, in Unitaland journalists’ moves were strictly circumscribed. If you strayed form the prearranged route, your passage would be blocked by armed men “for your own protection,” even when you were 100 kilometers from the enemy.
On closer inspection, it became clear that the Unita stronghold of Jamba was a gigantic Potemkin village, with patients performing fake physiotherapy in the hospital, a church which was attended mainly during visits by Westerners, even a bogus species-protection program in the middle of a countryside where every edible animal had long ago been eaten.
In the U.S., Savimbi portrayed himself as a devout Christian and a pro-market anti-Communist. He was neither. In one of his wittier moments, he declared that when Christian missionaries arrived in Angola they had the Bible, but the Africans had the land. After 500 years of pastoral work, he said, the Africans had the Bible but the missionaries had the land. His true ideology was not Christian; rather it was a homespun philosophy he called “negritude,” a unique mixture of black consciousness, Maoism and voodoo superstition.
Given his self-proclaimed enthusiasm for free markets, it was strange that I saw not a single shop during all the weeks I spent in Unitaland. But then, money had actually been banned. Unita was organized on the strict lines of a war economy. Unless you fought or worked for Unita, you died of starvation. For a supposedly anti-Communist organization, Unita was also remarkably Leninist. The party had a Politburo, a Central Committee and a little booklet of Savimbi wisdom that every soldier carried close to his heart. Add the Mao-style cap that was a standard part of the Unita uniform, and you might understand why a Solidarity man might not feel he was among his own.
This is not to say that the MPLA were much better, or that Savimbi had no claim to power. He was in fact the leader of Angola’s largest tribe, the Ovimbundus, who had been denied a proper place in the country’s post-colonial settlement. That said, it was not surprising that Savimbi never made peace with the regime in Luanda. Like many heroes of resistance against tyranny, he was sustained by qualities of character--tenacity, stubbornness, deviousness--that hardly make for a democrat.
What happens now? This week, Savimbi’s second-in-command, Antonio Dembo, took control of Unita and pledged to keep fighting. But now is the time for statesmanship rather than vengeance. The smart move for the MPLA would be to grant an amnesty and a generous political settlement to Savimbi’s lieutenants. The Ovimbundus should be appreciated and co-opted into the Angolan polity. This is the only way to transform Angola from a war-torn nation into the jewel of Africa. Paradoxically, the death of Jonas Savimbi, a rebel leader too charismatic for his own good, gives Angola another chance.
Radek Sikorski is a resident fellow at AEI.