- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 28, 2002

LONDON Will the death in combat last week of Jonas Savimbi, leader of the rebel National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA), bring peace to his country, devastated by civil war and tribal conflict for nearly 40 years? The answer is: probably not.

The unreformed Marxist ideologues that still influence the ruling Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) claim their legitimacy confined incidentally to a power base around the capital, Luanda from a U.N.-monitored national election held in 1992. But the probity of that ballot was challenged by independent observers who published enough evidence to suggest it had been a manipulated fraud.

Despite widely publicized reservations at the time, Mr. Savimbi sent his top representatives to Luanda to join others in an effort to validate parliamentary democracy and end a war traumatizing millions of Angolans.

Within months, many of these UNITA officials had perished, cut down in cold blood by MPLA security forces on the spurious grounds that UNITA was fomenting a putsch. Mr. Savimbi took his forces back into the bush, declaring it would be war "until victory or death."

That was the same MPLA government that, hours after killing Mr. Savimbi, said it was prepared to end Angola's civil war and fully implement the 1994 peace accord based on a democratic election.

But what has killing the larger-than-life Mr. Savimbi achieved, apart from assuaging Luanda's craving for revenge?

Observers suggest it is unlikely that democracy now will bloom. Power in Angola for too long has been the prerogative of high-ranking favor and feather-bedding, backed by complicit armed forces and bankrolled by multinational oil revenues.

Indeed, as veteran Luanda commentator Paulo Juliao noted on Saturday, Mr. Savimbi's death has erased all government excuses for futher delay in holding national and municipal elections. The killing, he said, will force Luanda to lift restrictions on civil liberties and political freedoms imposed in the name of "combating Savimbi-led sedition." Angola, he said, "can no longer hide behind the excuse that it is a country and an economy at war," and it must stop tailoring foreign policies to suit, he said.

But, say others, with Mr. Savimbi gone, Luanda's men of influence have even less incentive to change tactics unless the rural majority, who do not support the MPLA, convince them otherwise.

Mr. Savimbi, 67, was the key African ally of anti-Soviet forces during the Cold War, a recipient of substantial CIA aid, French secret service support and apartheid South Africa's armed muscle.

Pretoria's forces in the 1980s repeatedly invaded Angola, occupying large parts of the south and sabotaging its infrastructures. Only tens of thousands of Cuban troops airlifted in to support the MPLA, in exchange for oil and diamonds, prevented Pretoria's UNITA frontmen from taking power.

Stripped of its ideology, the civil war in reality has been little more than a crude struggle for Angola's vast mineral and raw material wealth oil, diamonds, coffee, etc. much still controlled by the once pro-Moscow government of President Jose Eduardo dos Santos.

Today, Mr. dos Santos is preparing to retire both from the party leadership and as head of state. But the Soviet-trained oil engineer must be acutely aware that after Mr. Savimbi, his chances of survival were always rather similar to the odds facing Siamese twins.

Until now, Mr. dos Santos and his cohorts have remained largely united by the common enemy Mr. Savimbi. But he is gone and an MPLA power struggle is probably just around the corner.

The retiring head of state's preferred successor is MPLA Secretary-General Joao Lourenco, who declined last weekend to dance on Mr. Savimbi's corpse. In a mild effort at reconciliation, he said the death of any Angolan represents "a loss to the whole of Angola."

This attempt at peacemaking is due to be harshly tested in his vast country, where population loyalties are divided along ethnic and tribal lines and far removed from Luanda's influence.

This correspondent twice interviewed Jonas Savimbi in Lisbon in the 1980s. At that time, he was still the darling of the West and a key player in Cold War efforts to contain Soviet and Cuban expansionism in Africa.

Few who met this large, tribal man could be left untouched by his expansive personality and abundant charisma. Dressed in a collarless dark suit and carrying a tribal chief's staff of authority, Mr. Savimbi was as at home in Lisbon's swank Ritz hotel as he was in battle fatigues in the Angolan bush.

At that time UNITA, backed by Pretoria's military might, was considerably more confident than in later years. On one occasion, Mr. Savimbi confided to this correspondent that should he fail to achieve his dream of a multi-party democracy in Angola, he would "prefer to die on the battlefield."

This in the tradition of an Ovimbundu proverb that says those who make war die from it he now seems to have achieved.

Jonas Malheiro Savimbi, son of an evangelical station master in Benguela, was born on Aug. 3, 1934, in Munhango, in Angola's southern Bie province. He was educated among the Ovimbundu, an ethnic group to which 40 percent of Angola's population belongs. Later he claimed to have earned a degree in Lausanne, but this was disputed.

Mr. Savimbi did, however, speak fluent English, French and Portuguese and four African languages. This was an clear asset to him as a propagandist. Indeed, he was considerably more effective at this than his Luanda opponent Mr. dos Santos, whose main foreign-language achievement was a smattering of Russian gained from his Russian-born wife.

To many, Mr. Savimbi was a dangerous chameleon. Capable of great charm, he also was known for his brutality. He was seductively persuasive, as any interviewer can attest, but in the field he had an awesome reputation for cruelty and iron discipline. He unhesitatingly sacrificed anyone challenging his views or methods.

Mr. Savimbi formed UNITA in 1966 and embraced the Maoism of the time as his ideology.

In those days, he was fighting against the Portuguese, whose African empire collapsed in 1975, a year after armed forces in Lisbon ended the half-century old Salazar dictatorship there.

With Mr. Savimbi now out of the way, many commentators are suggesting UNITA will be better placed to pursue peaceful cohabitation with the MPLA in Luanda and introduce a semblance of democracy. They are likely to be proved wrong.

The MPLA, always a hodgepodge of personal interests, is the political expression of the "mesticos" or mixed-race Portuguese-speaking urban intellectuals. Their influence and support outside metropolitan Luanda is infinitesimal.

The Ovimbundu detest them, describing them in good moments as "non-Africans," and in bad as "Portuguese half-breeds."

Luanda may have removed the focus of 36 years of civil war, but killing Mr. Savimbi will not cure the causes of Angolan penury. Personal avarice and political ambition underpin the unresolved issue of how to share power and run democracy in Angola.

Like so much of Africa, Angola is a country only because Lisbon, at its imperial height, sketched out its borders on a map in Europe.

In reality, it is tribal and ethnic differences that will determine the country's future, and these forces, to a large extent, are not well disposed toward the fragile ruling MPLA elites.

Mr. Savimbi may be dead but he is not buried, and peace and democracy in Angola are as far away as ever.


*Ken Pottinger reported from Lisbon for the British Broadcasting Corp., the London Daily Telegraph and other news organizations for some 15 years, with a special focus on the former Portuguese African colonies.


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