Angola's Savimbi: portrait of a rebel

Charismatic. Stubborn. Pragmatic. A veteran guerrilla, but family oriented. A commander whose loyal fighters are in top physical condition, but who himself carries a large paunch under his paramilitary uniform. The son of a railway station master - who holds a doctorate in political science and jurisprudence.

Jonas Malheiro Savimbi is a huge, powerful, bearded man whose UNITA (National Union for the Total Independence of Angola) forces are an increasing political and military threat to the Marxist-Leninist-style government of Angola. Once his forces were considered militarily weak, but they now claim to have some 15,000 uniformed regular troops and 25,000 guerrilla fighters operating in most quarters of the southwest African country.

Dr. Savimbi is one of the most controversial opposition leaders on the African continent. His political pragmatism has enraged many but at the same time kept alive his moderate, basically pro-Western movement.

UNITA's military ties with South Africa's white-minority government have produced charges from black Africans and white liberals alike that Savimbi is an opportunist who has sold the black cause down the river.

Whatever the criticism, Savimbi is a fervid Angolan nationalist. He has been involved in his country's guerrilla wars for 17 years. First he fought for independence against the colonial Portuguese administration. When another faction of independence fighters, the Popular Liberation Movement of Angola (MPLA), grabbed power in November 1975 with Cuban and Soviet military assistance , Savimbi regrouped and eventually turned his guns on the new regime. Despite numerous setbacks in his political career, he has always managed to bounce back - stronger than ever.

Speaking fluent Portuguese, French, English, and at least five Angolan languages, he is a spellbinding orator. In private, he listens carefully and, like many lawyers, gives methodical, detailed answers. But he is always keen to expound his views - sometimes for hours on end.

This reporter met with Savimbi on half a dozen occasions on a seven-week tour with UNITA in Angola. The following questions and answers are from those meetings.

Q. The Luanda government constantly refers to UNITA as a ''bandit'' or ''phantom'' force, as though your movement does not really exist. What is the military situation in the present conflict?

A. I do not think the military situation can be disassociated from the political situation. As far as we are concerned the whole politico-economic situation is favorable to us. There are many reasons for this: One is that the MPLA government in Luanda has for the past seven years failed to respond to the aspirations of the Angolan people.

There are food shortages. The economy is in total chaos and there is a war going on. A war that has been going on for years. As a result, people are looking for change. We are getting greater political support. The Cubans and the government troops are increasingly demoralized. All this has given UNITA a golden opportunity. . . .

We have liberated entire areas in the southern and central parts of Angola. Our guerrillas are also fighting in areas only a hundred kilometers from Luanda. We are moving further north. . . . At the same time, we are emphasizing political mobilization among the Angolan people to show them that the Cubans can be - have to be - defeated, either militarily or politically.

Q. Are the Cubans proving to be a major hindrance?

A. Yes, of course they are.They have armor, tanks, helicopters, and MIGs. But we are better equipped and better trained than in the early days and the Cubans are beginning to lose heavily. They are once again more deeply involved in the bush war because they realize that the MFLA is doing badly against us.

As part of our guerrilla strategy, we seek to isolate towns (they hold) by cutting all logistical lines. This we prefer to making direct assaults which have cost us serious losses in the past.

Q. What sort of things can UNITA offer the Angolans? Why should you fare better than the MPLA?

A. We can offer many things, but the most valuable, I think, is peace. Without peace, it is impossible to do anything. Before talking about economic reconstruction, one must talk about peace. And peace can only be brought about if the MPLA agrees to negotiate with us.

We also have different ideas about the future of our country. We are advocating both a different political and economic system. But we are not seeking to be exclusive. We must establish a pluralist political system that will enable different opinions to exist side by side. We recognize that the MPLA represents different viewpoints. Only if we work together can we end the war in our country. I strongly believe that this is possible.

Q. Are you therefore seeking a political rather than a military solution to the civil war?

A. There are people who say that UNITA is not capable of taking Luanda militarily. This is absurd because when you have a political strategy, you also have a political objective. You must use whatever means are available.

In our situation, we have the ability to wage a protracted guerrilla war. Taking Luanda by force is meaningless. Luanda must be taken politically, not militarily. If there is a peaceful settlement - and that is what we are trying to achieve - then we shall find ourselves in Luanda.

The real obstacle, as we see it, is getting the Cubans out of Angola. That is our immediate objective. Because without the Cubans, the MPLA government cannot survive.

Q. UNITA seems to be expanding its military activities against the government. Is this in any way related to a possible settlement in Namibia?

A. That is correct. It is true that we are getting our means through Namibia (South-West Africa) and we also realize that eventual independence in Namibia may affect our position. But it would not be disastrous. We are trying to take as much territory as possible, to move forward as fast as possible, in order to improve our bargaining hand.

Q. What about your relations with the South African government? Why is UNITA cultivating ties with an apartheid regime that is publicly condemned by most African countries?

A. We understand that the question of South Africa is an emotional issue. It is an emotional issue in Africa, an emotional issue in the black community, an emotional issue in the whole world. We understand that perfectly well.

But I also want to remind you that, whether we like it or not, South Africa is a regional power, politically and militarily.

It was the West which encouraged South Africa to take action when it was realized that the Cubans, who first started arriving as military advisers in March 1975 . . ., were taking over Angola on behalf of the Soviet Union. There is no question that they (Cubans) are merely proxy forces fulfilling Soviet strategy.

The South Africans then withdrew in January 1977 because of the call from the OAU (Organization of African Unity) for all foreign troops to leave Angola. . . . But the Cubans did not leave. At that time, there were 12,000 (Cuban) troops. Today, we are talking about 40,000.

The motives of the Cubans and Russians were and still are quite clear. Not only do they want to keep the MFLA in power, but also to transform our country into a staging ground for Moscow's expansionist ambitions.

South Africa, some Arab countries, China, some moderate African nations and some in the West realized this. They began giving us weapons, funds, and other support. But we could not bring them in without contacting somebody.

Zaire could not afford to be seen providing us with logistical help. This would only worsen its relations with Luanda and expose it to the Cuban threat. We could not ask Zambia, because the Lusaka government had recognized the MFLA regime. Our only alternative was to ask South Africa to accept our supplies and pass them on to us.

Q. But hasn't this made your position among your black African neighbors worse?

A. We are in a very uncomfortable position. But just because we have ties with South Africa does not mean we support apartheid. We firmly condemn it. We also support an independent Namibia. We are constantly criticized by certain countries for preferring South African aid, but that is because none of these countries are willing to help us.

I would also like to point out that at least we are completely candid. We are not trying to hide our relations. There are well over 40 other African nations, including our most virulent critics, who maintain economic ties, often extremely close economic ties, with Pretoria. Some of them would collapse without South African help. About this, they remain silent. Even the MPLA has been talking with them.

Q. Do you consider the US policy of linking a settlement on Namibian independence with a pullout of Cuban troops from Angola realistic?

A. I think that if we are going to be realistic, there is no doubt that South Africa will remain in Namibia as long as the Cubans stay in Angola. Pretoria regards the Cubans as a security risk it is not willing to tolerate.

I think President Reagan's policy is pragmatic. If the Cubans leave, the South Africans will have no reason to remain. Namibian independence must run parallel with Cuban withdrawal. South Africa will insist on that.

Q. The ''front-line'' states (Zambia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Tanzania, Angola) maintain that there is no connection.

A. That is so, they argue that resolution [of the Namibian issue] does not call for Cuban withdrawal, but this only emphasizes the real stumbling block. If the MPLA can give assurances that the Cubans will leave, then the South Africans will agree. And the South Africans will have to understand that if the Cubans depart and they remain, they will only become more isolated. I don't think the US government would tolerate such a situation.

But the reason why the MPLA is adamant about not making the Cubans leave is because of their own deteriorating internal security situation. Not caused by the South Africans, but by UNITA. This is why I think the center of this entire regional problem is a settlement in Angola.

Q. Do you believe the Cubans will leave?

A. Let me say this. It is my profound belief that they will leave. What we are discussing is which way. Will they leave because of present talks about Namibia? . . . I don't know. Or will they leave because of the internal situation in Angola? I don't know. Maybe both.

But I am certain that the Cubans will not leave if we don't continue our actions in Angola.

Q. What makes you think that the MPLA will be prepared to share power with UNITA when all attempts to create a coaltion government in 1975 failed?

A. The present situation is different from the days leading up to independence. People are tired of war now and want to get on with their lives. I think the struggle has to end with negotiations. But negotiations are a two-way affair. So far, the MPLA has refused to sit down with us. But the longer they procrastinate, the stronger we get.

Q. What about your own visions for a future Angola? How do you define what you call ''socialism negritude''?

A. When we talk about socialism, we mean democratic socialism. Not the sort of policies carried out in Eastern Europe or China. I think that we in Africa have earned the right to create our own names and political systems. There is no one single type of socialism. There is the one that exists in Luanda and which has only served to make our country, a potentially rich country, poor. And there is ours.

What we seek is a democratic socialism that makes man, rather than the system , its basis. It must seek to help man live, not deprive him of his spirit and values.

By calling on traditional village values and structures, we can get people to work together to obtain economic and political aims. This is what we call negritude.

Q. Do you intend to apply the same methods you encountered while training under Mao in China?

A. There is nothing wrong with learning from the experiences of others. Maoism is good for fighting a guerrilla war but not necessarily for running a country. It is why we think collective or state farms will not work in Angola. We need to encourage private enterprises, either on an individual or village basis, with the state providing certain incentives: loans, technical know-how and so on.

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