So Long, Jonas, Don't Come Back, You Hear?

After more than three decades in the bush, fighting against his country, Angolan opposition leader, Jonas Savimbi, died last Saturday and was buried almost like a dog with bullet wounds and his blood soaked uniform.

Ever since I can remember, I have always detested the politics of Jonas Savimbi, a man who would allow himself to be used by foreign powers, causing untold death and destruction to his own people, cannot be a man of honour. Savimbi definitely was not.

Savimbi, who arrogated to himself a Ph.D. he never completed, started like most other African of his generation as a freedom fighter in the days of colonial subjugation under Portugal. But after the country became independent in 1975, he could not realise his ambition to be Head of State and then trouble started. One must recall that Nigeria, and specifically the then Head of State, the late General Murtala Mohammed, played a key role in outsmarting the bearded rebel leader at the Organisation of African Unity summit when Nigeria swayed the votes in support of the ruling MPLA.

That was when Murtala told America to its face that "Africa Has Come of Age" in what has been described as Nigeria's most glorious era in diplomacy. Because of the ideological war raging between America and the then Soviet Union, there was enormous pressure to make Savimbi, a pro-American freedom fighter, the country's leader but all the moves failed. Rather than work with the new government and allow for peace, Savimbi plunged the young country into a fratricidal war. And in the last 27 years, the people have known only war and destruction which has led to the death of at least half a million people with a third of the population displaced. Even when a temporary cease fire was achieved and election was conducted in the early nineties, once Savimbi's party lost, he retreated back to the bush.

Savimbi's motivation has always been power at any cost and almost single-handedly, he turned what should have been Africa's richest country into the poorest. Because there can be no prosperity without peace, the people have been unable to annex the abundant mineral resources for the betterment of their society. And the rebels he trained have helped to loot the diamonds that should have been used to develop the country had he allowed for peace to reign.

With the circumstances surrounding his death, however, Savimbi thus joined the rank of Mobutu, Samuel Doe, Sani Abacha and others of their ilk who helped to destroy their country and ended up with ignominy.

It is, however, instructive that Savimbi's former allies, the United States, have since the end of the cold war been ambivalent towards him meaning he has been used and dumped and only this week Angola President Eduardo dos Santos was expected in the White House to discuss with President George Bush. Ironically, Bush senior was Vice President when President Ronald Reagan was eulogising Savimbi as one of the best to come out of Africa, giving him royal treatment at the White House. Sadly too for the late rebel, the tide has turned in South Africa which used to be a friend of his during the apartheid days and those who should have mourned him are now out of contention. Such a waste of a life!

We all have one lesson or two to learn from the life and times of the late Savimbi the most poignant of which is that no matter our ambition in life, we must always put the people first and should never behave in such a manner to suggest treachery. Perhaps there can be no better epitaph for Savimbi as the piece written by a Kenyan, John Githongo, with the above title. It is so apt that I want to quote extensively from it so that we can all learn a good lesson from the fall of Savimbi.

"On Saturday, Jonas Savimbi, long-time leader of the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (Unita), was killed during an engagement with government troops. In poorer neighbourhoods of Luanda, the country's capital, people celebrated by firing flares and honking car horns.

"The death of Savimbi has continental implications. The civil war in Angola has been a blight on the continent for over three decades. It is unAfrican to celebrate the demise of even the most odious of figures but I will admit that the departure of individuals like Sani Abacha and Jonas Savimbi causes relief in a manner that cannot be articulated.

"I'm sure there are African leaders who are calling up Eduardo dos Santos, Angola's president, and spending the first few minutes chuckling without a word being uttered. Ostensibly, Savimbi formed Unita in 1966 to resist incompetent Portuguese colonialism, but even then his connections to reactionary interests in the West led to suspicions among the freedom fighters.

"The transition from colonialism was messy, with civil war breaking out almost immediately after independence in 1975. Savimbi charmed gullible Westerners into believing that he was a bulwark of anti-Communism in Southern Africa. He was embraced by US President Ronald Reagan as a "freedom fighter" in the 1980s. Unita received some $250 million of US aid between 1975, when Henry Kissinger approved the first shipments to Unita, and 1991 when, the Cold War having ended, the US walked off.

"Cuba supported the MPLA regime against the US-backed grouping of South Africa and Savimbi's Unita. It was against the Cubans that the South Africans suffered their biggest military defeat, shattering the myth of their regional supremacy and changing the history of Southern Africa.

"In a sense, Savimbi's demise started with that defeat and the withdrawal of the South Africans from Angola. He survived, however, and with a combination of foreign backing, an increasingly venal and illegitimate regime in Luanda and a capacity to exploit Angola's vast resources, the man continued to wreak havoc. Personally, he remained a figure of great charisma and wit, capable of entrancing sophisticated foreign diplomats who later said they had been totally foxed by the big rebel.

"Savimbi finally stood for elections in 1992 as part of the ostensible post-Cold War peace effort in Angola. He was defeated and almost immediately went back to the bush - this time retreating to Huambo - and continued his "struggle." The ferocious fight that soon broke out in Luanda itself saw a number of Savimbi's key deputies killed.

"Savimbi was the last of Africa's really Big Bad Men; as opposed to the declining number of "Big Men" in assorted State Houses around the continent. For even though he never made it to power, Savimbi managed to affect the way power is won and exercised in many Southern African countries as a result of the conflict he wrought and sustained and the friends he brought to the table in his efforts.

"Angola's fate of being simultaneously Africa's richest and poorest country mirrors that of many other African nations that received close attention and "assistance" from the West during the Cold War. Many - Somalia, Congo, Angola, Liberia and Sudan - have stumbled into the 21st century in the last stages of collective psychosis, like victims of a quack psychiatrist. But with Savimbi dead, the biggest excuse that the dos Santos regime had for not performing has gone for good."

Goodbye Jonas, may your likes never come the way of Africa again.
• This piece was first published in THISDAY in February, 2002

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