The travels of a rebel chief

September 23 1985

The travels of a rebel chief

September 23 1985

The travels of a rebel chief


Ten years ago in November, Angolan nationalists wrested control of the country from the Portuguese colonialists. In the immediate aftermath of independence, and without elections, the Marxist Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) took power with the support of a contingent of Cuban troops. The Cubans—numbering as many as 30,000—have been there ever since, and the MPLA still forms the government. But another liberation movement born during the struggle against the Portuguese, the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNLTA), has never given up its fight for power. Its controversial leader, Jonas Savimbi, is a oneof-a-kind revolutionary, full of apparent contradictions. Recently, Canadian journalist Peter Worthington spent a month with Savimbi and his UNLTA forces. His report:

The sparsely populated, desert-like grasslands of southeastern Angola provide excellent protection for a guerrilla unit. The journey into Savimbi’s remote headquarters started with an eight-hour night flight in an unmarked plane. (I agreed not to identify the country of origin of the flight.) Then it took another nine hours by fourwheel-drive truck to cover the remain-

ing 180 km to Jamba, in the southeast corner of the Macusso game reserve near the Namibian border. There, UNITA has established a functioning society in the bush, its members living mainly in grass huts and supplied with locally grown produce and goods trucked in from Namibia and South Africa—including Palmolive soap and Carling’s Black Label beer. There is no form of currency in the UNITA community; goods and food seem plentiful and are distributed free.

Savimbi, 51, is probably the most ferociouslooking leader in the world. His fingers festooned with huge gold rings, he leans on an ivory-headed walking stick and wears a pistol slung from a bullet-studded belt. Occasionally, he also carries a polished Soviet Kalashnikov asAngolan rebel:

sault rifle. But his ap-

pearance belies his background. Savimbi has a PhD in political science from the University of Lausanne. And he speaks five languages—Portuguese, English, French and two African dialects—occasionally using all of them

in his lengthy, impassioned speeches.

Savimbi is UNITA. The movement sings songs about him, his poetry is read at gatherings, his quotes appear in banners and on grass huts, and crowds chant his name. A lifelong nationalist, Savimbi has devoted himself to the liberation of Angola. He formed UNITA in 1966—having turned his back on both the Marxist MPLA and the more moderate, U.S.backed Front for the National Liberation of Angola (fnla)—and he has fought in the bush, first against the Portuguese colonialists and ever since against the MPLA government. “If I lived in Geneva or London or New York,” he said in an interview, “UNITA might get more publicity. But you cannot lead people from abroad. I have to experience what they exultant do.”

There are no obvious

signs of war-weariness in the UNITA camp. Rather, there is an exultant attitude that comes with confidence and conviction that UNITA is winning. Savimbi, who studied guerrilla tactics at Nanking military academy in 1966, says

that UNITA is now at the third and fourth levels of Mao Tse-tung’s stages of guerrilla warfare—a progression from subversion to guerrilla activity to widespread guerrilla actions and finally to open conventional warfare.

Savimbi claimed that UNITA has battalion-strength units fighting deep in Cuban-MPLA territory and even in the suburbs of Luanda, the capital. In its regular progress reports, UNITA claims to inflict roughly 2,000 casualties and shoot down an average of three planes a month and attract roughly 15 defectors from the MPLA each day. As well, Savimbi said, UNITA is preparing for a battle at the town of Luau, on the border with Zaire in eastcentral Angola. If that battle is won, he added, there is little to stop UNlTA’s drive to control the whole eastern half of the country.

There was no way to confirm the accuracy of all UNlTA’s claims, and the Luanda government does not encourage journalists to verify its story by witnessing some of the victories that it claims. But there was graphic evidence in eastern Angola that fierce fighting had taken place in territory that UNITA controls. One of the great setpiece battles of Angola’s civil war took place last year in the eastern town of Cazombo, which I visited with Savimbi. Once a prosperous farming community, Cazombo is now a ghost town, its buildings shattered and its people dispersed into the bush.

According to UNITA accounts, the Cubans threw 200 tanks and 30 Soviet MiG fighter planes and helicopters into the . battle but, despite losses of 1,000, UNITA held its own. The area was an MPLA stronghold during the independence struggle, but now local villagers and chiefs appear to support UNITA. “Out with the Cubans” was a constant refrain as local people told me that they did not get rid of Portuguese colonialism

simply to have it replaced by Soviet imperialism.

Savimbi himself admires his former tutors, the Chinese, even though Peking recognizes the Luanda government. But he opposes Marxism, which he considers

to be “inefficient and oppressive,” and he is an adamant foe of what he calls Russian imperialism. Said Savimbi: “I went to Moscow and Eastern Europe [in 1964] but found they only wanted me to follow their instructions. They don’t care about Africans, they care about power.” Now nearly all Savimbi’s speeches are studded with reminders that Cuban soldiers are not in Angola by choice but because the Soviet Union sent them there.

As for his close ties with South Africa and the white-minority regime’s support for his movement, Savimbi does not equivocate. “Our interests coincide in wanting to be rid of Russian imperialism,” he said. “Of course I oppose apartheid. How could I, as a black man who fought against Portuguese colonialism, not oppose apartheid? But I am also realistic. Everyone is against apartheid; even white South Africans want change. Apartheid has no capacity for growth. It is no threat to Africa.” But Soviet imperialism, Savimbi argued, is a threat to Africa.

As far as Savimbi is concerned, revolution and bloodshed in South Africa would benefit only the Soviets, and the only victims would be blacks. “South Africa is strong,” he said. “The southern Africa economy needs South Africa. Even if every African country joined to fight South Africa, it would beat us all in a war. So oppose them where they are weakest—in their rationalization for apartheid—not in

economic boycotts and military action.” Besides, said Savimbi, white South Africans “are just as African as I am. Their home is this continent. Africa will be a better place if they are integrated into African society than if they are isolated and alienated.”

Despite Savimbi’s antipathy toward the Soviet Union, he and his fighting units have nothing but admiration for the Soviet AK47 and Kalashnikov rifles they have captured in battle. At the same time, they are disparaging toward the standard NATO weapon, the Belgian-made FN rifle. Said one UNITA guerrilla, who identified himself as Col.

Jardo: “The FN has good range and is accurate, but it has to be kept spotlessly clean or else it will jam. The AK, on the other hand, fires dirty, can shoot under water, and you can fire it eight hours straight and it won’t seize up. The FN

overheats and won’t fire -

after an hour or two of constant use. We find it no good for combat.”

Savimbi is distressed by Western attitudes toward the situation in Angola. For one thing, he said he cannot understand why the Gulf Corp., now owned by Chevron, remains as the main operator of Angola’s oil installation in the Cabinda enclave on the Atlantic coast. Gulf has a 49-per-cent interest in the operation, with 51-per-cent control resting with the Angolan national oil company

SONONAGOL. More than 90 per cent of Angola’s foreign revenues come from oil, and Savimbi said that as a result the U.S. petroleum giant is paying for Cuban troops to prop up a Marxist government. He added: “Gulf pays the money to Luanda, and Luanda sends it to Havana.” He said the situation was “another example of Lenin’s dictum that the West will sell their enemies the rope with which they will be hanged.” Similarly, Savimbi said that he was also puzzled by the fact that the Mulroney government is not simply neutral or disinterested in Angola but hostile toward UNITA. “Do you not have a conservative government now?” he asked. “Why is it so against us?” Told that the Canadian position is one of opposition to the use of force to overthrow a recognized government, Savimbi replied: “But you support SWAPO [the South West - Africa People’s Organization] fighting for independence in Namibia. Why not the same for the people of Angola?”

Savimbi also claimed that aid funds provided by the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) and Canadian University Services Overseas (CUSO) are not going to designated projects but instead to the government “to pay for the war.” He cited a CIDA grant of $44,145 to an “agricultural sawmill co-operative” at Ucua, northeast of Lu-

anda. Said Savimbi: “Ucua is in our hands. There is no sawmill there, I assure you.” He also derided CIDA contributions through Oxfam Canada to refugee camps. “The so-called refugee camps are SWAPO or ANC [African National Congress, an anti-apartheid movement] guerrilla camps, pure and simple.”

(In Ottawa CUSO executive director Chris Bryant said that the sawmill project was funded by several Canadian agencies during the fiscal year that ended in March, 1982. With no office in Angola, CUSO handled the project through its office in Zambia. Asked if CUSO thought the sawmill still existed, Bryant replied: “I don’t know. Our understanding is ‘yes/ but we have not been in Angola. That project is almost four years old now.”)

UNITA has attracted attention around the world when it has taken foreign hostages during ambushes and raids in the diamond-mining areas of the north. Most of the hostages are eventually freed, but not Eastern Europeans or Cubans. There were several Cuban prisoners in the UNITA camp, some of whom, UNITA said, had renounced Cuban citizenship and joined their captors. One who did not change sides was Rudolfo Estevel Lantigua, 34, who was driving a truck when he was flagged down by two UNITA guerrillas in MPLA uniform.

In an interview Estevel said that he had been a prisoner for 27 months and he was angry at what he described as Cuba’s abandonment of him. But he said he ate better as a prisoner of UNITA than he did as a soldier of the other side. Asked what treatment a UNITA soldier could expect if he were captured, Estevel said simply, “He would be shot.”£?