Jonas Savimbi was like the war in Angola itself: he went on and on, seemingly forever. Whatever peace deal was negotiated he was sure to break it, sure to find another sponsor who'd trade diamonds for guns. He outlasted most of his principal rivals and he certainly outlasted his godfather, the Cold War, and the earnest need of the superpowers to woo friends who were prepared to engage in a proxy war against the friends of the rival superpower.
In the end, such was his tenacity and his masterly improvisation, he showed that he could survive and live to fight another day without a superpower behind him. When America finally but belatedly turned against him, he wooed the malevolent and rich dictator of neighboring Zaire, and when that ended with Mobutu's death he befriended the presidents of Togo, Rwanda and Burkina Faso. Anyone who'd sell him a gun or a howitzer or buy his diamonds.
Now he's dead, shot in the neck. Twenty-seven years after the war began, the army of his principal rival finally got him. They always said they would.
But it took a long time, a very long time, and in these endless years the country has been laid low. The hospitals in the war zones are all closed, the roads destroyed, the earth scorched, children wasted, often orphaned, living in sewers in Luanda, the capital, for want of a roof over their head.
According to the Red Cross, Angola has suffered more from the agonies of war than any other country in Africa.
In 1975, Portugal, recently having succumbed to a revolution itself against its long-time fascist dictator Salazar, decided to wash its hands of its rebellious African colonies. It agreed to negotiate a handover to three rival independence movements, which had consented to abide by elections. If democracy had been allowed to prevail then more than a million lives might have been saved.
But the then US secretary of state Henry Kissinger believed he knew better. He was obsessed with the ideological bias of one of the factions, the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) toward Moscow and Havana and he talked US president Gerald Ford into a clandestine adventure that was to lead Angola away from the ballot to the bullet.
Only days after the peace agreement with Portugal was signed, establishing a transitional power-sharing government, the CIA intervened and sent US$300,000 in cash to a rival faction, the CIA's long-term client, the National Front for the Liberation of Angola (FNLA), which used the money to launch an all-out military attack on the MPLA.
The CIA payment, although made without the knowledge of the US Congress or public, was soon known to Moscow which quickly resumed large-scale arms shipments to the MPLA and in March 1975, Cuba sent in 230 advisers. The ratchet of superpower competition began. The US dispatched US$28 million in covert aid to the FNLA and to a third faction, Jonas Savimbi's National Union for Total Independence of Angola (UNITA), which soon eclipsed the FNLA.
White-ruled South Africa watched closely. Believing it had been given a wink and a nod from Kissinger it invaded Angola on Aug. 5. The MPLA, besieged, called in the Cubans.
Ford was angry. He announced that Cuba had committed "a flagrant act of aggression." Fortunately wiser heads prevailed in Congress and US Senator Dick Clark piloted through an amendment outlawing any more clandestine aid to Angola.