How to remember Jonas Savimbi

Sixteen years after the end of the Angolan civil war, the Angolan state considers how to properly remember and memorialize the leader of UNITA.

Jonas Savimbi 1989. Image credit Ernmuhl via Wikimedia Commons.

“Savimbi Jonas”


The words were scratched in the bark of a tree, somewhat removed from the neat lines of headstone in the cemetery in Luena, eastern Angola. In the shade of its branches, a prominent mound of earth marked the resting place of the leader whose UNITA movement had engaged the Angolan government in almost continuous combat since 1975. It was now March 2002. A few weeks earlier, soldiers of the Angolan Armed Forces, assisted by Israeli surveillance experts, had tracked down Savimbi in the remote woodlands of Moxico province, and shot him dead.

Sixteen years later, the Angolan government says it will exhume Savimbi’s body from its pauper’s grave and grant him a “dignified” burial. This may come as a surprise to people outside Angola. For the past 25 years the MPLA’s consolidation of power in Angola has also included taking control of the international discourse about the country: a Manichean good/bad narrative between the MPLA and Savimbi that helped to obscure the increasing venality of the formerly socialist ruling party once the Cold War was over. During the 1990s, the MPLA beamed its hatred on Savimbi as an individual, as if to isolate UNITA’s founder from the millions of Angolans who identified with the movement. When Savimbi died, western newspapers cooked up stories of celebrations in the streets of Luanda. (I was there, and can confirm it was in fact the quietest evening I can remember in two years of living in the generally noisy city.)

There was no small amount of racism in the monstering of Savimbi, whether in the rumors of witchcraft that accompanied reports of his death, or in the figure of the barely human African warlord who featured in a video game some years later. Recently, the trial of Paul Manafort in the United States has served to re-emphasize the most shameful of Savimbi’s political choices: his opportunistic partnership with Reagan’s America and apartheid South Africa.

Inside Angola, sixteen years after the war, things look different. President dos Santos, who in 2002 rebooted his fading political career over Savimbi’s dead body, was finally defeated by fading health and resigned last year. His successor, João Lourenço, though a soldier and an MPLA loyalist to the last, has displayed a less confrontational style more becoming of a peacetime president. On the one hand, there’s nothing to stop a reappraisal of Savimbi’s legacy, and on the other, there are two groups of people who will positively welcome the moves to rebury the UNITA leader.

One of these comprises people with historic connections to UNITA: the people, mostly from the Central Highlands, who joined UNITA before independence because it was the political movement with the most rooted presence in their part of Angola. UNITA was the first movement that presented to them the possibility of a free and independent Angola. Their sense of being Angolan was tied up with UNITA. They accepted UNITA’s self-presentation as the defender of an authentically African Angola against an MPLA whose Portuguese and Cuban connections UNITA regarded with suspicion. Even those who may have had doubts about some of Savimbi’s choices in later years will insist that he deserves to be remembered as a symbol of a worthy political project that was never fully realized. This view of Savimbi will have been internalized too by the children and grandchildren of those original UNITA followers.

But in the past decade, Savimbi’s renown has spread beyond those who have family connections to UNITA. From 2011, politics in Angola was redefined by a generation of activists who had come of age in peacetime. The reference point for their street politics was the corruption and personalization of power that characterized the seemingly endless reign of Dos Santos, in power since 1979. For them, the fact that Savimbi had been so thoroughly demonized by the Dos Santos regime only confirmed that he was a historical figure worthy of consideration.

Angola never had a single liberation movement with a unique purchase on the identity of the nation. For over 40 years, rival claims in a zero-sum game have deepened mutual suspicions. No one is suggesting that Savimbi should be accorded anything like the North Korean-designed 120-meter concrete phallus that commemorates founding president Agostinho Neto. But simply a memorial to Savimbi more enduring than a name scratched in tree bark would signal a recognition that the history of the nation is greater than the history of one party.

Further Reading

Angola: One Party, One Voice

Angola is a country that has been ruled by the same party, the MPLA, since independence in 1975. The party has effectively transformed itself from a socialist bloc into a purely capitalistic organization with a …