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Postscript : Savimbi Doffs His Guerrilla Gear--but Has He Changed His Ways? : 'Armed struggle is no longer the road,' insists the onetime Angolan revolutionary.

June 20, 1995|SUDARSAN RAGHAVAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

CAPE TOWN, South Africa — These days, Jonas Savimbi dresses more like a character in "Pulp Fiction" than a guerrilla leader from the African bush.

Striding into a luxurious bungalow at the most expensive hotel in Cape Town, he places his silver-tipped, ebony walking cane in a corner and doffs his double-breasted jacket. The silk shirt and immaculately pressed slacks match his jet-black Vandyke beard.

Conspicuously absent are the commando beret and the ivory-handled .45-caliber automatic strapped to his hip that he affected in his jungle headquarters in Angola, where he led a rebel army against the government in Luanda for nearly 20 years.

His leathery grip is firm.

"Sit down, sit down," he urges in perfect English. "Make yourself comfortable."

It is hard to fathom that this is the man many consider responsible for plunging Angola back into a brutal civil war in September, 1992, after he refused to accept defeat in a United Nations-observed multi-party election.

It is even harder to believe--despite the symbolism of a new wardrobe--Savimbi's desire for change and peace.

"The country is exhausted from 30 years of war. There are no schools, no clinics, no employment, no security," he says. "All leaders have to respond to the needs, pressures and anxieties of their own people. Our people now feel that armed struggle is no longer the road. So we could not lead them anymore if we still insisted on armed struggle."

Last month, Savimbi, 60, agreed with Angolan President Jose Eduardo dos Santos on a peace deal signed seven months ago in Lusaka, Zambia. Among other things, the terms of the protocol call for a cease-fire and the incorporation of Savimbi's faction, UNITA--the Portuguese acronym for the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola--within the government.

The cease-fire has paved the way for the arrival of 7,460 blue-helmeted U.N. peacekeepers authorized by the Security Council in February. The first 2,000-member contingent is expected soon.

But the question remains whether Savimbi intends to stick with the peace. He says he will: "We have a different environment now. In the whole country, no one wants war."

War is the one thing Savimbi knows well. He studied political science and law in Portugal, the former colonial master, after attending Protestant missionary schools in Angola. In 1959, he was exiled from Portugal for his denunciations of colonial rule. He made his way to China, where he studied guerrilla warfare, and in 1961 he led a nationalist uprising against the Portuguese.

After independence in 1975, Angola erupted into a vicious civil war as the two leading factions turned on each other to gain control of the oil- and diamond-rich country. On one side was the Marxist party, the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola, or MPLA. On the other was Savimbi's UNITA.

In the Cold War scramble for Africa, the MPLA was backed by the Soviet Union and seized control of Luanda, aided by Soviet arms and Cuban troops. Meanwhile, the underdog Savimbi became the darling of American conservatives and others hoping to stop the spread of communism in Africa.

Soon, Savimbi was receiving millions of covert aid dollars from the CIA and weapons from South Africa.

Chester Crocker, who frequently dealt with Savimbi during this period as U.S. assistant secretary of state for African affairs, later wrote: "It was difficult not to be impressed by this Angolan, who combined the qualities of warlord, paramount chief, demagogue and statesman."

Others are not so flattering. British journalist Fred Bridgland, who wrote what many consider a definitive biography of Savimbi in 1986, said: "You can't believe a word he says--not a syllable. . . . He's clinically mad."

Savimbi is reported to have killed some of his closest associates while other UNITA officials skimmed off profits from the black-market arms trade. On the other hand, the Luanda government has also been accused of atrocities and corruption. Peace or no peace, many analysts see a long road to reconciliation.

"The mistrust runs deep," a Western diplomat said.

Savimbi is the key to the puzzle. Fluent in French, Portuguese, English and several African languages, his negotiating skills are formidable.

The end of the Cold War ushered in a set of dilemmas for Savimbi's UNITA as well as for the ruling MPLA. As their sponsors withdrew support, the warring factions signed a peace accord just long enough to hold elections in 1992, which the United Nations embraced without fully disarming either side.

Savimbi's refusal to accept defeat cost him thousands of supporters who began to doubt his commitment to democracy, but the subsequent chapter in the civil war would prove to be Angola's bloodiest, claiming more than 100,000 lives.

Today, Savimbi says he accepts the election results and recognizes Dos Santos as Angola's legitimate president.

He also admits that he could have averted the savage bloodletting of 1992.

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