The bullet-riddled body of Angola's veteran rebel leader, Jonas Savimbi, was displayed before television cameras yesterday under a tree in the remote provincial town of Lucusse, 600 miles south-east of the capital, Luanda. Soon the corpse of the bearded Unita leader, who was 67, is likely to be brought to Luanda – if for no other reason than to persuade the people of Angola that he really has been killed in a military clash.
Mr Savimbi was Africa's most consummate survivor, a political chameleon, a quasi-mythical figure. Over almost 40 years as the leader of his Unita movement, he had so successfully convinced his foes and his followers alike of his indestructibility that it had become impossible to imagine Angola without him. And yet it was also impossible to imagine Angola at peace with Mr Savimbi still alive.
As Dr Greg Mills, head of the Institute of International Affairs in Johannesburg, put it, "The paradox has been that as long as Savimbi was around there was somebody with whom to negotiate, but as long as he was, there would also be no negotiation."
The people of Angola have suffered one of Africa's longest wars. The collapse of the Portuguese colonial regime in 1975, the end of the Cold War and two multi-billion-dollar United Nations peace processes should all have been cause enough for the war to end. But it dragged on because of the pride, intransigence, and megalomania of both Jonas Savimbi and his arch enemies in the governing MPLA.
Mr Savimbi's death, said Dr Mills, "could remove the principal stumbling block to dialogue between Unita and the MPLA government, which is part of a necessary political solution to conflict in Angola".
He added: "Nobody could believe a word Savimbi said after he rejected the 1992 elections and broke the Lusaka accord. Lack of trust between [MPLA President] Eduardo Dos Santos and Jonas Savimbi has been a fundamental sticking point along the road to peace."
Peace would allow the MPLA to focus on reconstruction. But Dr Mills pointed out that the conflict "has long been a useful excuse for lack of delivery to the majority of Angolans, and for extremely poor governance and accountability. Peace would place massive pressure on the government to start getting things right".
Less positively, the rebel leader's death could create a power vacuum within Unita that leads to its disintegration into a collection of warlords. This would make a process of political inclusion even more difficult. The answer to Angola's future could lie in who succeeds Mr Savimbi – reformists or hardliners who see no future other than war.
Jonas Savimbi was a brilliant but brutal man. He was born in 1934 in a small town in Angola's Central Highlands, the son of a station master. He studied in Portugal and Switzerland, before secretly undertaking training in guerrilla warfare in China. He returned to Angola in the early 1960s to join the fight for independence from Portugal, going on to found his own movement, the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola, in 1966.
In the beginning Mr Savimbi enjoyed genuine mass support, particularly among the people of his own Ovimbundu ethnic group. Charismatic and dedicated, he mesmerised his followers with his fiery speeches. Under different circumstances, perhaps his brilliance could have served as a force for good in an independent Angola. But after the Portuguese finally left in 1975, history conspired to turn Angola into one of the hot spots of the Cold War.
For the next 15 years, Angolans were sucked into the exported conflict of two remote superpowers. Mr Savimbi found himself on the side of the West. A Maoist African nationalist, he ended up in the absurd position of fighting alongside South Africa's apartheid government in a war against the Soviet and Cuban-backed MPLA. Under Ronald Reagan the United States adopted Mr Savimbi as their man in Africa. Unita received hundreds of millions of dollars in US military assistance, and in 1986 he was welcomed to the White House as a freedom fighter.
With the end of the Cold War, however, everything started to go wrong for Mr Savimbi. He began to show his true colours: not only was he brilliant, he was also a cruel sadist. Although widely expected to win the 1992 elections, the only ones Angola has ever held, he so terrified the voters during his campaign that they opted instead for a president they were already heartily sick of: Mr Dos Santos. The popular motto "The government steals, but Unita kills" summed up the voters' unenviable choice. When he lost the elections Mr Savimbi rejected the results and returned to the battlefield. He had been fighting, on and off, ever since. Increasingly, those fighting with him did so through fear, not through choice.Reuse content