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Not as nice as he looked: America loved Jonas Savimbi because he said he fought for freedom. Now democracy doesn't suit him, what will the US do? Richard Dowden wonders

Richard Dowden
Thursday 15 October 1992 23:02 BST

Jonas Savimbi has said repeatedly for 16 years that he and his Unita forces were fighting for a democratic election in Angola. He got an election and he lost it. Now he is threatening to go back to the bush to go on fighting.

The fate of Angola hangs in the balance. Jose Eduardo dos Santos is holding back from proclaiming himself elected President while Pik Botha, South Africa's Foreign Minister, tries shuttle diplomacy and the United Nations checks the vote. Mr Savimbi is reported to have said that to prevent the return to war he must be made the 'right offer'.

Mr dos Santos has done everything the Americans and other countries have urged on him. Who will help him if it goes wrong?

The mandate of the UN team is to monitor the elections and if these fail, the UN will leave. There are no plans and less money for enlarging the UN presence into a peace-keeping force. If Mr Savimbi returns to the bush to fight, there is every risk that Angola will turn into another Liberia or Somalia.

Between those two countries and Zaire and Angola there is a common thread: their fates were dictated by Ronald Reagan's sole criterion of policy - stop Communism. In each of these countries the United States has supported bad men in the cause of anti-Communism and the cost has been counted in dead Africans.

Liberia - land of liberty - was the country founded by the US for freed slaves and it retained close links with Washington. In the Eighties, Samuel Doe, the Master-Sergeant who seized power in a coup, was the biggest recipient of US aid in sub-Saharan Africa. His rule ended in a bloodbath while two American warships stood off Freetown doing nothing. Washington called for 'an African solution to an African problem'. The civil war rages on.

In Zaire the CIA helped to bring Mobutu Sese Seko to power to stop the pro-Moscow Prime Minister, Patrice Lumumba. Protected physically by Israeli security guards and financially by Washington, Mobutu turned the country into his personal fiefdom, treating the national treasury as his own bank account. Since things fell apart last year, the Americans have preached democracy but in private continued to back Mobutu.

In Somalia, the United States backed Siad Barre from 1980, primarily because it wanted the air and naval facilities at Berbera for its Rapid Deployment Force. US interests in Somalia were an appendage of US geostrategic interests in the Middle East. When Barre was overthrown in January 1991, the Americans fled from the embassy in helicopters, Saigon-style. The humiliation was masked by the Gulf war, which was then in full swing. The United States then did nothing about Somalia and ignored warnings of impending famine earlier this year. Television pictures of starvation forced the world to act and now the US Agency for International Development boasts taking 'the leading role' in the relief effort.

And so to Angola: despite the public opposition from his own Secretary of State, George Shultz, and his Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Chester Crocker, who was then involved in delicate negotiations, Reagan suddenly announced in November 1985 that the US was providing 'covert aid' to Jonas Savimbi's Unita rebels in Angola.

Mr Savimbi was proclaimed a freedom fighter. Jeane Kirkpatrick, the US Ambassador to the United Nations, called him a 'true hero of our time' and he was feted at the White House. He became more famous than Nelson Mandela in America.

There was also a revenge factor in Angola. The CIA had backed Mr Savimbi during the war there in 1976. When this fact emerged and America was found to be on the same side as South Africa, there was outrage in Congress. In any case, the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), backed by the Cubans with Russian advisers, crushed Unita and drove back a South African force. When Mr Savimbi contemplated doing a deal with the MPLA, the CIA advised against it and Henry Kissinger promised to go on supporting Unita as long as it could mount effective resistance. In the aftermath, Congress banned aid for Unita, and the director of the CIA, William Colby, resigned. The man who replaced him and had to clear up the mess was George Bush.

In Britain, Mr Savimbi was introduced to a meeting at the House of Commons as 'the Black Mrs Thatcher'. The lady herself, despite pressure from her right wing, declined to meet him. Mr Savimbi was given the image of a man fighting for democracy rather than power. His demand was that all foreigners should leave Angola - meaning the Cubans and Russians who supported the MPLA. A stream of MPs, journalists and others were taken to Jamba via South Africa or Zaire, and many came away enthused by the well- kept, spartan bush headquarters. A Conservative MP said it reminded him of his scouting days.

The man who had done the spadework for Mr Savimbi in Britain and America was Tito Chingunji, Unita's Foreign Affairs representative. Always immaculately turned out, friendly and effective, Chingunji made the contacts and friends for Mr Savimbi in Europe and America. But he had made one fatal mistake. He had taken the limelight.

Chingunji was recalled to Jamba, Unita's bush headquarters in southern Angola, in 1987 and was murdered with another prominent Unita leader, Wilson dos Santos. Two prominent defectors from Unita accused Mr Savimbi of having them executed; Mr Savimbi accused the defectors of killing them. But Savimbi's boast is that he is the sole leader of Unita. It is not, he has said, a democratic movement. Few doubt that anyone but Mr Savimbi could have authorised such executions.

Before he died, Chingunji managed indirectly to give a different version of Unita to the public image of a pro-Western nationalist freedom movement. He spoke of other disappearances and torture and confirmed the rumours of public witch burnings at Jamba.

Chingunji was well known and liked on Capitol Hill and his death was a terrible shock. A realisation began to dawn that Unita was two movements. Outside Africa it was a besuited political movement talking democracy and freedom and fighting Communism, led by a fluent and charismatic 'Doctor'. In Angola it was a vicious dictatorship bent on getting to power with whatever allies it could find. Once again America had been deceived about Africa.

Despite the embarrassment most of those involved with Angola in Washington, including the State Department, were still convinced that Mr Savimbi would win a free and fair election. US diplomats continued to talk up Unita as a popular political force and

draw attention to the MPLA's Communist past and administrative shortcomings.

Mr Savimbi lost the election by a margin of more than 10 per cent. He promptly cried foul. Among other allegations he claimed that there had been irregularities in the vote counting, ignoring the fact that in every counting centre a Unita representative had signed a document accepting that the count had been free and fair. Even if all the complaints are taken

into account, Mr Savimbi would not win - although the margin between the votes for Mr dos Santos and Mr Savimbi may be enough to force a second presidential ballot.

What will America do? It has kept this war going and forced Mr dos Santos to hold an election. Just because its man lost the game, will Washington allow Angola to turn into another Liberia or Somalia?

(Photograph omitted)

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