Jonas Malheiro Savimbi was born in Munhango, Moxico Province in eastern Angola on 3 August 1934. Savimbi's primary education took place at Protestant mission schools in central Angola. His secondary school studies began in Angola. In 1958, he was granted a scholarship from the United Church of Christ to attend university in Lisbon, Portugal, where he began his involvement in anti-colonial politics. He began his university studies in medicine in Lisbon, but they were interrupted due to police harassment as a result of his political activities.
The Portuguese secret police detained Savimbi on three occasions before he decided on finishing his schooling in Switzerland, first at Fribourg University, then Lausanne University, where in 1965 he completed his coursework with honours in political science and juridical sciences. Having begun his studies in medicine, Savimbi would refer to himself as “Doctor” thereafter.
At the urging of Kenyan nationalists Tom Mboya and Jomo Kenyatta, Savimbi joined the Union of Angolan People (UPA) in 1961, where he became the secretary general. The following year, UPA and the Angolan Democratic Party (PDA) formed the National Front for the Liberation of Angola (FNLA). Savimbi became foreign minister of the new organization’s Government of the Republic of Angola in Exile (GRAE), before resigning in 1964 over disagreements with founder Holden Roberto’s leadership style.
On 13 March 1966, after undergoing military training in Maoist guerrilla tactics at China’s Nanking Military Academy, Savimbi formed the UNITA (National Union for the Total Liberation of Angola).
UNITA was formed in Angola, at the village of Mungai, Moxico Province, following a period of intense political mobilization. UNITA preceded the initiation of its armed struggle against colonial rule with an attack on a Portuguese post at Cangamba in Moxico Province. Savimbi personally led the first attack.
UNITA was the only Angolan nationalist force whose leadership was located in the interior of Angola.
Savimbi spent most of the next eight years inside Angola leading his forces. UNITA carved out a liberated area in eastern Angola where it established primary schools, agricultural cooperatives, and clinics under his direction.
Following the coup d'état in Portugal, on 25 April 1974, UNITA was the first to sign a ceasefire with the Portuguese forces in Angola, with the FNLA and Agostinho Neto’s MPLA (People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola) following suit later on.
Following the coup in Portugal, Savimbi, Holden Roberto, and Agostinho Neto, as leaders of the three main political movements in Angola, went to Portugal in January 1975 where they were recognized as the sole legitimate representatives of the Angolan people. Following a short period of negotiations, they signed the Algarve Agreement. It provided for a quadripartite transitional Government made up of the three Angolan parties and Portugal.
The Portuguese withdrew from Angola in 1975, ending their colonial rule. Angola became an independent nation on 11 November 1975.
Following independence in 1975, the outbreak of the Angolan Civil War delayed the country's first post-independence elections until 1980. By then, the Marxist-Leninist MPLA had created a one-party socialist state.
However, the transitional process in Angola slid into civil war, with the MPLA and the FNLA having artillery duels in the streets of the capital, Luanda. The MPLA began attacks on UNITA that led to its withdrawal from the capital.
UNITA, led by Savimbi, signed a tripartite agreement (UNITA, MPLA, and FNLA) in Mombassa, Kenya, in January 1975, under the auspices of Jomo Kenyatta. This agreement served as the negotiating basis for the Alvor Agreement with the Portuguese colonial authorities in January 1975. With civil war looming, Savimbi signed the Alvor Agreement.
Nonetheless, the rivalry between the major factions continued and quickly evolved into Angola’s bloody 27-year civil war. The MPLA received various forms of military backing from the Soviet Union and Cuba, while UNITA received similar support from the United States of America and apartheid South Africa.
When it appeared that a civil war was unavoidable, Savimbi asked President Jomo Kenyatta to summon the three Angolan movements to Kenya in a last-ditch effort to avoid a devastating war. They met in Nakuru and signed an agreement of the same name pledging peace. However, the war came because the MPLA was confident of victory because of Soviet arms and the presence of Cuban combat troops.
Under Savimbi's direction, UNITA, withdrew from the urban cities, in February 1976, to avoid a devastating defeat. It sought refuge in the liberated areas established during the anti-colonial war. The UNITA President convened the Cuanza River Conference, which issued a manifesto that pledged to drive the Russo-Cuban occupation army from Angolan soil.
The world considered the Cuanza River Manifesto as braggadocio. UNITA and its President, Savimbi, were written off.
On 9 December 1986, elections were held for all the seats in Parliament for the first time since November 1980. Polling had been postponed since 1983.
On 31 May 1991 Savimbi signed the Bicesse Peace Accords with Angolan President José Eduardo dos Santos. Under the terms of the Bicesse Accords, Angola formally moved to a democratic state based on the rule of law, with a multi-party political system, market economy, armed forces, and police that were supposedly nonpartisan. The Accords provided for the end of the one-party state and the holding of multi-party elections in September 1992.
The elections ignited a crisis. The presidential election was inconclusive. UNITA and eight other opposition political parties considered them "rife with fraud and irregularities". On 17 October, Savimbi informed the United Nations (UN) that UNITA was accepting the results "in the interest of preserving peace". A high ranking UNITA delegation, led by the party Vice President Jeremias Chitunda, was sent to Luanda to negotiate the modalities for the presidential runoff. While they were there, coordinated attacks were launched against UNITA facilities, officials, and sympathizers beginning on 31 October as an agreement was concluded and ready to be signed.
After losing a United Nations (UN) monitored election in 1992, Savimbi plunged the country back into civil war, reneging on a peace agreement brokered the previous year by the United States of America in which he had pledged to disarm and demobilise his army.
UNITA shot down several UN planes delivering humanitarian supplies and in 1998 the UN secretary general's special representative, Maitre Alioune Blondin Beye, died in a plane crash.
A UN report in 2000 detailed UNITA's use of diamonds to fuel the war and the movement was put under strict sanctions. The Organisation of African Unity and the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) declared Savimbi a war criminal.
Altogether 20, 000 UNITA sympathizers were massacred in Luanda in the civil conflict. Negotiations and diplomatic efforts continued. The MPLA Government launched attacks in January 1993 on UNITA in urban areas. The country was plunged back into war.
Negotiating efforts to end the fighting took place in Addis Ababa (Ethiopia), Abidjan (Ivory Coast), and Lusaka (Zambia). It culminated in the signing of the Lusaka Protocol on 20 November 1994 providing for the merger of the two armies (UNITA and MPLA) and the formation of a Government of Unity and Reconciliation.
The Angolan government released a statement confirming the death of Jonas Savimbi, which occurred on 22 February 2002, near Lucusse, in the province of Moxico, Angola.
Savimbi's death means the end of the most destructive guerrilla movement the world has known. For two generations hundreds of thousands of Angolan peasants were killed, wounded, and displaced. Tens of thousands of children, boys, and girls, were kidnapped and forced into UNITA's army as porters, sex slaves, or fighters.
Savimbi was reburied, on 1 June 2019, in Cuito City, central Bié Province, 17 years after his death. Thousands of former UNITA fighters wearing white T-shirts emblazoned with images of Savimbi attended the ceremony in his home village of Lopitanga.
His 2002 death brought an end to one of Africa's longest civil wars. He was accused of widespread atrocities but was also a charismatic leader revered by thousands.
He was killed by government soldiers in 2002 and was hurriedly buried in a cemetery in the central town of Luena.
His family and UNITA officials had demanded his reburial for many years to no avail.
The impasse was broken after his long-time foe, Jose Eduardo dos Santos, stepped down as president in 2017. His successor, Joao Lourenco, agreed to their demands, and his body was exhumed earlier in 2019, with DNA tests confirming his identity.
- Britannica. (2023). Jonas Savimbi - Angolan politician. Available at https://www.britannica.com/biography/Jonas-Savimbi [online]. Accessed 20 April 2023
- UNITA – Angola Website. (2023). Declaration alluding to the 57th anniversary of the founding of the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola, 13 March 2023 [online]. Available at http://www.UNITAangola.org/PT/affiartinouv4.awp?pArticle=15726. Accessed 20 April 2023
- Tomás, A. (2023). A brief history of five elections in Angola, from Africa is a Country, 6 February 2023. Available at https://africasacountry.com/2023/02/a-brief-history-of-five-elections-in-angola. Accessed 26 April 2023
- Victoria Brittain, V. & Siona, C. (2002). UNITA leader Savimbi killed by Angolan army from The Guardian [online]. Available at https://www.theguardian.com/world/2002/feb/23/victoriabrittain. Accessed 27 April 2023
- BBC. (2019). Jonas Savimbi - Angola's former UNITA leader reburied after 17 years, from the BBC, 1 June 2019 [online]. Available at https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-48483246. Accessed 28 April 2023
- BBC. (2019). Who was Jonas Savimbi, from BBC, 1 June 2019, [online]. Available at https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-48483246 Accessed 27 April 2023
- Angola Press Agency. (2019). Angola - Unita Party Confirms Jonas Savimbi's Reburial, 30 May 2019 [online]. Available at https://allafrica.com/stories/201905300384.html Accessed 27 April 2023
- Britannica. (2023). Jonas Savimbi - Angolan politician
- UNITA – Angola, Declaration alluding to the 57th anniversary of the founding of the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola, 13 March 2023
- Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance
- Chris Simpson, Obituary: Jonas Savimbi, Unita's local boy, BBC News, 25 February 2002