With support from the governments of the United States, the People's Republic of China, South Africa, Israel, several African leaders (Félix Houphouët-Boigny of Côte d'Ivoire, Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire, King Hassan II of Morocco and Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia), and foreign mercenaries from Portugal, Israel, South Africa, and France, Savimbi spent much of his life battling Angola's Marxist-inspired government, which was supported by weapons and military advisers from the Soviet Union, Cuba, and Nicaragua (under the Sandinistas). The war ultimately became one of the most prominent Third World conflicts of the Cold War.
While Savimbi originally sought a leadership position in the Marxist MPLA, he later denounced Marxism and joined forces with the FNLA in 1964. The same year he conceived UNITA with Antonio da Costa Fernandes. Savimbi went to China for help and was promised arms and military training. Upon returning to Angola in 1966 he formally launched UNITA and began his career as an anti-Portuguese guerrilla fighter, but also fought the FNLA and MPLA, as the three resistance movements tried to position themselves to lead a post-colonial Angola. Portugal would later release PIDE archives revealing that Savimbi in fact signed a collaboration pact with Portuguese colonial authorities to fight the MPLA.
Complementing his military skills, Savimbi also impressed many with his intellectual qualities. He fluently spoke seven languages, including four European languages and three African languages. In visits with foreign diplomats and in speeches before American audiences, he often cited classical Western political and social philosophy, ultimately becoming one of the most vocal anti-communists of the Third World.
Some dismiss this intellectualism as nothing more than careful handling by his politically savvy American supporters, who sought to present Savimbi as a clear alternative to Angola's regime. But others saw it as genuine and a product of the guerrilla leader's raw intelligence. Savimbi's biography describes him as "...an incredible linguist. He spoke four European languages, including English although he had never lived in an English-speaking country. He was extremely well read. He was an extremely fine conversationalist and a very good listener.
These contrasting images of Savimbi would play out throughout his life, with his enemies calling him a power-hungry warmonger, and his American and other allies calling him a critical figure in the West's bid to win the Cold War.
Equally important, Savimbi also was strongly supported by the influential, conservative Heritage Foundation. Heritage Foundation foreign policy analyst Michael Johns and other conservatives visited regularly with Savimbi in his clandestine camps in Jamba and provided the rebel leader with ongoing political and military guidance in his war against the Angolan government. Savimbi's U.S.-based supporters ultimately proved successful in convincing the Central Intelligence Agency to channel covert weapons and recruit guerrillas for Savimbi's war against Angola's Marxist government, which greatly intensified and prolonged the conflict.
Two years later, with the Angolan Civil War intensifying, Savimbi returned to Washington, where he was filled with gratitude and praise for the Heritage Foundation's work on UNITA's behalf. "When we come to the Heritage Foundation", Savimbi said during a June 30, 1988 speech at the foundation, "it is like coming back home. We know that our success here in Washington in repealing the Clark Amendment and obtaining American assistance for our cause is very much associated with your efforts. This foundation has been a source of great support. The UNITA leadership knows this, and it is also known in Angola.
As U.S. support began to flow liberally and leading U.S. conservatives championed his cause, Savimbi won major strategic battles in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and Moscow and Havana began to reevaluate their engagement in Angola, as Soviet and Cuban fatalities mounted and Savimbi's ground control increased. At the height of his military success, Savimbi controlled nearly half the country and was beginning, in 1990, to launch attacks on government and military targets in and around the country's capital, Luanda. Observers felt that the strategic balance in Angola had shifted and that Savimbi was positioning UNITA for a possible military victory.
Signaling the concern that the former Soviet Union was placing on Savimbi's advance in Angola, former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev raised the Angolan war with Reagan during numerous U.S.-Soviet summits. Savimbi was granted a triumph rarely granted an insurgent leader when he personally met with President Reagan in January 1986. He also met with Reagan's successor, President George H. W. Bush.
Under military pressure from UNITA, the Angolan government negotiated a cease-fire with Savimbi, and Savimbi ran for president in the national elections of 1992. Foreign monitors claimed the elections to be fair. However, Savimbi questioned the legitimacy of the election when the outcome forced him to face Angolan President José Eduardo dos Santos in a run-off election, since neither he nor dos Santos received the fifty percent required to win the Presidency. Citing his allegations of governmental electoral fraud, Savimbi withdrew from the run-off election and resumed fighting, mostly with foreign funds. One of Savimbi's largest sources of money being the De Beers Corporation, which bought between $500 and $800 million worth of illegally mined diamonds in 1992-1993. In 1994, UNITA signed a new peace accord, but Savimbi declined the vice-presidency that was offered to him and again renewed fighting in 1998.
Savimbi also violently purged some of those within UNITA who he may have seen as threats to his leadership or questioned his strategic course. Savimbi's foreign secretary, Tito Chingunji and his family, were executed in 1991 after Savimbi suspected that Chingunji had been in secret, unapproved negotiations with the Angolan government during Chingunji's various diplomatic visits in Europe and the United States.
After surviving more than a dozen assassination attempts, Savimbi was killed on February 22, 2002, in a battle with Angolan government troops - and, reportedly, South African mercenaries and Israeli special forces - along riverbanks in the province of Moxico, his birthplace. In the firefight, Savimbi sustained 15 machine gun bullets to his head, throat, upper body and legs. While Savimbi returned gun fire, the blows proved immediately fatal.
Savimbi's somewhat mystical reputation for eluding the Angolan military and their Soviet and Cuban military advisors led many Angolans to question the validity of reports of his 2002 death. Not until pictures of his bloodied and bullet-ridden body appeared on Angolan state television, and the United States State Department subsequently confirmed it, did the reports of Savimbi's death in combat gain credence in the country.
Savimbi was succeeded by António Dembo, who assumed UNITA's leadership on an interim basis in February 2002. But Dembo had sustained wounds in the same attack that killed Savimbi, and he ended up dying from them three days later.
Six weeks following Savimbi's death, a ceasefire between UNITA and the MPLA was signed, but Angola remains deeply divided politically between MPLA and UNITA supporters. Parliamentary and presidential elections are planned for 2008 and 2009 respectively.