The Angolan nationalists fighting Portugal's colonial rule were the left-wing Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), led by Agostinho Neto, and Savimbi's UNITA. After Angola won independence in 1975, Neto came to power with the explicit support of the Soviet Union and Cuba. Savimbi immediately turned his sights on the MPLA government, plunging the new nation into a horrific civil war. Both South Africa and the United States supplied UNITA with arms and weapons.
Among the African leaders who openly supported Savimbi were Felix Houphouet-Boigny of Ivory Coast and Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire. Others were more discrete in their aid but nevertheless maintained diplomatic and commercial ties with UNITA. Savimbi began to score victories against the MPLA in the late 1980s. By 1990, in fact, his forces controlled almost half of Angola. The Angolan government negotiated a cease-fire with UNITA in 1991. The following year, Savimbi lost a questionable presidential election, and the civil war was reinvigorated, with periodic breaks, for another decade. Despite United Nation (UN) condemnatory sanctions and embargoes and international recognition of the popularly elected government in Luanda, Savimbi persisted, financing UNITA mainly through illicit sales of diamonds.
The United States and the Soviet Union used Angola as a proxy during the Cold War, while Savimbi used the Cold War to portray himself as a warrior against communism. With the Cold War ended along with the apartheid regime in South Africa, he continued the civil war, becoming a virtual international pariah with no major patrons. Savimbi died in battle in Lucusse on 22 February 2002. Just six weeks after his death, UNITA rebels signed a cease-fire, which ended the long civil war. Savimbi's struggle resulted in the deaths of more than a million people and the displacement of 2 million others.
John H. Barnhill
Windrich, Elaine. The Cold War Guerrilla. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1992.