Jonas Malheiro Savimbi and Foday Saybana Sankoh - A comparative study


Savimbi’s enduring facet: balancing the hunter with the blacksmith king
The black cockerel’s shift from nationalism to warlordism
Populism without people – the story of Sankoh’s civil war
Sankoh’s children – the “meritocracy of atrocity”
Between the office and the bush
Two models of warlordism: fluidity of roles and the ‘ethos’ behind the men


“Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past”
Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon (1852).
The study of the role of leadership and elites in political life has seen little consensus within its ranks. There are the theories that regard individuals and leaders as units, firmly locked into the overpowering contingencies of the structural environment in which they operate. Marxist and liberal meta-theory read historical events as moments of a wider systemic evolution, which single individuals cannot significantly affect. Alternatively, proponents of individual agency celebrate the potential of a great character in vastly affecting political outcomes. The process of power, punctured with access points, is accessible to be directed and moulded by leaders or influential individuals. The latter understanding of the role of leaders underpins this study that will simultaneously account for the systemic environment in which these leaders operated.
Assuming that leadership is taken as significant, particularly in the African case whereby the individualization of politics (Chabal & Daloz 1999) has been subject to much writing in the field of conflict studies, this comparative exercise focuses on the worlds of two of those big men – Foday Sankoh and Jonas Savimbi. In the case of Sankoh his life as the RUF (Revolutionary United Front) leader with a rise and demise will be narrated and analysed while in Savimbi’s case, I will be focusing on contrasting his late period as a warlord with the bulk of the life that he lead as a rebel. The models that the two warlords put into practice will then be compared through their similarities and differences, concluding with a constant re-conceptualizing and contextualising of warlordism as an activity that should be pursued in order to smoothly engage with the changing nature of the actors taking part in conflict.

Jonas Malheiro Savimbi - the failed statesman

‘If you are a drowning man in a crocodile-filled river and you’ve just gone under the third time, you don’t question who is pulling you to the bank until you’re safely on it’

Jonas Savimbi, 14 November 1975 (Bridgland 1986:137)

Savimbi’s enduring facet: balancing the hunter with the blacksmith king

Understanding Savimbi as a sub-product of the Cold War and of the post-Cold War era falls short in offering the entire picture of whom the “doctor from Munhango” exactly was and why he did what he did. Born in 1934, close to the central Angolan plateau, Savimbi was brought up by a father with anxious expectation for his son to move upward in the circle of life. A hardworking, dancing and football-loving young man, the son of Luth Savimbi was able to breakthrough the stringent educational boundaries given to blacks under Portuguese colonial rule. Young Jonas completed his basic studies at an American Protestant Missionary school and eventually found his way to Lausanne, Switzerland to fulfil his life-long dream. He pursued this after leaving his studies in medicine, to finally complete a degree in law and International Politics instead. By then, young Savimbi was already deeply involved in the anti-colonial struggle and had developed an impressive array of influential contacts ranging from African Nationalists, to Cold War brokers (both on the American and Soviet side), to Chinese Maoists. The latter’s methods and training camps extremely influenced Savimbi’s views on how to wage guerrilla warfare and the politico-military strategy of his UNITA (National Union for the Total Independence of Angola), both in its early times and every time conventional war failed and they returned to the bush..
Savimbi initially saw, on the land-based peasant revolution a closer reflection of his own views of Angolan nationalism than in the ideas of western liberalism or Marxism-Leninism. Despite all his travelling Savimbi perceived himself, above all, as a man of his land. He spoke seven different languages but in none of them was he more rhetorically articulate than in the traditional form of Umbundu, the language of the Ovimbundu – his ethnic group and the largest in Angola constituting around 35 % of the population (EON 2007). His close intimacy with the practice of witchcraft is also well-documented in Linda Heywood’s exploration of ideology in Africa. The bizarre occasions where Savimbi consented to live burials and witch burning, opens the doors to a realm of politics that accompanied him until his last days. It is essential and necessary therefore to understand this outside the rational of classic western political science models. Savimbi’s actions, both pre and post-Cold War times, have to be understood in the context of an environment whereby, among many followers, he was regarded as having a supernatural status believed to even “fly and perform other feats” (Heywood 1998:164). This demonstrates some of the levels of perception about his intimacy with the traditional pre-colonial forces of his homeland. Savimbi built a reputation around him and so managed a balance between the hunter king (autocratic rule) and the blacksmith king (provider, consensus-generating rule) (Heywood 1998: 152). This reliance on ancestral forces and political traditions go a long way to explain the duress of political support from the core Ovimbundo constituencies and his unexpected survival through successive political crises. Although most of the events surrounding Savimbi’s and UNITA’s endurance have focused on external geo-strategic explanations in a first phase (such as South African and American support during the late seventies) and on the modern literature warlord political economy after 1992, the dynamics of the strongly knitted cohesion of his peers still played throughout this period as an important role. Understanding this relationship, between the leader and his constituency, avoids decontextualised “demonisation” of individuals (Cramer open democracy) when understanding conflict in Africa.

The black cockerel’s shift from nationalism to warlordism

Savimbi who was once heralded as a peacemaker, benign negotiator and consensus-bringing broker during the process of independence, went through dramatic personal transformations. His son’s death in 1975 coincided with his greatest moment of popularity as he toured Luanda and called for fair elections to be held. His participation in the provisional government and his first-hand experience of witnessing the early violent FNLA and MPLA scuffles in the Luandan Musseques were the events Savimbi critically pointed to when he dissociated himself from the government. The stage was set for the Angolan arena of the Cold War. Savimbi was to remain a Cold War warrior until 1992 supported by American and South African drive against Soviet Communism and in the case of South Africa avenge Luanda’s support of SWAPO in Namibia. Although his attitude of a government-seeking rhetoric did not change much, his financing did suddenly shift from American and South African geopolitical support to having greater reliance on the diamond and ivory trade (Le Billon 2001). From being connected to the state-based international geopolitical struggle of the Cold War, Savimbi began instead to rely solely upon the stateless international political economy of illicit trade to fight an MPLA that was now recognized as a legitimate government by the Americans. Savimbi’s last grasps at legitimacy on an international level were doomed. A legitimacy that Savimbi still genuinely kept at the level of his local constituency, “possibly developed only for opportunistic reasons but nonetheless real” (Giustozzi 2005: 7). Encompassed in his support constituency his followers had diverse demographic characteristics, ranging from child soldiers (particularly on the latter phases of Savimbi as an insurgent with over 2000 kids) to adults (PANGAE 1997).
The ending of the Cold War brought expectations for a favourable climate towards peace. This was yet again a notion flawed by its over-reliance on a geopolitical analysis of the situation in Angola. In 1994 it was thought by both sides that an end to the conflict would always be political and never military (Simpson, Chris A. report 1994). This was drastically proven wrong eight years later. MPLA virtually won the war, set the terms of peace and has been centrally governing Angola since.
Closely observing the nuances of the narrative of Savimbi’s relationship with his support-base avoids the recurrent fallacy of considering war and violence as irrational. This was the case even after 1992 when Savimbi gave up de facto ambitions for assuming office in Luanda and became a full-time manager of his wealthy Ovimbundo lands fighting the MPLA troops. Zollman and DE Decker were two of the companies that helped Savimbi take what was since the 1970s a traditional low-budget exploration of Angola’s natural riches and make it into a profitable industry. Exploration, particularly in the Cuango valley was centralized and very profitable In late 1997 as MPLA gained terrain Savimbi began decentralising his industry and focused on the northern regions of Angola sometimes even stretching all the way into southern Congo (Dietrich 2000: 5). Sets of sanctions that started in 1998 started making Savimbi’s profits more difficult but did not prevent UNITA from having sales reports of up to $800 000 in 1999 (Dietrich 2000: 16). UNITA’s weapons came mainly from supplies from the independence days, Cold War sponsors and appropriations from the MPLA. The US provided approximately $250 million in covert weapons shipments to Jonas Savimbi between 1986 and 1991, supplying weapons such as 106 mm recoilless rifles that were then mounted on four-wheel-drive vehicles for greater effectiveness (Hartung 1995). After 1992 most of the supplies came from the international black market Savimbi was so well connected to in his non-sanctioned diamond dealings.
Fifteen bullets engraved in the head of Savimbi in 2002 brought the war in Angola to an end. It ended as so few do nowadays, with a clear Clausewitzian victor: in this case MPLA beating Savimbi. Post-Savimbi Angola is now a wounded country with both great potential as well as many contradictions. Looking back at the conflict, fact remains that, if always dramatic and regrettable, violence is rarely irrational and never unfounded. Savimbi should therefore be understood rather as under the umbrella of a more nuanced notion of warlordism. Taking Giustozzi’s typology of contemporary military political actors, Savimbi can be seen on an initial phase as a hybrid of the nationalistic non-clan based political entrepreneur (someone who seizes control of political groups or ideologies to mobilise support) and of the traditional local ruler (a leader who mobilizes support from within their own clan or tribe) who thereafter began practising de-facto warlordism after the Cold War and then governing the state became a practical impossibility after losing the 1992 legislative elections (Giustozzi 2005 12).

Foday Saybana Sankoh - The lumpen revolutionary

“I don’t trust anybody except God, but I am prepared to negotiate with the devil if only that will bring peace to the people of Sierra Leone”

Foday Sankoh (Godwin 2003: 37)

Populism without people – the story of Sankoh’s civil war

Sankoh’s initial one hundred men constituted of a “populist movement without popular support” (Richards 2005:120). Their brutal tactics and their military and social success in recruiting revolutionaries, indoctrinating and profanely empowering them engrossed Sankoh’s ranks and made them a force to be reckoned with. The conflict saw some fifteen thousand civilians murdered and many of them internally displaced during the five years of the war (Richards 1996: 19). Sadly, witnessing the RUF’s military success, the government’s RSLMF (Revolutionary Sierra Leone Military Forces) and to some extent the Kamajor militias too, started copying the recruitment and fear-instilling methods of the RUF and the cycle of violence simply cemented itself on both sides as the natural modus operandi (Richard & Peters 1998: 184). Early in 1995 the most famous meddling of a Private Military Company in conflict occurred. Executive Outcomes effectively won the war for the government, billing the Sierra Leonean state $35 million but, together with the Kamajor militias, secured key diamond fields and pushed Sankoh to opt for the option of negotiations and elections in 1996. This was notably something that $260 million from the UN mission was unable to do (Schulhofer-Wohl 2000). A common culture of violence saw a bizarre unholy alliance between the RUF and the lower ranks of the national army (AFRC) assuming power over Freetown in 1997. The regime led by Paul Koroma had Foday Sankoh as number two and brought together “two different groups of alienated youth in arms” (Abdullah 1998: 230-234). John Paul Koroma’s AFRC and Foday Sankoh together took power over Freetown temporarily until Nigerian-led ECOMOG troops drove them out of the capital and put Kabbalah back in power. When Sankoh was arrested from 1997 to 1999 and eventually sentenced to death in Nigeria, his “siblings” in the RUF led by Sam Brockarie took over Freetown in an act that was more of an enraged and passionate cry of anger than a carefully thought through strategic operation. They kept together and oriented themselves even without the physical presence of their leader. RUF members were tightly knit together in savage meritocratic and egalitarian ways of relating to one another (Boas 2004) in a manner that sometimes resembled the twisted group rationality shown in the film “Lord of the flies”. Conflict continued until the Lome Peace Accords of 1999 remarkably saw Sankoh as the proposed head of a commission responsible for marketing the country's diamonds. Sankoh’s promise to have RUF disarmed never happened, thus the war and diamond looting resumed and Sankoh even took some five hundred UN peacekeepers hostage.
It was not until Britain sent an aggressive and well-equipped force to intervene that the RUF was defeated. In 2000 Sankoh was captured by an infuriated mob and handed over to the British. It was an ignoble capture of a man that forced and brainwashed his followers in a manner that they loved him through fear, rhetorical vigour and the superstition that he had semi-divine powers - believing he could vanish and was also immune to bullets (Economist 2003). With Sankoh’s second imprisonment peace finally came to Sierra. In custody his usual twisted eloquence disappeared and he apparently began to lose his mind until 2003 saw the quiet death of Foday Sankoh while awaiting his trial.

Sankoh’s children – the “meritocracy of atrocity”

Sankoh grew up setting traps and wrestling friends in the jungles of Sierra Leone. He was an ex-corporeal of the British army in Sierra Leone and of the failed United Nations mission in the Congo during the early 1960s. He was a photographer and cameraman, trained in Scotland, and jailed for seven years in 1971 for expressing his discontent towards the corrupt ruling elites of Joseph Saidu Momoh (Richards 1996: 18). After his release, Green Book training in Ghaddaffi’s Libya followed and a temporary detour to help his good friend, Charles Taylor in Liberia, preceded the formation of his RUF. Charles Taylor was instrumental in aiding Sankoh with strategic and military support especially in terms of supplying weapons and helping out with diamond smuggling. The RUF’s chaotic and dispersed promenading in and around Freetown was backboned by a firm grip on strategic alluvial diamond mining sites in the eastern part of the country. Foday Sankoh was, like Savimbi, a man of the bush and of great charisma, mysticism and adaptability. Unlike Savimbi, he was the instead a leader of a sect not an army commander (Richards 1999). A sect under the motto: “No More Slaves, No More Masters. Power and Wealth to the People" (RUF 1995). Although a man of the bush himself, his structure of communication meant that he rarely stepped out of his well-protected command centre, the Zagoda, and that he was frequently a “disembodied radio presence but a persistent” (Richards 2005: 130), attentive and inspiring one. After effectively purging his organization of Kanu and Masaray in 1992, two co-founders of the organization and the only real potential competitors threatening his leadership, Sankoh found himself organizationally-wise with all the time and room to indulge in revolution and in nurturing his “children”.
The presence of Ghaddaffi’s famous Green Book in the Conflict of Sierra Leone is a controversial one. Authors such as Abdullah (1998:213) see it as a background cacophony of propaganda to what was actually a social environment characterized by violence inherent to the characteristics of the “lumpen proletariat” – a disembodied and dehumanized youth. The book was taken light-heartedly and awfully manipulated to suit the circumstances. Richards (2005) on the other hand gives great precedence to the impact of the book, particularly on the leading cadre with their training in Libya. Richards assigns Sankoh’s young RUF rebels as ideologically sound individuals with, if not well carved motivations for their actions, well founded reasons or motives for behaving the way they do – at least strategically and circumstantially. Sankoh was the head of a hydra-like organization to which he attended and cared for in his fatherly fashion. His collectivist leadership meant that comrades-in-arms became a substitute to the family, whose murdering was frequently a pre-requisite for adhering to the movement, and village family structures where youths were usually violently ripped away from (Richards and peters). Although the influence of the Green Book and the actual force of ideology in the ranks of Sankoh’s RUF is avidly discussed, the fact remains that both authors have a point. Richards is right in pinpointing that there was a twisted rational about the actions of the RUF’s youth; and Abdullah’s parsimonious “lumpen proletariat” conveys the telling idea that many of them were caught within a systemic rollercoaster of violence. Both of these studies put together a grim picture where the meritocracy of atrocity became the modus operandi of everyday life.

Sankoh vs Savimbi

“The first resource that is squandered in a revolution is rationality and the last thing that returns is rationality. If it ever returns.”

Abdolkarim Soroush, On Reason (http://www.drsoroush.com/English/By_DrSoroush/On_reason.html )

Between the office and the bush

Assuming that there are two kinds of rebels in Africa - insurgents and warlords (Breytenbach 2003: 6), if the claims in the voices of Sankoh and Savimbi are taken at face-value they are to be considered insurgents since political control was always a central feature of their rhetoric discourse. Further scrutiny of their behaviour however shows that the last years of Savimbi saw him steadily lean back on his selected Angolan territories for diamond and ivory plundering. After support waned from both the United States and South Africa, UNITA no longer had any significant allies. Thus the fragile welfare structures that had been put in place in UNITA-controlled territory quickly started to fade. Savimbi’s transformation into a full-blown warlord was then complete. In taking a deeper look into Sankoh’s actions it shows that he was more comfortable in the bush fighting and plundering than he ever was in his brief passage through government in 1997. Sankoh fits well in Giustozzi’s more nuanced conceptualization of contemporary military-political actors – because he was the non-clan based military-political entrepreneur by excellence. Green Book ideology rhetorically adapted to the generational “powder keg” in Sierra Leone mixed together with a meritocratic egalitarian system designed by Sankoh. This mobilised support and resources with a mix of fear and revolutionary bravado. It was the youth that had been disembodied from their families and villages that followed Foday Sankoh. An understanding of Sankoh’s RUF as a “lumpen insurgency” sheds more light on Sankoh’s specific mode of organization than just applying to it a label of an illegitimate warlord.
Accepting the definition of a warlord as one who “acts financially and politically in the international system without interference from the state in which he is based” (Duffield 1997) one can argue that this “character” in contemporary conflict studies retains characteristics from politicians, soldiers and businesspersons. As non-office seeking politicians, they attempt to retain their power by carefully “juggling” their rhetoric and their relations with important political actors of the environment in which they operate. This is evident in Sankoh, accusing the Kamajors of having started with the real atrocities, or Savimbi’s rhetoric against MPLA even after the elections. As soldiers they primarily care about the survival of their organization, and their own – the strategy of war is always on top of their agenda. Additionally as warlords, this dimension is usually their identifying facet. This is the case for both Sankoh and Savimbi. What they do not have as office-seeking politicians, as warlords it makes up with a connection to the illegal economy. Through illicit business they finance and feed their war machines and cast a web of business relations in the profitable parallel markets such as diamond, ivory, drugs and human trafficking. Savimbi and Sankoh were cases in hand of these three roles coming together in the same persona. The three facets became more salient at different times in their lives. Sankoh was more of a politician when he spoke about giving free education and health initially in his operations. Savimbi became increasingly a businessman when he lost American support and came to rely even more on diamond, ivory and hardwood trade as a financial resource. Similarly despite the traditional label of Sankoh as a warlord, on the initial and final periods of the conflict where he practiced populism without popular support, one can see him as a conflict entrepreneur. This concept is consequently more suited to his persona as he was “more a sort of manipulator who had limited autonomous power and therefore tended to fade away more easily” (Giustozzi 2005:17). This contrasts to the localized yet reliable support-base that Savimbi managed to maintain even after the 1992 elections and his warlord policies.
The Sierra Leonean state was always a quasi-state. There was never a situation whereby the state established one overarching network of power, this was a fact that Sankoh cleverly exploited in the early stages with his anti-patronage rhetoric. With 75 % of the budget given to the army at a bad time with a collapsing economy, that was fast becoming dependant on taxes from foreign trade, the Sierra Leonean government in 1995 was the reflection of a weak governance with a history of patronage and was taking its toll (Reno 1998: 115). The case of Angola was slightly different. MPLA set up a strongly centralized system in the areas that it operated and Angola was firmly divided into the MPLA state and its army (financed mainly by oil revenues) and into Savimbi’s UNITA financed by its strategic regions of diamond and ivory rich areas. There were therefore two dimensions to the Angolan state after the 1992 elections. On the one hand the network of influence allowed the MPLA to try very hard to centralize its power and was to a great degree successful, on the other hand its influence outside Luanda was sometimes limited and its de facto governance of the territory was never quite a reality (today the Cabinda enclave question remains for example unresolved).

Two models of warlordism: fluidity of roles and the ‘ethos’ behind the men

In conflict situations there are indeed “many answers to the question of “who benefits” (Breytenbach 2003: 9). However I feel it is safe to say that in this case few actors in the war benefited from the conflict in absolute terms, except perhaps for the enriched coffers of Executive Outcomes and Sandline that participated on the side of the Sierra Leonean government and the Ukrainian PMC contracted by Sankoh. Also, at times, the elites did benefit: Sankoh with his entourage and Savimbi with the top cadres of UNITA. It was more often the case than not that actors partaking in the conflict benefited in absolute terms. Rather, they benefited in relative terms. In the case of the RUF in particular the meritocratic system gave youngsters that participated in the cause, the possibility of ascending the social ladder rapidly through the use of violence – this illusory sense of power permeates the ambiguity and the layers of attempting to answer the question: who benefits? The case of warlord Savimbi fighting against MPLA and his defeat meant that those on the side of the MPLA did benefit from the war ultimately, in relative terms that is, vis-à-vis the old entourage Savimbi left behind after his death. Of course in absolute terms however, despite the opportunity that dos Santos cleverly seized to hold onto power and centralize revenues and mechanisms, very few people in Angola benefited from the war.
The main difference between the two warlord “ethos” can summarily be understood if one looks at the nature of their child-soldiering. In both cases the use of child soldiers is a dramatic and terrible act. However in the case of Sankoh, child soldiers and their characteristics defined the essence of RUF’s relations which was in fact a sect underpinned by a generational revolt. Savimbi’s use of child soldiers on the other hand was more utilitarian and circumstantial. Both MPLA and UNITA made use of child soldiers but these did not define the essence of the relations between the members of the organization per se.
Reno’s breakdown of the processes of conflict in Africa that Breytenbach conceptualizes into the triangle of conflict, leading to the tripartite divide between rulers, rebels and mercantilists, is an interesting framework for the analysis of the two leaders. Notably Foday Sankoh was at different times and to a different extent both a rebel and a ruler simultaneously (number two in Paulo Koroma’s 1997 office). Savimbi was also momentarily part-ruler in the period of transition to independence. A clearer example is however the one of Charles Taylor. He was a rebel and a mercantilist (when he manpowered RUF ranks for the 1991 offensive) at different times. My point is how these three categories should be understood as fluid, interchangeable and overlapping and also how they should not aim at “boxing” leaders of factions into cemented roles. To understand who Savimbi was as a warlord, is essential to first understand how he became one when initially stemming from as an insurgent and why thus why he changed his modus operandi. Just like the Chinese warlords of the early 20th century, Savimbi’s and Sankoh’s actions should be seen for the most part, as “reactive” ones (Mackinlay 2000: 126).


This synopsis of Savimbi and Sankoh’s lives, of the interaction of these men with their surroundings and of their sets of responses to both internal and external changes in their political environment, concludes overall about one-dimensional approaches. It does so either by focusing just on their geo-political positioning or on the empirical violent output of their actions. Both of these are insufficient to paint a comprehensive picture of their actions.
A comparative historical approach is necessary in particular, when understanding Savimbi as a warlord, since he changed from an insurgent to a warlord but retained important characteristics of his years as a rebel. Sankoh’s horror story from beginning to end when observed from the perspective of a young Sierra Leonean, whose life was turned upside down as he was tossed into the violent world of the RUF, turns out to be even more tragic. As one immerses yourself under the ethos and the rationality of Sankoh and the RUF one becomes aware just how unnecessary and avoidable it was. The roles of Savimbi’s and Sankoh’s leadership cannot be underestimated. Savimbi was the glue that held his organization together and Sankoh the storyteller and hero that mischievously “liberated” all those following him, either willingly or not. Behind closed bunkers and bush refuges, both men, at the peak of their rule as warlords, broke dozens of deals with illicit traders and established comprehensive business networks. This was their way to reach out into the developed world and successfully feed their war machine as well as their private coffers, while resisting sanctions, UN interventions and lack of internal support.
A great part of their lives remains shrewd in mystery but the practical consequences of their actions in the form of atrocities, conflict and destruction were and still remain very much a reality. Both Sankoh’s and Savimbi deaths have now given their birthplaces a unique window of opportunity to enjoy peace and focus on development and constructive politics. Their stories and their lives, though tragic, should not be left in dark archives of death toll statistics or be limited to Hollywood blockbusters. This because the study and reflection about the lives and desires of leaders like Savimbi and Sankoh is crucial. Moreover contextualizing should offer no excuse for the violent actions they carried out but it can nonetheless allow for us to better understand it more clearly. Clarifying this will hopefully in the future be used to better tackle and handle individuals showing similar behaviour and threatening a re-occurrence of such tragedies.


Abdolkarim Soroush, On Reason (http://www.drsoroush.com/English/By_DrSoroush/On_reason.html )
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