HOLDEN ROBERTO Politician, CIA agent
Born: 12 January, 1923, in Mpanza Congo, Angola. Died: 2 August, 2007, in Luanda, Angola, aged 84.
HOLDEN Roberto was the "secret weapon" of, first, John F Kennedy, and, later, Henry Kissinger, for securing post-colonial Angola, Africa's most resource-rich territory, as an American and western ally.
With Roberto's death, the three "big men" of Angolan liberation, who dominated the front pages of the world's press in the mid-1970s, are all dead. The other two, Agostinho Neto, leader of the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola, and Jonas Savimbi, leader of the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola, died in 1979 and 2002 respectively.
Roberto, hailed by some as the "father of Angolan nationalism", proved to be a dud missile, despite the hundreds of millions of pounds spent on him by Western governments. On an annual $10,000 salary from the Americans, Roberto was an abrasive, introverted, sinister-looking man under his ever-present dark glasses, worn even in dark rooms or on a cloudy day.
Roberto's demise can be definitively dated to 10 November, 1975, the day before Angolan independence as the Portuguese brought five centuries of colonial rule to a pathetic, whimpering end. The high commissioner, Leonel Cardoso, and his staff scuttled out of Luanda, Angola's classically built capital, leaving their former subjects to shoot things out among themselves for the next three decades.
As Cardoso, dressed in admiral's ceremonial uniform, fled to an offshore frigate, Roberto and his FNLA (the National Front for the Liberation of Angola) began to execute a US plan to make Angola, with its oil, diamonds and other riches, the West's best friend in Africa.
At dawn on 10 November some 1,500 FNLA soldiers, on foot and in armoured cars, began advancing in a single column across the broad and marshy valley of the Bengo river, 18 miles north of Luanda. The FNLA forces were supported by two regular battalions of the Zairean army and 100 Portuguese Angolan soldiers.
South African army gunners on a ridge to the north of the river aimed their three 11-mile-range artillery pieces across the river, where some 800 Cubans were dug in on hilltops around the village of Quifandongo. CIA officers along with Roberto, South African advisers and British and French intelligence agents together watched the beginning of the triumphal push into Luanda, whose outskirts were just visible in the distance.
As the FNLA advanced across the swamp along a narrow metalled road on top of a dyke, a devastating barrage of mortar shells and 122mm rockets was laid down from Quifandongo by the Cubans and supporting Angolan guerrillas of the Soviet-backed MPLA (Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola). The South African artillery was no match for the Cubans' Soviet-supplied weaponry, and a big Zairean 130mm field gun exploded the first time it fired, killing the Zairean crew.
Most of Roberto's dozen armoured cars and a half-dozen jeeps mounted with anti-tank rockets were knocked out within an hour. The CIA, British and French intelligence agents watching the debacle estimated that some 2,000 rockets had landed among the FNLA forces.
Roberto's men panicked and became bogged down in the swamp. Cubans dashed forward in jeeps to fire RPG-7 rocket grenades and anti-aircraft guns along the dyke among the demoralised Africans, compounding their terror and misery. Hundreds of the FNLA men died. The 26-man South African contingent escaped by night to the South African navy frigate President Steyn waiting offshore.
The disaster, which became known as Nshila wa Lufu (Death Road), broke the FNLA. It never recovered. Roberto's - and John Kennedy's and Henry Kissinger's - dream of him becoming independent Angola's first president was also dead.
The CIA and its western partners, including South Africa, switched their support to Jonas Savimbi, a Chinese-trained Maoist, and the Angolan war ended only when Savimbi was killed after being trapped on 22 February, 2002 against a tributary of the Zambezi and riddled with bullets by government troops.
By then, the ruling MPLA had performed an unblushing ideological flip-flop from hardline Stalinist Marxism to robber capitalism.
Holden lvaro Roberto was born in 1923 in the former So Salvador, now known as Mbanza Congo, in northern Angola. When he was two, Roberto's family relocated to the former Belgian Congo, subsequently Zaire and now the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where he worked in the finance ministry of the colonial administration.
He decided to start a career in politics after he visited his native land in 1951 and said he saw Portuguese officials abusing an old man. Roberto formed the country's first nationalist movement, called the Union of Angolan Peoples, which was linked to his own Bakongo, the country's third largest ethnic group. He transformed it into the FNLA in the 1960s.
Roberto began an incursion into Angola on 15 March, 1961, and his forces overran farms, government outposts and trading centres, killing everyone they encountered. At least 1,000 Portuguese and an unknown number of black Angolans were killed. The Portuguese quickly reorganised and drove the FNLA forces back into the Congo.
Roberto sat in Kinshasa, the Congo capital, and was unreceptive to ideas for halting the decline. Ignoring the requirement for a liberation leader to be near the war front with his people, Roberto took to driving around the Congo capital in a shiny black Mercedes and forged a political alliance with Zaire/Congo president Mobutu Sese Seko, the CIA's biggest man in Africa, by divorcing his first wife and marrying Seko's sister-in-law.
When Angola held its first democratic election in 1991, Roberto ran unsuccessfully for president, receiving only 2.1 per cent of the vote.
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