How Roberto Lost His Way

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What happened to Holden Alvaros Roberto? Many have compared him to Judas Iscariot, who sold Jesus for 30 pieces of silver. There are other Africans who followed that path....

Africa News Update

Holden Roberto, who recently died, was once a central figure in Angola's struggle for independence from colonial ruler Portugal. Roberto died August 2, of cardiac arrest at his home in the Angolan capital, Luanda.

It is common in African culture to say, "Wafa Wanaka," which in Zimbabwe Shona proverb means “when a person
dies, we should not say anything bad about him or her.”

Yet veteran African political commentators have had no kind words for one of the founding leaders of the nationalist movement in Angola.

"Roberto was a traitor to African liberation just as UNITA's Jonas Savimbi was," opines Cameron Duodo, a veteran Ghanaian scribe. "If UNITA and the FNLA had defeated the MPLA with Western and South African support, South Africa would not be the free country it is today. So, Roberto was a traitor to African liberation just as UNITA’s Jonas Savimbi was," Duodo says.

There are no apologies from African commentators. Why?

They say Roberto's greatest mistake was to betray the African liberation movement by allowing himself to be used by the US to attack the Soviet-backed Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) liberation movement. During the Cold War in Africa, Roberto was paid by the United States, allied with Israel, and recruited western mercenaries in fighting against the nationalist MPLA.

His only credit remains that he was only instrumental in as far as establishing Angola's first liberation movement, based among his own northern Bakongo people; the Union of Peoples of Northern Angola, in 1956. His party was renamed the Union of  Peoples of Angola, and later became the National Front for the Liberation of Angola (FNLA).

In the pages of African history, it is tragic that Roberto lost his way even though he was one of the few leaders of the days of emerging African independence who had the great opportunity to attend the historic All African People's Congress in Ghana in 1958.

There, he mingled with great minds of the day-Pan African legends Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana and George Padmore, that distinguished Trinidadian intellectual who helped to organize this important event. He also met Patrice Lumumba, Kenneth Kaunda, Tom Mboya, Mwalimu Julius Nyerere and influential scholars such as Frantz Fanon and others.

What happened to Holden Alvaros Roberto? Many have compared him to Judas Iscariot, who sold Jesus for 30 pieces of silver. There are other Africans who followed that path; Zimbabwe's founding nationalist Ndabaningi Sithole, Inkhatha Freedom Party leader Gatsha Buthelezi, and infamous Mobutu Sese Seko of the former Zaire.

Beginning in the 1950s, Roberto started receiving an annual $6,000 stipend from the US National Security Council. His pay off was increased to $10,000 a year in 1962 after his first bloody incursion into Angola with a force of 4,000 Bakongo recruited in Kinshasa; the clash led to the death of many people but had no long-lasting political effect.

In 1961 he had met President John F. Kennedy; the following year his FNLA merged with the Democratic Party of Angola to form the Revolutionary Government of Angola in Exile, the GRAE.

He consolidated his African Axis of Collaborators by divorcing his wife and marrying the sister-in-law of President Mobutu, the  key western Cold War surrogate in Africa. "Roberto, with his perennial dark glasses, legendary arrogance, and conspicuously charm-free manner, became at first the standard bearer of anti-communism for a future independent Angola, oil-rich and a strategic key to the plans for apartheid South Africa's continued hold over Namibia," notes a local political analyst.

The rapid burnout started after he lost a series of battles with the MPLA leading up to Angola’s independence; the US support  began to dry up. The CIA decided to back UNITA’s Jonas Savimbi who seemed more promising to the US. Also, with the help of 15,000 Cuban fighters, the MPLA defeated FNLA; later the Cubans helped deal the South African army a spectacular defeat.

Roberto and his mercenaries fled, but 13 were captured, including three Americans, and were tried as war criminals by an international court in Luanda, Angola. One American, Daniel Gearhardt, was executed; it was the Italian embassy that organized the return of his body to the US.

Roberto was out of the limelight from the late 1970s through the 1980s as South African destabilization of independent Angola continued with the US secretly arming and training of UNITA; Savimbi was promoted by Ronald Reagan as the "democratic alternative" to the ruling socialist MPLA.

There was nothing left for Holden Roberto. Relations between Mobutu and Roberto soured. Roberto moved to Paris in 1978, and only returned to Angola to take part in the 1992 elections. His fellow FNLA stalwart Hendrik Vaal Neto joined the MPLA-led government while he would not accept a job in the new government.

FNLA is Angola's third biggest opposition party after UNITA, with five members in parliament all from the Bakongo north. The FNLA had been rocked by serious divisions with one faction led by Lucas Ngonda and the other by Roberto. In March, Roberto retired from active politics.

Angolan President Jose Eduardo dos Santos, whose MPLA were the resounding victors, could afford a few generous words: "Holden Roberto was one of the pioneers of national liberation struggle, whose name encouraged a generation of Angolans to opt for resistance and combat for the country's independence."

Roberto was born January 12, 1923.

Tsiko is The Black Star News’ Southern Africa correspondent based in Harare

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