Justin Pearce explores the growing number of voices criticising Angola’s regime, and the persecution that they have faced. Justin is a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Cambridge.
Fifteen activists have now been in prison without charge in Angola for more than a month. Their detention represents the latest in a number of incidents that have demonstrated the MPLA government’s difficulties in dealing with opposition, and has emboldened others inside and outside Angola to start making their voices heard.
Thirteen young men were detained on 20 June after they met as a reading group to discuss books about non-violent activism. Police searched houses, seized phones and computers, and detained two more activists within 48 hours. All fifteen remain in custody at various locations in Luanda. They include two of the most iconic figures in Angolan youth politics: Luaty Beirão, the hip-hop artist whose call for Dos Santos to step down in 2011 sparked Angola’s first ever anti-government protests, and Manuel Nito Alves who in 2013, aged only 17, was held in solitary confinement for more than a month for possessing t-shirts with a slogan that described President José Eduardo dos Santos as a ‘disgusting dictator’. Amnesty International has condemned the detention of the fifteen as ‘yet another attempt by the Angolan authorities to intimidate anyone who has a differing view in the country,’ and called for the release of ‘the detained activists, who are prisoners of conscience.’ Lawyers for the group are seeking a habeus corpus writ to secure their clients’ release.
Three more human rights activists and a journalist were themselves held in custody for a whole day when they went to visit some of the detainees. In a separate incident, activist-journalist José Gama was questioned by criminal investigators whose questions included whether Gama was a friend of another activist-journalist, Rafael Marques. Meanwhile in the oil-producing exclave province of Cabinda, activist Marcos Mavungo has been in detention since March, and is said to be in urgent need of medical attention. In Benguela, four members of the civil rights group Omunga received death threats by text message. From the diamond-producing Lunda region, it emerged last week that Rafael Muambumba, a member of the obscure but harmless Lunda Tchokwe Protectorate Movement, had been held in prison for almost a month and beaten by police.
All this appears to be the result of anxiety by a regime that sees its grip on society threatened as a downturn in global oil prices weakens the lines of patronage created during the oil boom that followed the end of the Angolan civil war in 2002. But the arrest of the activists has had the unintended consequence of eliciting critical responses from a wider range of people than was the case before. The fifteen detainees were part of an activist network that, in the last four years, has remained synonymous with a small number of brave individuals, from differing social classes, but almost exclusively young and male. The reaction to the detentions has shown that dissent can continue even while the best-known activists sit in prison. A demonstration is planned for 29 July in Luanda. Angolans in the diaspora and their allies have been protesting outside foreign embassies. Paulo Flores, one of Angola’s best-known musicians, and the writers José Eduardo Agualusa and Ondjaki are among prominent cultural figures who have united behind the call to free the fifteen.
Inside Angola, anger at the detentions is the culmination of growing public concern over a sequence of events this year. In April, an unknown number of people were killed in a police raid on the encampment of a religious sect at Mount Sumi in Huambo province. Although the killings were not overtly political in motivation and some sect members were armed, video evidence has shown police attacking unarmed sect members. The incident speaks of discomfort in Angola around any kind of mobilisation – albeit religious – that does not have the explicit approval of the state. The government has refused calls for an independent inquiry into the incident.
In May, Rafael Marques received a suspended prison sentence for criminal libel, the consequence of his investigation into human rights abuses in the diamond industry in Lunda-Norte province. The case against Marques was brought by a group of generals close to the Angolan presidency, who own mining concessions and the security companies whose staff were implicated by Marques in the murder and torture of local residents in Lunda-Norte.
The killings at Mount Sumi became known thanks to the efforts of civil society activists in Huambo, and Marques’s trial captured the imagination of some unlikely sections of Angolan society: policemen guarding the court were among those battling to get their hands on copies of his book, which he was distributing. Social media, which was essential to the organisation of the early protests back in 2011, is seeing ever more material being posted by a wider range of users. The foundation of a new online magazine, Rede Angola (Network Angola), which features investigation and analysis by leading Angolan writers, has given some intellectual heft to critiques of the regime.
It is important to put all this in perspective. Just as the relatively small street protests that began in 2011 were impressive mostly for the fact that previously there had been no protests at all, so the novelty of this recent activity in the public sphere must not be seen as heralding immediate change. Recent repression may be a sign of fear inside the regime, but the absence of a popular opposition leader with a clear alternative vision for Angola means that Dos Santos’s position is still stronger than that of Robert Mugabe in 2008, for example. Opposition parties have been left trailing behind civil society in their responses to events: a reflection of the weakness of Angola’s formal political institutions. The volume of the dialogue, however, makes Angola look like a different place from what it was a decade ago.