Pro-Democracy Protests in Angola

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In recent weeks Angola has been rocked by protests against the MPLA government that have been violently suppressed. Here we provide a summary of recent events based on news stories, eye-witness reports, and blog entries.

Saturday 3 December saw the latest in a succession of youth demonstrations in the Angolan capital, Luanda, which since the start of the year have highlighted poverty and called for President José Eduardo dos Santos to step down after 32 years in office. Saturday’s demonstration began in Cazenga, a neighbourhood that forms part of the expanse of slum housing that is home to most of Luanda’s five million or so residents. The organisers had obtained permits for the march.

A participant in the march wrote on a blog that at 9 am, when just a small group of demonstrators had assembled in Cazenga, they were attacked by plain-clothes thugs known as “kaenches”, who seized demonstrators’ placards as uniformed police looked on. The march set off around 1 pm and was blocked by a police cordon, but the marchers managed to get around this. They were stopped again at a better-organised cordon some 100 metres further on.

Video taken during the march shows people calling for “health and education” and chanting “Dos Santos, thief, the people don’t want you”. During the stand-off with the police, demonstrators shouted “the police belong to the people, not to the MPLA”, and “the police are hungry, Dos Santos has already eaten”.

At this point, according to the blog, a vehicle, a Toyota Prado, drove into the crowd of demonstrators from behind, knocking over and injuring one man. Demonstrators retaliated by attacking a police car that was behind the Prado, and broke the drivers’ side window. The demonstrators then negotiated with the police and showed them the letter of permission they obtained. The police were unable to produce any written instructions to negate the legality of the march. During this impasse, more “kaenches” started to assemble behind the police lines.

“When their moment came, they acted in a concerted manner: some sprayed the demonstrators’ eyes with a homemade liquid to cause burning and temporary blindness, while others grabbed the demonstrator and laid into him with punches and kicks, one again under the unconcerned eyes of the police,” the blog reports.

According to a witness, the six people leading the march, Carbono Casimiro, Brigadeiro Mata Frakus, Sampaio Liberdade, Libertador, Luamba, Adolfo Pedro, were singled out for beating. They were also sprayed in the face with a substance that caused dizziness and fainting. They were taken to hospital, and returned an hour later. At least three people were seen bleeding as a result of having been beaten by the police.

According to the blog: “Panic set in, and the demonstrators began to stampede, throwing stones and bottles at the attackers. We split up into small groups and went to regroup at Largo de Independência” – a square on the edge of the city centre. The blogger also reports that another group of marchers, who gathered in the São Paulo neighbourhood on the other side of the city centre, also came under attack, and a disabled man was thrown out of his wheelchair.

When a much-reduced number of demonstrators arrived at Largo de Independência, they again came under attack from police.

Four journalists were taken to the Operations Unit of the National Police in Luanda. The Voice of America Portuguese Service named them as Rafael Marques (independent journalist, researcher and blogger), Isabel João and António Paulo (from the paper Novo Jornal), and Coque Mukuta (from Rádio Despertar – the radio station run by the opposition party UNITA). They were later released on the orders of the provincial commander of police. Lisa Rimli, a researcher for Human Rights Watch, was among those sprayed with the noxious substance in the face and eyes.

Pictures and video along with the full eyewitness account in Portuguese can be seen here

Before the start of 2011 demonstrations were almost unknown in Angola unless they were rallies organised by the ruling MPLA or the “National Spontaneous Movement”, controlled by the presidency. Despite being aware of profound social inequalities and massive corruption at the top of government, Angolans say the lack of protest action is due partly the political repression of the one-party era, and partly to a fear of violence and disruption borne out of the experience of war.

This year’s wave of defiance has been driven by young people, too young to have clear memories of wartime. It first became visible at a concert in February, when the rapper known as Brigadeiro Mata Frakus – who has remained a central figure in the protest movement – called on Dos Santos to step down. Police intervened to stop a demonstration in March before it got off the ground. Subsequent demonstrations in May, September, October and now December have drawn crowds numbering in the hundreds. Police have not hesitated to arrest and in some cases to beat demonstrators. A group detained without charge in September were eventually released on the orders of the Supreme Court in October.

The protests have aired a number of grievances, including poverty, inequality, lack of social services, and housing demolitions, but the consistent message has been that it is time for Dos Santos to resign.

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