An article (for subscribers only) by Louise Redvers sheds light on the permanent violence exerted upon peaceful protesters by the savage police forces under the command of the regime.
Peace abroad, but not necessarily at home
Another heavy-handed shutdown of an attempted anti-government protest has stirred anger in Angola, where people are becoming increasingly concerned about the government’s apparently growing intolerance to criticism. The ruling MPLA accuses its detractors of trying to subvert democracy, but opposition parties claim this obsession with maintaining the peace is only serving to stir up more political intolerance.
Angola is working overtime to promote itself abroad as a vibrant economic success story and a beacon of regional stability. In October it won a seat on the UN Security Council, and in January it will take over the presidency of the Kimberly Process, the international body set up to counter the trade in so-called blood diamonds. Meanwhile, local venture funds regularly appear in the international media proclaiming the country’s tantalising investment opportunities. However, although the government pours money into polishing up its external image, domestic tensions are rising. People are increasingly unhappy with how the authorities are reacting to the actions of youth groups and opposition parties that are critical of the ruling Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola (MPLA) and the president of 35 years, José Eduardo dos Santos.
Events in Burkina Faso, where hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets and forced the removal of the long-serving president, Blaise Compaoré, prompted a handful of political activists to give media interviews warning that Mr dos Santos could meet a similar fate. In response, a number of leading MPLA figures spoke out, calling on people to keep the peace and maintain order. More controversially, the main opposition party, the União Nacional para a Independência Total de Angola (UNITA), was accused of inciting violence through public protest, and in mid-November the state-owned Jornal de Angola ran a front-page story in which the interior minister, Ângelo de Barros Veiga Tavares, warned of “veiled efforts” to overthrow the democratic regime. Mr Veiga Tavares also called on the security services to “intensify their surveillance” and ensure law and order were maintained.
This is not the first time the government has adopted a highly defensive tone against its critics, and nor was the heavy-handed shutdown of youth protests in late November the first of its kind. However, the cumulative effect of the threatening language and growing catalogue of allegations of police cruelty is to provoke new tensions that could, if left unchecked, lead to more sustained social unrest.
Security services on trial?
Another headache for the government is the resumption in November of the criminal trial of seven security agents accused of killing two activists who went missing after an anti-government protest in May 2012. For 17 months the authorities denied any knowledge of the whereabouts of Isaias Cassule and António Alves Kamulingue, but in November 2013, following sustained civil society pressure, the attorney-general finally admitted the pair had been kidnapped and probably murdered.
Local media have devoted substantial space to pouring over the details of the case, including claims from within the State Intelligence and Security Service that one of activists had been recorded meeting with a supposed agent from the US’s Central Intelligence Agency, who it later transpired was a Human Rights Watch researcher of Swiss nationality. The trial is a major embarrassment for Angola’s security services and for the country generally and it jars with the glossy promotional videos shown at “invest in Angola” roadshows.
November was also the first anniversary of the death in custody of Manuel Ganga, a member of the country’s third-largest party, the Convergência Ampla de Salvação de Angola-Coligação Eleitoral (CASA-CE). Mr Ganga was detained by presidential guards after distributing posters advertising a protest march reacting to the admission from the attorney-general that Mr Cassule and Mr Kamulingue were dead. Mr Ganga was, it was reported, shot, because he tried to escape detention.
To mark Mr Ganga’s death—for which no-one has yet been charged—CASA-CE and his family members led a procession through the capital, Luanda, on November 22nd. This passed off peacefully, but later that day riot police detained a group of youths who tried to stage a protest calling for the resignation of Mr dos Santos. Officers locked down part of the city centre to prevent their passage and there are claims—apparently backed by photographs on social media—that some young people were beaten while in detention.
This seemingly disproportionate response to a small group of placard-carrying young people reveals a nervousness, even a paranoia, on the part of the authorities. No-one, not least the young people themselves, expects these demonstrations to start an Egypt-style revolution; rather, their protests have become about the principle of exercising their constitutional right to freedom of expression and assembly.
For several months, different members of the loose group calling itself the Movimento Revolucionário Angolano have been staging “pop-up” protests to test the reactions of the authorities, who have on the whole taken the bait and made arrests. Every detention is more grist to the mill for lobby groups like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, both of whom have in recent months issued damning appraisals of the Angolan government.
The MPLA’s hegemonic grip on Angola’s economy, middle classes, cultural sector and religious movements means that any sort of Burkina Faso-style “African Spring” is highly unlikely. However, anger is fermenting, and with the continuing falling oil price likely to lead to cuts in public spending over the coming year, the government is going to have to work twice as hard to win the confidence of its population. Being so prickly about criticism is not the best way to do so.