Silencing Angola's youth
On the sidelines of the recent United Nations General Assembly meetings in New York, Angola invited investors to a business forum. Vice President Manuel Vicente – who remains under the scrutiny of the US regulator, the Securities Exchange Commission (SEC) regarding ownership of oil shares –
On the sidelines of the recent United Nations General Assembly meetings in New York, Angola invited investors to a business forum. Vice President Manuel Vicente – who remains under the scrutiny of the US regulator, the Securities Exchange Commission (SEC) regarding ownership of oil shares – told his audience how the country was “experimenting with a process of political and economic transformation which is consolidating the democratic institutions.”
The former Sonangol CEO stressed that the government was working hard to “implement measures that guarantee sustainable development, economic growth, population growth, employment and social justice, through equal opportunities for all citizens and fair distribution of the national revenue.”
I’m sure it was a well-attended event. As Africa’s second-largest oil producer, Angola offers significant investment rewards – and I imagine many business cards were swapped and follow-up meetings planned.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, while Vicente, who was deputizing for President Jose Eduardo dos Santos, who after 34 years in power appears to believe global summits are beneath him and hence rarely travels, waxed lyrical about the nation’s achievements, Angola’s democracy ‘experiment’ didn’t appear to be going so well.
On September 12 in an incident revealing anything but the aforementioned social justice, 17-year-old Manuel Chivonde Baptista ‘Nito Alves’ was arrested for printing t-shirts with a slogan deemed ‘defamatory’ to the President. According to the state-owned Televisao Publica De Angola (TPA) the youngster had been “caught red-handed trying to take the country back to war”.
The t-shirts, it was claimed, were intended to be worn by members of a youth protest group, which had announced some weeks earlier they were going to stage a public demonstration. The aim of the event, among other things, was to complain about the length of dos Santos’ tenure, and voice concerns about continued forced evictions and demolitions, violence against street vendors, the unequal distribution of the country’s oil wealth and the continued disappearance of two activists, who vanished from a protest in May 2012.
The day before the protest, which was planned for September 19, Police spokesman Aristofanes dos Santos used national television to warn the group not to assemble. Claiming that the event would threatening public security and citing leaflets that asked people to attend with weapons (leaflets the organisers denied producing) he said, “We will prevent, I repeat, vehemently prevent all acts against public order and security and we will use force if necessary.”
The spokesman stressed that the clampdown would not violate constitutional rights, which allow freedom of assembly and expression, but was necessary because the gathering threatened law and order.
In the end, only a dozen of so young people turned up at Praça da Independência, the spot where Angola’s first president, Agostinho Neto, declared his country’s independence from Portugal on November 11, 1975.
The police were waiting for them, in numbers which some say stretched to 2,000, though perhaps several hundred would have been more accurate. Still as well as the riot squad, it was reported there were heavily-armed Rapid Intervention Police (known as Ninjas for their masked appearance), mounted officers, dog teams and – it was claimed – a helicopter circling overhead.
Needless to say, the protest didn’t last long and within hours, more than 20 people were in custody and the square had been cleared – and the public security threat of a handful of young people carrying banners had been removed. This type of heavy-handed and over-the-top response exposes Angola as an authoritarian regime that not only cannot tolerate criticism, but is also so paranoid that it cannot bear to allow people to speak freely.
Unsurprisingly, this is not the Angola you see in the promotional videos that run on CNN, or the one that is portrayed at investment conferences. And it is somewhat ironic that the authorities’ attempts to block the protest and silence the young people involved should have led to such a stream of negative international headlines – and helped to spread their message much further than a peaceful demonstration ever would.
Perhaps the biggest mistake the police made was to detain journalists. On September 20, Rafael Marques de Morais, who runs the MakaAngola website, Alexandre Solombe Neto, President of the Angola chapter of the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) in Angola and Vice President of the country’s Journalist Union, and Coque Mukuta, a reporter with the Voice of America Portuguese Service, were seized by armed police as they tried to interview the recently-released protestors outside a Luanda courthouse.
Surely given all the money Angola spends on publicity campaigns and secret information services, it must know that arresting an internationally-renowned anti-corruption campaigner, a senior member of its journalist union and a correspondent for one of the world’s biggest broadcasters is a bad idea?
Marques’s detailed and erudite description of his time in custody and the mistreatment he suffered rang a number of international alarm bells – and soon Reporters without Borders and Committee to Protect Journalists had joined the chorus of condemnation, alongside other local journalists who also voiced their outrage.
While Marques, Solome and Mukuta were released on the day of their arrest, the seven protesters held with them were kept in custody until September 23 when they were bailed for a collective US$15,400. (If you want to contribute to the bail fund, you can find more information here.)
This protest and its associated arrests may seem insignificant in the wake of the Westgate Mall siege in Kenya, or the Boko Haram attacks in Nigeria, both of which have claimed scores of lives. But what this incident reveals about Angola is important.
It tells us that the rights and freedoms that the government likes to boast about to potential investors, such as those in New York last month, are rather selectively enjoyed.
We see a police force that is prepared to use live television to threaten its own citizens, taking the actions of a dozen young people apparently more seriously that the wave of violent crime that has lately swept the capital. We see citizens arrested without cause. And we see a state media full of journalists who are prepared to parrot regime propaganda without question, so long as they keep getting paid.
But the Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola (MPLA) knows it cannot rely forever on crackdowns and clever exploitation of people’s memories of the civil war. It knows that it needs to get the youth on its side. Young people now make up two fifths of the population. These are future voters and unless things start to change and the much-hyped economic diversification plan actually starts to bear fruit then they will be the future long-term unemployed with a lot less to lose than their war-weary parents.
In June, as part of a campaign to respond to growing disenchantment, dos Santos invited a group of young people to his pink presidential palace. Described as an ‘open dialogue’ (although the awkward photograph carried on the front of the Jornal de Angola the next day seems to suggest anything but), dos Santos told his audience – most of whom were not born when he began his term in office – that he was listening to their concerns.
The 71-year-old, whose daughter Isabel has recently become Africa’s first female billionaire and whose son Jose Filomeno runs the country’s Sovereign Wealth Fund, stressed his government’s commitment to young people, job creation and equity of opportunity. He called for everyone to keep talking and he said it was better to engage in dialogue than take to the streets to protest.
And just days before this latest round of arrests, dos Santos spoke at another youth event, telling 3,000 delegates from around the county that everyone needed to work together as active citizens.
All these words are noble, but they will no doubt be ringing hollow for the bailed protestors and their families, as well as for 17-year-old Nito Alves, who was allegedly kept in solitary confinement for two weeks following his arrest. (Click here to sign a petition calling for his release.)
If dos Santos really believes young people are so important to the development of Angola, it is about time he started listening to all of them, not just those voices he wants to hear.
I am sure there will be people who read this and say I am giving too much of a platform to a tiny majority, a handful of disaffected youth, and that the majority of the population is firmly behind the government and that the country has progressed in great economic leaps and bounds since the end of its war in 2002.
And I agree that these protestors are not many in number, but if they didn’t have something important to say, then I don’t think they would have been victim to such a large-scale clampdown.