By Lara Pawson of the Guardian. Original article and subsequent comments are here
It may not be ready for an uprising on the scale of Tunisia or Egypt yet, but the tide is beginning to turn in Angola.
Since Tunisians rose up so heroically two months ago, a great deal has been written about the influence on the rest of the Arab world. Now, the spirit of revolution may be starting to blow south, stirring up protests in pockets of sub-Saharan Africa, too. In Angola, 17 people, including several journalists, were arrested on Monday at the start of a demonstration in Independence Square in the capital, Luanda. The protest began as an internet campaign two weeks ago when an anonymous group of individuals, announcing “a new revolution of the Angolan people”, set up a website calling for an end to the 32-year rule of President José Eduardo dos Santos.
Monday’s short-lived protest in Luanda is in no way comparable with the extraordinary scenes witnessed in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Very few protesters showed up. However, people in Luanda say the atmosphere was extremely tense. There was a heavy police presence throughout the city and most people stayed at home fearing trouble. Even senior members of the ruling Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), which has held onto power since independence in 1975, have been rattled by the surge in criticism.
“Angola is not Egypt. Angola is not Libya. Angola is not Tunisia,” the MPLA provincial secretary to Luanda, Bento Bento, has insisted. He has also accused western intelligence agencies and pressure groups in France, Portugal, Italy, Brussels and the UK of instigating opposition: “They have enacted … a proper operation against Angola, the MPLA and especially our comrade and president, José Eduardo dos Santos.”
In a bid to bolster confidence and outmanoeuvre the critics, MPLA officials organised pre-emptive “pro-peace” rallies across the country on Saturday. State radio said 500,000 supporters took to the streets of Luanda waving MPLA flags, wearing MPLA T-shirts and drinking MPLA-funded beer and fizzy drinks. The Associated Press estimated a lower figure of 20,000 participants. Whatever the number, this was not an authentic outpouring of adoration for the regime. State employees were ordered to attend, and beyond the capital all did not go well. For example, in the north-east diamond-rich province of Lunda Norte, MPLA supporters were attacked by other members of the public, and the provincial governor, Ernesto Muangala, fled to safety.
Meanwhile, in direct contradiction to article 47 of the new Angolan constitution, approved in January 2010, which grants all citizens the right to demonstrate peacefully, Bento Bento announced: “Whoever tries to demonstrate will be neutralised because Angola has laws and institutions and a good citizen understands the laws, respects the country and is a patriot.” The secretary general of the party, Dino Matross, was only marginally more blunt: “Anyone who demonstrates,” he said, “we’re going to get you.”
This is not idle rhetoric. The MPLA has long relied on excessive brutality to quash opposition. As Sousa Jamba, a journalist and member of Angola’s main opposition party, Unita, wrote this week: “The scars of 1977, 1992, etc, have still not disappeared. We have a history in which demonstrations in the streets, particularly in the capital, end in tragedy.”
Jamba is referring to 27 May 1977, when two senior members of the MPLA led an uprising against the administration of President Agostinho Neto. The government’s response – supported by the Cuban army – was extreme. Violent retaliations went on for months, killing thousands – some say tens of thousands – of innocent people. Many men and women were arrested and tortured, and some were held in concentration camps for years. In 1992, following Angola’s first attempt at multiparty elections, civil war erupted once again when Unita leader Jonas Savimbi refused to accept the results. Hundreds of people in Luanda who were thought to have voted for Unita were attacked or killed by MPLA supporters.
This state-sponsored violence, coupled with the fact that the 27-year civil war ended only in 2002, helps explain why opposition parties in Angola have been so reluctant to support this week’s demonstration. Unita leader Isaías Samakuva has described the protest as “a trap” set by the government to test the political temperature of the country. He is also suspicious of the fact the organisers are anonymous. Smaller political parties agree it would be foolhardy to participate in a demonstration called for by unknown figures. The Democratic Block, which comprises several respected political figures, said it would be “extremely naive” to participate in a protest that could lead to the sort of purges that took place in 1977 and 1992.
The response from the political class this week may indicate a growing generation gap within Angolan society. Luaty Beirão, a popular Angolan rapper also known as Ikonoklasta, was one of the protesters arrested on Monday morning. He believes the political parties are out of touch with the majority of Angolan people, and are either too lazy or too old-fashioned to take action for their political beliefs. At a gig on 27 February in Luanda, he called for President Dos Santos to leave power. Each time he did, a large audience of mainly young men chanted “Fora!” (“Out!”). To the delight of his fans, he described the regime as “a son of a bitch government” and ended his performance holding up a banner which read: “Ti Zé Tira o Pé: Tô Prazo Expirou Há Bwé!” (Uncle Zé [the president], get out: your time ran out ages ago!). The crowd erupted into wild applause.
Although Angola is not ready for a revolution like Tunisia’s or Egypt’s, the past week suggests that the tide may be beginning to turn. As Rafael Marques, a journalist with an excellent track record for exposing corruption and human rights abuses across Angola, observes: “Opposition is frail, but unhappiness with the MPLA is overwhelming.” And a new generation is finding its voice.