Pro-government militia are being blamed for a string of attacks on members of a youth protest movement, writes Louise Redvers.
The group has been calling for long-serving President José Eduardo dos Santos to step down.
Several members of the group Central 7311 – named after their first public demonstration in March last year – claim to have been picked up by armed gangs driving SUVs, threatened with torture and interrogated about their funding sources.
Last month, masked men carrying AK47s and metal poles raided a house and injured several people from the group, which has no direct political affiliations. They seized computers and documentation being used for an internet radio broadcast.
And leading group member and popular rapper Luaty Beirão claims that he was framed for drug smuggling last week after 1.7kg of cocaine was found in his luggage in the Portuguese capital of Lisbon as he stepped off the plane from Luanda.
International rights groups have joined Angola’s opposition parties in condemning the violence, which has come as the country prepares to hold its second peacetime parliamentary election on August 31.
The Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), which has a parliamentary majority of 82%, is expected to win easily again as a result of the weakness of the underfunded opposition and the party’s stranglehold on the electoral commission.
Thanks to a change in the Constitution, which appoints the president from the top of the winning party list, the ballot is likely to hand a new five-year term to Dos Santos, who has been in power since 1979.
The government has denied any involvement with the Central 7311 incidents.
The MPLA’s spokesperson, Rui Falcao Pinto de Andrade, told the Mail & Guardian: “Our party is not involved in this type of thing; this has nothing to do with us.”
But Angolan journalist Rafael Marques believes otherwise. “These young people are being deliberately targeted for expressing their anti-government views and we can only expect more incidents as the elections draw closer,” he said.
The recent events follow on from other violence at a Central 7311 demonstration in March where several people, including Beirão, were seriously injured in what appeared to be deliberate attacks on individual members of the group.
Responsibility for that was later claimed by a group calling itself Cidadaos Pela Paz (Citizens for Peace), whose leader even phoned the national television channel to explain how he was protecting democracy by stopping the protest.
Marques said that the recent attacks were a step up from what he called the old approach of buying critical voices with money and cars.
“Until now, the government has been able to control critical voices in civil society and non-governmental organisations by negotiating with donors to shut down their funding, or co-opting leaders directly,” said the activist, who has been arrested several times.
“These young people, however, are not willing to be bought and so the only option left is to resort to violence, which is what we are seeing.”
Jobs and livelihoods
It is rare to see open criticism of the government in Angola, where the masses’ jobs and livelihoods depend on allegiance to the MPLA. Higher up the chain, the rewards for silent acceptance are significantly more lucrative.
But despite the economic control the MPLA wields and its continued refrain that challenging the government puts the country’s hard-fought peace at risk, dissenting voices are growing. Many feel left out of the oil-driven economic boom, which has resulted in faster gross domestic product growth than China at times but still leaves millions in slum-style conditions.
On Wednesday, several hundred military veterans staged demonstrations at different points around the capital city of Luanda. They called for subsidies, which are several years in arrears, to be paid.
The crowds were dispersed by heavily armed police, who reportedly fired shots in the air and used teargas to disperse people. It was the latest of two protests staged by former soldiers in the past month.
A separate group of former presidential guards, however, was not so lucky. Their intention to stage a demonstration challenging the country’s social and economic situation was thwarted when two of its leaders were reportedly kidnapped.
Marques said: “I think there is more political tension right now in Angola than there is in Zimbabwe; it is just that not many know about Angola. Even members of the elite are starting to get worried now. They can see how the large disenfranchised groups are mobilising and they are concerned [about] what that might mean for their own comfortable lives.”
Young people are fed up, says musician
Luaty Beirão, a member of the eclectic musical performance movement Batida, is also known by his rapper stage names Brigadeiro Mata Frakus and Ikonoklasta.
The 30-year-old is one of the leading figures of Angola’s outspoken Central 7311 protest movement and he believes it is why he now faces a lengthy prison term in Portugal for possession and smuggling of cocaine.
A vegetarian who does not drink or smoke, Beirão, whose late father was a close confidant of President José Eduardo dos Santos, said he had only seen cocaine once in his life, in England at a party, and has never personally used it.
He denies he had attempted to smuggle 1.7kg of the drug from Luanda to Lisbon while on his way to join Batida’s European tour and says he has been framed.
“I have a lot of enemies out there and for sure this is the work of someone in the Angolan establishment,” he told the Mail & Guardian in a phone call from Portugal, where he has been released on bail by the authorities, who are yet to set a trial date.
“This has been done to damage our reputation, but actually it is so ridiculous and it has generated so much publicity that I think it is only helping our cause.”
Beirao, who is well educated owing to his privileged background, said: “Young people are fed up with what is happening in this country. There are no jobs and there is no proper investment in education.
“People can pretend everything is alright, but it is not. Many people are too scared for their own jobs and families to stand up to what is happening, but we need to cut those strings so we can renew this country and start again.” – Louise Redvers