For the Angolan authorities, the very thought of an Angola without President José Eduardo dos Santos at its helm, let alone any protest against his rule, continues to be a matter of crime and punishment.
President dos Santos has been in power for 36 years and wants to be celebrated as the architect of peace and guarantor of stability, though opponents say he is ruining the country.
On Wednesday the attorney general of the Republic, Army General João Maria de Sousa, confirmed the detention of 15 youths for allegedly preparing acts of collective disobedience to overthrow the government, and unseat president Dos Santos.
“These acts constitute crimes against the security of the state, as a crime of rebellion. As such, the competent bodies of the state must take action to avert the worst”, General João Maria de Sousa told the press.
Several youths have been undergoing interrogation sessions since Monday for having taken part in a series of group readings and discussions based on Gene Sharp’s famous book From Dictatorship to Democracy: A Conceptual Framework for Liberation. The book’s blurb describes it as “a blueprint for nonviolent resistance to repressive regimes.” The youth were reportedly brainstorming peaceful strategies to protest against the rule of president Dos Santos.
The Bureau of Criminal Investigation (Serviço de Investigação Criminal - SIC) arrested at least 15 youth activists who were participating in the latest of these gatherings, on Saturday June 20. Subsequently, SIC searched their homes and seized property including personal computers, hard-drives, phones, notebooks and other material.
The National Police publicly stated, on the same day, that the youth had been arrested red-handed (in flagrante delicto) while preparing acts against public order and state security. It also announced that searches were being conducted to secure evidence. The activists have since been held incommunicado in different police jails dispersed all over the capital.
Eight heavily armed police officers, and three plainclothes operatives took well-known rapper and activist Luaty Beirão in handcuffs to his house after arresting him during Saturday’s workshop. There police raided the makeshift studio of his wife, a professional photographer, and took equipment worth over US $20,000. Luaty Beirão’s brother, Pedro, told Maka Angola that the police never presented any search warrants. “The officer in charge told the family that they had a verbal search warrant to confiscate all digital equipment found in the house.”
His wife called a lawyer to ask whether there is such a thing as a “verbal search warrant” but to no avail, as the police forced their way in and spent half an hour combing the house. The police refused to make a list of the equipment seized, which included expensive cameras, laptops, memory cards, USB sticks, notepads, and a portfolio of photographs for clients who have already paid.
The family say the police filmed the whole operation.
Meanwhile, in the house of another well-known activist, 19-year-old Nito Alves, the police took all his books and notes, according to his father Fernando Baptista. He does not own a computer. A third activist, Nelson Dibango, saw the police confiscate his sister’s laptops in his parents’ house. He does not own one. The family confirmed that no search warrant was exhibited.
Also arrested was freelance journalist, Sedrick de Carvalho, who also attended the meeting. A heavily armed police escort took him handcuffed to his house, where they seized three laptops, one belonging to his wife, and all pen drives. She told Maka Angola that the police showed no search warrant.
The following day, on Sunday, the authorities detained university lecturer and former journalist Domingos da Cruz, in the town of Santa Clara, in the Southeastern province of Cunene. He was detained at passport control on the border with Namibia. Mr Da Cruz had been a leading speaker for the three workshops that took place successively on Saturdays. He also used the manuscript of his upcoming book Ferramentas para Detonar a Ditadura (Tools to Detonate the Dictatorship) for discussion during the meetings.
On Tuesday, lawyer Walter Tondela endured a total of 15 hours during the interrogation, in succession, of his clients Nito Alves, Luaty Beirão and Domingos da Cruz.
“From a legal standpoint discussing a book on non-violent resistance is by no means a crime. The imprisonment of these youths is a serious blow to freedom of thought”, decried Mr Tondela.
The lawyer added: “What the Office of the Attorney-General alleges is that they found evidence among the seized material, that these youth harbor the intention of unseating the president..
Maka Angola learnt, from inside sources, that the recurrent question to all those interrogated was whether they wanted to take over power and if so, what for? The common answer the youths have been providing to their captors is that there is no democracy in Angola, and that is what they want.
A fellow activist, Raúl Mandela, escaped arrest because he had no money to pay for his transport fare (US $3) to the meeting venue.
Nevertheless, on Monday, SIC operatives went to his house in the morning and returned in the evening, at around 9 pm, for a search. “I had already hidden my laptop, so the officers, who did not have any search warrant, confiscated some pamphlets I had produced against the president selling out our soil [land?]to China, the rise of fuel prices, and the massacre of the religious sect members in Huambo,” Raúl Mandela told Maka Angola. He said he “resisted arrest” that night, and told the SIC officers that they could “return early in the morning to arrest me, for I am prepared.”
On Monday, the police conducted further searches and seized computers in the home of a former youth protester, Carbono Casimiro, while he was at work. The police stated that the searches were taking place under proceedings for crimes against the security of the state, preparing rebellion and an attempt to assassinate President dos Santos.
SIC and state security operatives are said to be chasing other activists. Yesterday (Wednesday) morning they arrested an Air Force soldier, Osvaldo Caholo, who also dabbles as an activist. His family revealed that someone knocked on the door to inform him that a window from his car had been smashed. When he went outside to look at it, he was swiftly arrested and hauled off in a vehicle with tinted windows.
Same old tactics
These tactics against youth protest have a long history. Sometimes simply daring to criticize the president publicly has been enough to provoke a brutal reaction from his henchmen. For example, on November 22, 2003, members of the presidential guard caused the death by drowning of a car washer, Arsénio Sebastião “Cherokee”, at Luanda’s Mussulo Quay, for singing a rap by the hip-hop artist MCK, critical of the president’s rule. “Who speaks the truth ends up in a coffin/ what sort of democracy is this?” sings MCK. As beachgoers protested against the beatings against the youth, the presidential guard called for reinforcements, and 45 members of the same unit soon arrived, and the head of mission ordered some of his men to drag the young man into the water where he drowned. At the time, as this author reported, the commander justified his authority to witnesses, saying: “the youth was a bandit, who spoke ill of the president and thus had to be killed.”
This same mentality re-emerged as youth activists started to protest more systematically from March 2011. Several of the youths arrested on Saturday have been repeated targets of the regime. Some say they were subjected to torture several times each.
The regime went to the extreme of setting up what its victims call a “terror squad” to dispense violence against the youth protesters. On March 9, 2012 a pro-government militia controlled directly by the ruling MPLA, with police officers involved, raided Carbono Casimiro’s house and brutally mauled several activists who were meeting there to plan a protest against Dos Santos the following day. During the protest, which went ahead on March 10, attackers beat up rapper Luaty Beirão and opposition figure Filomeno Vieira Lopes, inflicting head injuries on both.
Similarly, the government is also believed to have been behind the creation of the “Group of Angolan Citizens for Peace, Security and Democracy in the Republic of Angola”, which emerged with a fanfare of publicity on Angolan Public Television (TPA). Dissidents say that this government front organization used the same strategy as the terror groups, claimed responsibility for the attacks against the youth, and vowed to unleash more violence against anyone who dared to challenge the regime or the president.
Undaunted, the youth activists met again in Carbono Casimiro’s house on May 23, 2012 to prepare another protest against President dos Santos. The militia group complied with its promise. It raided the house again, and 15 thugs brutally attacked ten youths with machetes and iron rods, while holding pistols threatening to shoot those who fought back. Mbanza Hamza, who was one of the speakers at the recent Saturday meeting, suffered fractures to his skull in that attack. He is currently in jail too.
On November 23, 2013, the Presidential Security Unit (USP), which is directly responsible for the security of the president, his family and the presidential palace took matters into its own hands. Its members arrested eight opposition political activists who were putting up posters on the walls of the Coqueiros Football Stadium. The soldiers took the detainees to their headquarters by the presidential palace. “To set an example”, one of the president’s guards executed Manuel Hilberto de Carvalho Ganga, a civil engineer, with two shots in the back. The posters had demanded justice in the case of slain activists Alves Kamulingue and Isaias Cassule, brutally assassinated, on May 27 and 29, 2012, by members of the National Police, state security and a militia group under the ruling MPLA’s command. Mr Cassule’s body was dumped in a crocodile infested river. The activists were spearheading a group of former presidential guards who wanted to protest over unpaid pensions.
Over the last four years, the security forces, intelligence services, armed militia and the courts, have all been used to try to silence the youth protest movement who dared to publicly call on the President to step down.
Their strategies have included brutal violence, abductions and torture; enforced disappearance and killings; infiltration by intelligence agents; intimidation, threats, persecution and surveillance; bribery; pressure on activists’ families, employers and schools; media propaganda alleging conspiracies with the main opposition party UNITA or the CIA; the distribution of fake leaflets “incriminating” the protesters, and the abuse of legal process to deliver convictions and prison sentences, mostly on bogus misdemeanor charges.
For some observers, the latest tactic of accusing activists of severe state security crimes and seizing their computers is a ploy to give the authorities an opportunity to track down their communication networks. It enables the security apparatus to extend the wave of detentions and to fabricate evidence for a conspiracy during the long pre-trial detention period allowed by law: 90 days, extendable.
Who are the criminals? Who are the Victims?
Then there are also the officially-stated charges leveled against the youth for allegedly plotting a coup against President dos Santos. Such serious charges pave the way for the state-owned media and the intelligence services to heat up the climate of fear and justify a broader crackdown in the name of preserving peace.
The timing of this operation has to do with the current economic crisis, which is deepening, and threatening the stability of the regime. In a recent internal report leaked to the Portuguese weekly Expresso, the National Oil Company Sonangol admits facing technical bankruptcy. Sonangol is the lifeblood of the president and his cronies, as it manages Angola’s oil output of up to 1.9 million barrels of oil a day, making it the second largest oil producer in Africa. Dos Santos’s recent visits to China, allegedly to request a debt moratorium, have sparked an outcry in Angola about rumors that he has been giving away vast tracts of the Angolan land in exchange for new loans.
Dos Santos may call himself a democrat. Clearly his faithful supporters see no acceptable future for Angola beyond his presidency. They fear that the end of the Dos Santos era, will also spell the end for his party, the ruling MPLA.
For some analysts, this latest crackdown is evidence that this is no longer the regime acting as a coherent structure, but rather the President’s men lashing out at critics to avoid admitting that they (and their President) have gambled away Angola’s oil money and future. Violence is their last resort and perhaps best chance to reassert themselves as proprietors of this country.