The (Un)popularity and Success of Dos Santos

The electoral campaign kick-off held by the MPLA last Saturday, June 23, remains a topic of concern due mainly by its propaganda coverage by the state media. The rally, in the November 11 Stadium in Luanda, sought to demonstrate the popularity of the MPLA’s presidential candidate, José Eduardo dos Santos.

Since March 2011, the image of the president of the MPLA has been damaged by symbolic and successive protests, held by a handful of youths, who have demanded his resignation after 32 years in power. The significance of these protests can be found on the international stage, especially in North Africa, where three dictators – Ben Ali, Mubarak and Ghaddafi – were deposed by popular uprisings.

Initially, the MPLA reacted with counter-demonstrations, as the one held March 5, 2011, when more than 100,000 people were mobilized, in a multi-million dollar investment. This reaction was caused by the first demonstration against the head of State, which was secretly convened for March 7 of that year, and which was attended by only 12 youths, including journalists. In practice, the MPLA made a storm in a teacup.

Given its impracticality, the strategy of mobilizing people in public demonstrations against critics was substituted by simple, brute repression.

On June 19, the first secretary of the MPLA of the province of Luanda, Bento Bento, considered the rally paying homage to José Eduardo dos Santos, as the MPLA’s presidential candidate, to be a “true test” of the party’s capacity to mobilize people.

The methods used to mobilize people involved coercing public employees, closing markets and forcing the vendors to participate in the rally, besides the inappropriate use of the state-owned media for party political propaganda. However, it is worth analyzing the make-up of the crowd in the stadium and the news treatment of the event, as reported by public social media outlets.

Angop reported that the stadium, with a capacity of 50,000, was almost full a short while before midday, when the president left the scene.

In the next bulletin, a few hours later, Angop reported that “the high point of the political rally was marked by a reading of the excerpt of the MPLA’s Central Committee resolution. which, by unanimous acclamation, approved the nomination of the President José Eduardo dos Santos as head of the party for the upcoming general election.”

In turn, the deputy-director of the state-owned and only daily newspaper in the country Jornal de Angola, Filomeno Manaças, reporting on the rally, wrote that “the sea of people present to acclaim the head of the MPLA, engineer José Eduardo dos Santos, is in itself newsworthy in any part of the world, and can only be referred as simply phenomenal.” Full of enthusiasm, the ever zealous Filomeno Manaças stated that “the stands and the pitch of the November 11 Stadium were bursting. “There was no room for any more people, and the stadium was stuffed, both inside and out. Outside the stadium, there were just as many, if not more people than inside the grounds,” he claimed.

The MPLA will certainly resolve the contradiction in the description by the state controlled media outlets operating at its exclusive service. The state news agency, Angop, reported that the stadium was almost full, while Manaças said it was stuffed to the gills, both inside and out.

In theory, the rally did not take place because the crowd inside the stadium was expected to join the group of young people outside enjoying the show being put on by a parade of the most popular Angolan singers. The president did not receive the expected adulation of the crowd, and so he didn’t even bother to thank the people for showing up.

With regard to the crowd, the MPLA has no need to prove its ability to mobilize people. Having been in power for almost 37 years, the MPLA has already shown its capacity in maintaining control over the State and the majority of the people. In similar fashion, Dos Santos hardly needs to promote his image, having been president for almost 33 years. His influence over generations of Angolans and the actual state of Angola is undeniable. This is the country of Dos Santos.

What is strange is the manner in which the MPLA can transform a packed stadium into a paradigm for the popularity of its candidate, especially when it depends on popular singers to do it.

Why is this?

In 2010, the singer Yannick Ngombo “Afroman”, filled the Coqueiros stadium for his first grand show, mainly by word of mouth. Paulo Flores, already famous, also sold out a show celebrating 20 years of his career. People paid, and paid plenty, to see them.

Last year, the protest rappers MCK and Kid MC each drew crowds of around 10,000 fans in the Independence Square market, just for autograph signing sessions and sales of their latest work. The National Police had to send in a canine unit and a surveillance helicopter to ensure public order at Kid MC’s event. Such was the frenzy of his fans.

The latest generation of musicians has been gaining ever more influence within the national political arena. For example, during an MPLA event in the province of Kwanza-Norte, the governor Henriques Júnior had to ask the singer Nagrelha, from Os Lambas, to stay with him on stage while he made his speech. After Nagrelha had performed, the MPLA crowd started to leave the area, not interested in listening to the governor. As an incentive for the fans to stay and listen to him, he had to promise that Nagrelha would perform again after his speech.

Nevertheless, for those who attended the event of June 23, without the filter of propaganda, it was a success. But not for the reasons stated either by the MPLA or by the deafening campaigns of TPA (Angolan Public Television) and RNA (Angolan National Radio).

Firstly, it was a success because the attendance was impressive, in spite of the obvious decline in the MPLA’s capacity to mobilize people, compared to, for example, the march held on March 5, 2011.

Since then, there has been an increased level of consciousness regarding the country’s current situation. There is growing awareness that the power of president José Eduardo dos Santos actually derives from pillaging State’s assets. There is an acute sense on the immeasurable greed of the country’s leaders, their families and business partners, who continue to amass fortunes, by illicit means, to the detriment of the well being of the Angolan people. Besides the institutionalized pillage of the country, the regime has been characterized recently by violently repressing and persecuting all forms of dissent, including demobilized soldiers who have been demanding the payment of their over-due pensions. Given these events, the size of the crowd at November 11 Stadium was, nevertheless, significant.

During rallies held by the president, on March 9, in Lunda-Norte, and April 4 in Moxico, MPLA militants booed him for the content of his speech. In the Lundas, he infamously declared that the revenue from diamonds was not enough even to repair some local roads. Angola is the fifth largest diamond producer in the world. In Moxico, he spoke about the joy of local people for having schools, running water and electricity. He never ignored the reality of the facts in his speech and the local population took offence, and heckled him.

Secondly, the rally was a success because the reaction of a lack of enthusiasm on the part of the MPLA supporters showed an increased level of consciousness with regard to the reality of the situation in the country. This reality was glaringly obvious in the luxury tents erected to accommodate elite members of the MPLA, while the crowd had to fight for scraps of meat from the whole sides of beef roasting on barbecues behind the tents, to feed the “heroic and generous people.” In some vehicles, people were elbowing each other out of the way, in an attempt to get at the fresh meat.

In turn, a popular president does not need to employ artists to fill an audience. Just to hear him speak is enough. This is the question. What is the president’s message to the people? In the November 11 Stadium, the president’s message was only silence. How is this silence to be interpreted?

In all of this, the president’s extraordinary capacity to anticipate events has to be recognized. The scrapping of presidential elections in favor of the introduction of the anti-democratic electoral system in which, in the legislative elections, the winning party leader becomes president, allows Dos Santos to avoid public judgment by direct ballot. He will be towed along by the MPLA. It remains to be seen if the trailer is secure and what impact the risks associated with his personalization of the party will have on the future of the MPLA.