Demobilized Soldiers Protest in Luanda

Up to 3,000 demobilized soldiers staged a surprising protest today, in the capital Luanda, marching towards the presidential palace. They went to claim disability pensions and the dues owed to them for years of military service.

Initially, the group departed at around 9 am from the general headquarters of the Angolan Armed Forces (FAA), and walked almost three kilometers to the gates of the Ministry of Defense, which is just a few hundred meters from the presidential palace. With remarkable organizational and tactical skills, the former soldiers pushed through three barriers strongly manned by the presidential guard and riot police, and fought off the police batons and the canine brigade with kicks. At least two protesters were reported injured by the dogs.

For up to an hour, a standoff ensued in front of the Ministry of Defense, where the presidential guard, the riot police, the canine brigade, strongly armed military police and water cannons had cordoned off the last stretch to the palace. On the ground, generals and top police commanders personally directed the operations, as the protesters grew louder and more fearless. In some strategic areas of the city, the military deployed assault cars as preventive measures.

As the riot police tried to push them back with shields that emit electric shocks and the water cannons were readying to fire, the former demobilized soldiers showed defiance by chanting against their former comrade in arms: “Kill us! Kills us! Kill us!”

They alternated such a premonitory song with another one that the ruling People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) had imposed in primary schools to indoctrinate children from as young as five. “I will die in Angola, with the weapons of war in my hands/ A grenade will be my casket/ and my burial will be in a patrol,” the former soldiers sang, the majority of them past 50 years of age.

“We have halted our march here, because we pity them [the president and the generals]. We can also punch through this barrier, and reach the presidency. We just wanted to send a message that we are coming if they do not pay us,” said Domingos Frederico, 52, a disabled veteran, discharged in 1992 without a pension.

On May 31, the former government soldiers sent a delegation of 70 members to the National Assembly to request their intervention in addressing their lack of pensions, but were sent back the General Headquarters of FAA, where no senior official was available to see them. Since 1992, most of these soldiers have been attempting to get several military and civilian institutions to address their concerns, but these efforts have been unsuccessful. “If the government does not resolve our problem in the coming weeks, we will intervene during the elections. They will no longer be able to lie to us or calm us down,” warned António Bernardo. The war veteran pulled up his clothes to show several war scars. He also had tucked in his pants a folder with several documents from numerous military institutions dating back to 1988, detailing how his claims to receive a pension were being addressed. Bernardo has yet to see any sign of his pension.

To defuse the tension, the General Chief of Staff of FAA, four-star general Geraldo Sachipengo Nunda, briefly met with a commission of the protesters in the Ministry, while the standoff continued. The military then provided a speaker and a microphone for a member of the commission to convey the message of the top military commander to the assembled demobilized soldiers. The general said the Ministry did not have a safe with money in hand to pay the protesters, and payments required consultation and authorization from the government. According to the messenger, the general asked for a month-long moratorium, so the military could effectively address their complaints.

The protesters reacted to this message with jeers. “The generals steal away all of our money. Angola has so much money from oil, and how come they [government] never have anything for us”, questioned retired sergeant Afonso Malembe, 51. He lost a limb due to a landmine in 1985, and is currently finishing evening high school in order to become a teacher.

The demobilized decided, by their own volition, to retreat in an orderly fashion after their representative explained to them the outcome of the meeting. “We have turned the heat on them [the authorities], now we can go home in peace, and if by Thursday next week, they do not address our concerns, and lie to us again, we will come back in larger numbers and with greater resolve,” warned Tony Bumba, 47.

In a remarkable display of arrogance, as the former soldiers peacefully turned their backs to the riot police blockade and started walking way, the commanding generals and senior police officers on the ground ordered the special police to chase away the protesters. This set a melee in motion, with the former soldiers tearing stones from the pavements to throw at the police officers, one of whom could be seen bleeding profusely in the head.

The situation starkly demonstrated the volatility of the relationship between president Dos Santos’s regime, which has been in power for nearly 37 years, and disenfranchised sectors of society. During the protest, one former soldier, Nascimento Pedro, 58, pointed out that “here we are all 100 percent militants of MPLA, but it is this very same MPLA that is sucking all the blood out of us. Now it is time to address this problem.” While he was talking, several of the protesters pulled out their MPLA membership cards to show that there were no opposition parties behind the protest. Another group criticized the co-demonstrators who were displaying their MPLA membership cards as “shameless” as in their view, the party “has done nothing for the demobilized soldiers.”

One former soldier stood his ground while the police advanced and screamed that he lost his fear when a landmine blew his limb away during the war. “We defended your power, thieves!” he exclaimed.

Less than two months away from the elections, protests keep mounting, and the authorities seem to have little ability to address the discontent, except through the use of force and empty promises.

A botched protest on May 27, in which former presidential guards were supposed to march towards the presidential palace to demand pensions, resulted in the kidnapping, of two organizers by the authorities. Alves Kamulingue and Isaías Cassule are still missing to date. The presidency promised to address the concerns of its former guards, who had been remobilized as garbage collectors, and then fired without compensation.

Since March 2011, street protests have been focusing on the president, who has been in power for nearly 33 years and is at the center of the government’s misrule, corruption, violence and the plunder of the country’s assets by cronies, generals and members of his MPLA party.