Strongmen Thrive on their Ability to Keep People in Fear

Full text of the 2014 Carlos Cardoso Memorial Lecture, delivered on November 4, 2014 at Wits University.

First, I would like to share with you a personal experience I had with Carlos Cardoso, the great friend I never had the chance to meet personally.

Back in 1999, when I was jailed in Angola for calling president Dos Santos a dictator and corrupt, Carlos Cardoso was instrumental in mobilizing lawyers, journalists and concerned Mozambicans to lend their support to me.

Upon my release, we began a regular e-mail correspondence that went beyond my legal battles, conviction, political persecution and travel ban. We broadened the conversation on teaming up to chiefly expose the scourge of corruption in both our countries. We believed in conquering the public space for the freedoms of speech and of the press to take root.

We made the struggle for that public space ours. While Carlos was breaking ground as a full-time journalist, I was running an international organization providing, among others, support to the emerging independent media. I kept writing to affect public opinion.

I promised Carlos that once I was allowed to travel, I would first go to Mozambique, to finally meet him; thank him in person, and take our “conspiracy” to another level. I did keep my promise, but only to pay my respects to his widow. I was finally allowed to travel two months after he was brutally murdered, in November 2000.

Although I had received much international support, Carlos’ solidarity was the most inspiring for me. He was a professional, whose very work of exposing corruption and the ills of the Mozambican rulers as well as their business proxies, had put his life in the firing line. Yet, he was my brother-in-arms in the same trench as I was and he watched my back. I could not watch his.  But today, his legacy is embedded in my work, as an investigative journalist. So is the legacy of my late compatriot Ricardo Melo, whose life was also cut short by bullets in his prime, in 1995, for investigating corruption and the ills of the Angolan rulers.

Today I am here to talk about freedom of expression as a struggle in countries in which the powers that be have been operating above the law. These are the ones for whom the law is a tool of personal power. These are the strongmen who thrive on their ability to keep people in fear.

I am here to talk about the courage, the leadership, and the solidarity that are required to bring down the walls of fear, and with them the fear-mongers.

The Struggle

As I learnt from Carlos and those fellow prisoners who welcomed me in jail, being more concerned with others’ wellbeing is the most expressive form of being concerned with our own humanity.

Tonight, I would like to address: first, what is happening in SADC; second, Ethiopia for its worst record of abuses against journalists; and, then my experiences in pushing the boundaries for freedom of expression in Angola.

In the SADC region, there are three countries where such a struggle for freedom of expression is of particular concern: Angola, Zimbabwe and Swaziland. What these countries have in common is that their heads of state are among the five longest serving in Africa. President José Eduardo dos Santos has been in power for 35 years, Robert Mugabe for 34, and King Mswati III, for 28. They are all enemies of the free press. The difference among them is in the methods they use to silence dissent, and what they have to offer or not to the international community, in exchange for legitimacy.

For instance, recently the African Union Commission chairperson, Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, defended president Dos Santos’ long-tenure in an interview to Radio France International (RFI).[1]

She said president Dos Santos has stayed in power for too long for “objective reasons”, and that now he is a democratically elected leader, “who has not stayed beyond what his constitution allows him.” Dr. Dlamini Zuma remarked how president Dos Santos’ government “is doing a lot to improve the lives of the people in Angola, and how such benefits are the reason “why Angolans voted for him.” Such misguided remarks illustrate how important freedom of expression is to educate and to keep politicians in check. Dr. Dlamini Zuma was apparently unaware that a new constitution came into effect in Angola in 2010, which establishes that the president is neither elected directly by the people nor by parliament. The first name on the closed candidates’ list of the party that wins the elections automatically becomes the president. In other words, Mr. Dos Santos changed the constitution in order to extend his mandate, and consolidate his absolute rule. He has the sole power to put together that closed list on behalf of his ruling MPLA.

Robert Mugabe, outside of Africa, is an international pariah. King Mswati III attracts fresh attention whenever he takes another wife for his harem. His country is too poor to deserve much international attention.

As for the media and civil societies in the three aforementioned countries, there is a paradox. Zimbabwe has a vibrant, very skilled media and civil society sector. For years, there has been an outpouring of support from the international community for civil society and the opposition. But oppression has triumphed, the opposition has crumbled and the press continues to be prosecuted. In Angola, in which the equivalent sectors have had negligible international support, it is corruption that has further weakened civil society. Little remains of the independent press, and the opposition.

Currently, there is arguably no more inspirational example of the struggle for freedom of expression than the cases of prominent human rights attorney Thulani Maseko and journalist Bheki Makhubu, both from Swaziland. On July 25, 2014, both received two-year prison sentences for articles they had written criticizing the lack of judicial independence in their country.[2] The Swazi Constitution protects their rights to free speech and freedom of expression. But the king’s court overrules such rights to suppress challenges to its rule.

In his stand against the dictatorial regime of King Mswati II, Thulani Maseko read from the dock: “…When freedom is taken away, it becomes the onerous, and supreme duty of men to reclaim it from the oppressor.  For giving up freedom is tantamount to giving away man’s right to dignity.”[3]

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[1] Radio France International, “Dlamini-Zuma on Ebola response, governance in Angola & African leaders’ broken promises”, October 11, 2014.

[2] Swazi Justice Campaign, “The Trial Update”,

[3] Ibid.