The Real Danger: Letter to President José Eduardo dos Santos

Mr President José Eduardo dos Santos:

Since we are unlikely to meet, I have decided to attempt a conversation with you by this medium. I hope you respond to me. It is time to talk.

Although I am sharply critical of how you govern, and of the suffering this causes the majority of the Angolan people, I admire you for staying in power so stoically; and, I understand very well your anxiety when faced with the prospect of losing power.

Father António Vieira wrote: “Pulvis es, tu in pulverem reverteris”. Dust you are, and to dust you shall return. You are dust. That is the present. To dust you shall return. That is the future. That is the future that you are trying to avoid at any cost, and which results in the anxiety that I mentioned.

For a while during my childhood, you cultivated a fear of yourself. In those days I knew when you, Mr President, had scheduled an outing from your official residence at the beach resort of Futungo de Belas. On these occasions, around midnight or later, I would feel the house trembling and my mother, in alarm, would come to take me from my bedroom into the yard. The presidential guard moved a Soviet tank [it could have been a T-54/55], on a tank transporter, to Rua da Liberdade (Freedom Street) where my mother lives to this day. This monstrosity would then manoeuver to position itself in the short, narrow lane alongside the wall of two of the rooms of the house. The structure was extremely fragile and the bricks corroded by salt, as the house is by the Samba beach. If the tank’s manoeuver had been just a few centimetres off target, it would have been goodbye forever to my family. The president’s outing from the palace forced us to sleep in the yard until the tank was taken away. My childhood was marked by this steel pachyderm, which with a slight gesture, could have destroyed our house and family, even if it had not intended to.

I didn’t like you, because of the way our lives were put at risk every time you left your palace. I would pray that you would not have to go out. I was a churchgoer, Sir.

In 1992 I had the privilege to go, for the first time, to your birthday party at Futungo de Belas. I had high expectations. I would rub shoulders with the leaders of my country. When you left the party, I saw a minister giving instructions for an arrangement of lobsters to be taken to his car, a general purloining an expensive bottle of whisky, the country’s rulers and their hangers-on looting the leftovers of the banquet. At the time, I saw this as an act of generosity on your part. But I left Futungo de Belas with a very bad impression of the people who surrounded you and who continue to surround you in government. If they could not even resist taking food and drinks from the palace, how then could public assets be entrusted to their care? From that point on, I had no more illusions about you or about your henchmen. ?

I have described these two episodes, not to blame you, but as a cry from the heart of someone who, along with millions of Angolan citizens, has had more negative than positive experiences of the way in which you exercise power.

I have often been puzzled by the way in which you feel offended or threatened by citizens’ everyday expressions of discontent, and have wondered what offence or discontent I should feel in response to what I have suffered at the hands of your regime. I wonder what goes through the heads of millions of my fellow citizens, who share my experiences or worse. Only the right to free expression will save us from the danger of bottled up grievances turning into feelings of hatred, frustration and vengeance.

The respect that you deserve is proportionate to the respect that you have for those whom you rule and for the common interests that you share with them. As a trained engineer, Mr President, you will be familiar with Newton’s Third Law: “For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.”

?In 1999, when you ordered that I be put in jail because you had taken offence at what I had written calling you a dictator and corrupt, I began to understand you better: you are a powerful, but insecure man. I appreciated the gesture of your secretary who visited me to enquire about my state of health and wellbeing while I was in prison. Despite the horrors that I endured there, that visit left me with at least one more positive memory of my time in detention.  The then director of the Viana Penitentiary, Francisco Ningosso, sent a greeting card to my cell, inviting me to a meeting under a tree on the premises, and there we had long conversations. These discussions were interesting. At the same time, I had the privilege of being able to document and report on human rights violations inside the prison.

This time, Mr President, do not send your secretary to enquire about the health of the young activists who are currently in prison. The attorney general of the Republic, General João Maria de Sousa, took it upon himself as guardian of law and order to announce publicly that the activists were preparing a coup d’état against you. As a matter of fact, 13 of the protesters were arrested “red-handed” while reading and discussing a book on non-violent resistance. In arresting them, General João Maria de Sousa destroyed what little credibility his office still had. General João Maria de Sousa is a very bad man. He is not fit to serve you. Discrediting the judicial system does not serve your security.

Mr President, take good note. The judicial system is what will be able to protect you against barbarity if there is ever a regime change. The judicial system is the fine line that separates civilization from savagery. Do not compromise the judicial system. Do not compromise civilization and law.

You must have heard the mutterings among your loyal operatives in the intelligence service. They believe that it is counterproductive to use the information that they have gathered on protesters to make such a serious accusation for your own political and judicial purposes.

I ask you, Mr President, to consider my request to order the unconditional release of the following citizens: Afonso Matias “Mbanza Hamza”, Albano Bingobingo, Arante Kivuvu, Benedito Jeremias, Domingos da Cruz,Fernando Tomás “Nicola Radical”, Hitler Jessia Chiconda “Samusuku”, Inocêncio Brito “Drux”, José Hata “Cheik Hata”, Luaty Beirão, Nelson Dibango, Nito Alves, Nuno Álvaro Dala, Osvaldo Caholo, Sedrick de Carvalho and Captain Zenóbio Zumba. ?

To free these citizens would be an act of political courage and constitutional morality. As the highest judge in the land, you must retain the moral high ground to correct mistakes made by institutions that could damage the rule of law and harm the relationship between state and society.

Sovereignty resides in decisions of exception, not in bureaucratic conformity.

Sovereignty is the affirmation of the people’s will through the bodies of state.

Mr President, surprise the nation. Surprise us positively, and be recognised for this.

In return for your statesmanlike gesture in defence of the constitution, I will offer you my modest thanks and will also have the honour to invite you to a vegetarian lunch. I guarantee that I am a good cook and a good raconteur to keep you entertained over lunch.  ?

Mr President, protect yourself by affirming the ethics of the Constitution. Take heed of your critics, who are those who bear you the least ill will.