An Address Against the Nation

The Angolan president’s address to the nation was delivered by Vice-President Manuel Vicente since President José Eduardo dos Santos failed to appear in Parliament – for reasons of health, it was claimed. The most notable features of the speech were the president’s absence and the silence, and apparent indifference, regarding the political prisoners held in Luanda.

In a critical state: Luaty Beirão and the president

The president’s state of health has long been a taboo subject. When it is mentioned at the most solemn event on the presidential calendar, it becomes clear that the president has run out of arguments and must indeed have serious health problems. But right now his biggest headache is the political prisoner Luaty Beirão, who is in a critical condition after 24 days on hunger strike.

Many citizens had high hopes for the speech, because they thought the president would take the chance to present a political solution to the case of the 15 political prisoners detained since June. No such luck. The president asked Manuel Vicente to read the address, which he did with absolute arrogance and a stubborn denial of reality. Dos Santos said he would not give in under pressure. So then: he will fall under pressure.

I remember when in 1999 the president asked his advisers whether the imprisonment of a “boy” would harm his image. This was when the president was thinking about whether to put me in prison for my article “The Lipstick of Dictatorship”. The following year, the president found himself alongside Kim Jong Il of North Korea, on the list of the world’s ten worst enemies of the press. His attempts to clear his name became costly. In court, arguments about defamation against the president evolved into accusations by the then presidential spokesman, Aldemiro Vaz da Conceição, that I was destabilising the army, which at the time was still at war against UNITA. The judge had been instructed to find me guilty of defamation, and told Mr Vaz da Conceição to sit down and shut up. This is the type of judicial independence one expects from a despotic power: obeying orders, but within reason.

The current imprisonment of 15 “boys”, made known worldwide through Luaty Beirão’s heroic hunger strike, will not just damage the president’s image. It will bury it for good beneath the mud of his cruelty. The way in which José Eduardo dos Santos is dealing with this case will besmirch his political legacy forever. History will record how a giant among African dictators, albeit a discreet giant, was brought to his knees by a band of youth who were merely trying to provoke him with peaceful but “subversive” political ideas.

The truth is that Attorney General João Maria’s foolishness in talking publicly about a coup attempt put an end to any hope that the judicial system would act with reason.. As a result, everyone was waiting for the supreme judge of the land, José Eduardo dos Santos, to announce his decision.

Making the troops self-sufficient

In another important moment of the speech, the president spoke, through his vice-president, of the need for the Angolan Armed Forces and the National Police to produce their own foodstuffs and uniforms. This, he declared, would help overcome the economic crisis.

How are we to interpret this? One possibility is that the president is incapable of coming up with solutions, so he is just talking for the sake of talking. The army already pays soldiers a mere pittance. The other possibility is that the head of state is renouncing all responsibility for the role of the armed forces and the police in providing state security. In this reading, the Commander in Chief has passed the burden of responsibility onto the military and police commanders, forcing them to be creative in providing for those under their command.

But there is one serious problem here. A soldier’s real salary, 25,000 kwanzas, is worth between US$75 and US$100 as the informal market exchange rate fluctuates. The Angolan army has more than 100,000 men. This will soon be an army of hungry and restless men. How does one justify to soldiers the fact that they earn less than the generals’ domestic workers?

An opportunity lost

The presidential address was little more than a list of dubious claims about government progress in the areas of health, education, and the social integration of demobilised soldiers. In the area of health, for example, there was no reference to the fact that Angola, once again, has the world’s worst rate of child mortality. In short, the president has lost an opportunity to tell the nation what it really wants to hear: that he is tired after 36 years in power, that he needs to look after his health, and that he has a plan to relinquish office.

In the absence of enlightened leadership, people are left with little to do but pray for a miracle. But it has become dangerous even to pray for a better country and for the health of the regime’s critics. The police raid on the Catholic Church of Saint Dominic in Luanda on 12 October, because of a mass dedicated to the health of the 15 political prisoners, is a good example of the regime’s desperation.

Let us pray, O Lord, that the soldiers and police continue to be sacrificed and to sacrifice themselves for the sake of political stability and the power of the president. That the terrible living conditions experienced by most soldiers and police simply be proof of their patriotism and their loyalty to our illustrious leaders, who they protect by beating the weakest. For them, too, we pray O Lord. Amen.