The Emperor Has no Clothes and the Naked Hunger Strike

The only two females in the Luanda Book Club case, Rosa Conde (29) and Laurinda Gouveia (26), have been on hunger strike since May 8 in protest at their continued detention in Viana prison, pending their appeal against a verdict and prison sentence which have been widely condemned as unfair and part of a political show-trial. They are also protesting against the attacks they suffered on the same day at the hands of dozens of other inmates. “When we were attacked, one of the prison guards who watched the beatings said [to their colleagues] ‘Let them kill themselves’. We are running terrible risks here. We are not safe,” stated Rosa Conde who is serving a sentence of two years and three months.

The two young women had also been refusing to wear prison clothing until Rosa Conde collapsed on Wednesday.  She suffers from pneumonia, and was admitted to the prison health post, where she was given only half a pill of a paracetamol. Laurinda Gouveia, sentenced to four and a half years, remains half naked in Viana Prison.

By declining food and clothing, Rosa and Laurinda wanted to lay bare the real motive behind the sham trial which resulted in their imprisonment: the political paranoia of the court of the man now called ‘Angola’s Emperor of Disgrace and King of Evil’, President José Eduardo dos Santos. They say the regime is now so far off course that it is deaf and blind to the truth, bent only on self-preservation in the face of mounting criticism.

The two women are considered political prisoners, along with the 15 male activists also sentenced for their part in studying a manual on non-violent means of opposing the present Angolan regime. One of their number, Air-Force Lieutenant Osvaldo Caholo, was never even present at any of the book-club meetings. His defence team believe he was only arrested to lend greater credence to the prosecution’s grotesque charges against his friends: that they had been conspiring to prepare a rebellion and a coup against President dos Santos.

The book-club activists, branded as revolutionaries or “Revús”, comprise some of the most visible and vocal opponents to the Dos Santos regime on the part of Angola’s younger generation. Inspired by the so-called ‘Arab Spring’, the “Revús” voiced their discontent at nearly four decades of one-party rule through rap, radio broadcasts, online journalism, lectures and street protests. Fearing a groundswell of opposition, the ruling MPLA party cracked down on them, unwittingly unleashing an international public relations nightmare.

Along the way, the regime’s henchmen have ignored multiple opportunities to extricate themselves, their party and their leader from this nightmare.  Having staged a show trial, notorious for ignoring all evidence that refuted the original charges, they directed the public prosecutor Isabel Fancony to invent a new charge of criminal association in her final summing up, to enable Judge Januário Domingos to pass lengthier prison sentences.

Activist Rosa Conde.

Just a few days ago, the Constitutional Court ordered a stay on carrying out those custodial sentences passed by Judge Januário Domingos. Perhaps the Court was persuaded by legal argument that laid bare the affront to common sense of a badly-staged show trial that couldn’t even pretend to follow the letter of the law. True to form, this judicial order is apparently being ignored.  Angola’s Justice system is not independent. Police, prosecutors and judges alike act as agents of repression on behalf of the ruling party.

What appears to be in play is the hurt pride of a man who for the past 37 years has become accustomed to humiliating and grinding down undesirables and political adversaries. What further humiliation or deprivation can be visited by the MPLA’s jailers on activists who, even suffering from pneumonia, are prepared to go without food or clothing?   What more can the ruling party throw at these women who show no fear of them, or any of the weapons they can bring to bear?

Rosa Conde is the mother of a 10 year-old child.  She is fighting for freedom so her child will grow up in a better world. Laurinda Gouveia has paid a heavy price already for taking her struggle onto the streets. While taking part in a street protest in 2014, she was beaten and tortured by police commanders who went unpunished while the Attorney-General’s office staged a cover-up.

Rosa and Laurinda are prisoners of conscience, hoping that their personal sacrifice will not go un-noticed.  It is an act of defiance aimed at protecting all their fellow prisoners of conscience by keeping them in the public eye.

For as long as the President’s men insist stubbornly on fighting this losing battle against the young “Revús”, they not only jeopardize the long game but risk hastening the defeat of their leader and his regime – a defeat many now see as inevitable.  They failed to see that the outcome of their sham trial would be to make a laughing stock of one of sub-Saharan Africa’s most powerful armies. Is that all it would take to overthrow Dos Santos and bring down the mighty MPLA? A handful of disaffected youth armed with nothing more dangerous than a few burning tires?

After more than three decades in power, the President’s attempts to clothe his regime in the trappings of democracy have been laid bare, revealing his true nature as a corrupt despot. Far from fighting to improve the lot of their fellow Angolans, Dos Santos and the MPLA have revealed themselves as the enemy of the people, hell-bent on fighting anyone who dares complain about a government so inept that it cannot even provide basic health care.