Abuse of Power in Angola (Part I): How the MPLA Elite Clears Land for Their Own Use

Earlier this month graphic pictures emerged from Angola of the killing of 14-year-old Rufino António, shot in the head at close range by a soldier enforcing demolitions in the poor neighbourhood of Walale, south of the capital, Luanda.

This is not an isolated incident. The Angolan authorities have commonly resorted to sudden mass demolitions of entire neighbourhoods to clear the land for redevelopment, with little or no regard for residents’ legal rights, or even their lives.

Sometimes there are legal grounds for these actions, such as slum clearance within the ambit of the Luanda Development Plan – a scheme praised by international urban planners unfamiliar with the reality of how it is being executed. All too often, however, the mass demolitions are ordered by unscrupulous and greedy members of the ruling elite who see the chance to grab choice portions of land for their own ends.

Bound by blood to the land

Take the case of 38 year-old Helena João Teka, who has spent the past four years fighting for justice after she lost her home and her two small children who were killed as they slept when the authorities carried out one of these ‘lightning demolitions’.

Helena says she has a legitimate claim to the land title but the zone has been reserved for other, more powerful Angolans. The kind of people who can pull strings first to evict the rightful owners and destroy their property and then deploy the Rapid Intervention Police to guard the razed lot. They are formidable opponents.

Settled in Mucula Ngola, then a rural agricultural community lying within the municipality of Viana, just south of the capital, Luanda, Helena’s family lived and worked on the land, as did hundreds of other rural families.

During the early years of Angolan independence (between 1975 and 1989) when the ruling MPLA (Peoples’ Movement for the Liberation of Angola) still described itself as a Marxist-Leninist Workers’ Party, land could not be owned by individuals but their right to live and work on the land was recognized.

In Helena’s case, there is official documentary evidence supported by the sworn testimony of a local chief and other area residents, to support her claim of rightful ownership of the title to a 15-hectare parcel of land in Mucula Ngola, where her family erected a dwelling.

The paper trail starts in 1989 when the Union of Associations of Agricultural Cooperatives and Fieldworkers (UNACA) issued a document (dated June 13, 1989) recognizing the right of possession to the 15-hectare parcel of land in question, to Garcia João Camangumba.

In early 1998, during a period of false peace during the Angolan civil war, new rules were put in place requiring those with a claim to land to register their title. Citizen Camangumba duly began the legal process to legalize the land title, in accordance with the applicable maps and plans of that period.

Angola was still in the throes of civil war. Time went by. In 2000, he made a formal written request to the Administrator (Mayor) of Viana to be issued his ‘contract of concession’ – the legal document of land title that would prove his ownership. It was only after the definitive peace treaty was signed in 2002 to end the Angolan civil war that it became possible to resume the bureaucratic formalities to conclude the registration process.

Garcia João Camangumba is Helena’s elder brother. He worked in the Viana municipal administration and understood what was required. He promptly took the necessary legal steps to formally register his family’s claim to the land. It took until 2010 for all the legal formalities to be completed. Camangumba’s ownership of the surface rights of the land was finally registered as No. 115/2010 in the Viana Municipal Agricultural Office.

Sadly, Garcia João Camangumbe was suffering from a mental illness. He is still alive but confined to a mental institution. Before he lost his faculties, he was able to arrange a power of attorney for his sister Helena João Teka, giving her control of all his affairs as well as the guardianship of his six children, his legal heirs. They had been abandoned by their natural mother who was either unable or unwilling to look after them. The arrangement meant his sister would raise his six children along with her own on the family plot.

Yet, within two years, someone somehow managed to arrange a police-backed demolition of their home (and those of many neighboring families) on the grounds that they were illegal dwellings on land that belonged to someone else, a person known to no-one in the area, but who is allegedly related to a senior Minister in the MPLA national administration.

Operation lightning demolition

Confident of their title to the land, the João Camangumbe family were building homes. Another of Helena’s brothers, José Samuel aged 24, was a serving soldier in the Angolan Armed Forces (FAA). He had obtained a bank loan to finance the construction of his own three-bedroom house, right next door to Helena’s.

“It was November 7, 2012 around 4am when I was woken by a lot of noise – police were ordering people to leave so that demolition of homes on the land could get underway.” José Samuel recalls that he barricaded himself inside his property.

“Four policemen broke down the front door, but they could not get me out of there. A one-star officer (sub-inspector) came into the house and told me that if I resisted they would kill me. I thought it was an empty threat. Then he took his pistol out of its holder and shot me in the left leg. He saw I was bleeding copiously, dragged me outside and then they proceeded to smash up the house.”

They say 400 families were left homeless in that day’s operation in Mucula Ngola.

José Samuel was serving in the Special Forces Brigade (2nd Battalion, 1st Company Commandos) and after initial emergency medical treatment at a local clinic, he was taken to his unit headquarters in Cabo-Ledo from where two days later he was transferred to the Central Military Hospital by FAA Health Services Evacuation Order 622/2012.

Just over a month later, on December 14, 2012, the Viana Municipal Agricultural Office sent out two statements in Garcia Camangumba’s name, both with reference No. 383/2012, requesting payment of an industrial tax. Clearly their records still showed Camangumba as the legitimate owner.

Helena, along with other families who had been left homeless, was determined to stand up for their right to be on the land to which they had title. They started to rebuild their homes in the same place, some putting up tents as shelter, others creating what in Angola they call ‘bate-chapas’, structures made out of zinc roofing panels.

A few months went by. On April 26, 2013, Helena was on her way to Uíge province, where she was born. Her two children, 7-year-old Nelson Sebastião Gomes and 3-year-old Cátia Sebastião Gomes were at home being looked after by another of Helena’s brothers, Baptista João, a 26-year-old also serving with the FAA special forces.

Around 2am, the neighbourhood was plunged into a nightmare again: heavy machinery rumbled across the road, backed up by a large militarized force, including helicopters. Amongst the units there that day were the Rapid Intervention Force (colloquially called “Ninjas”), the Mounted Police and the Canine Brigade.

As the bulldozers growled their way forward, the 26-year-old commando, Baptista João, was hanging out with friends outside the house. A neighbour, Salvador Manuel Francisco, aged 35, witnessed the tragedy and has testified to the events: “He (Baptista João) was incensed. He went up to speak to the police commanders in charge of the operation but they wouldn’t listen to him.”

There was no time to run back to the house to grab the children before the machines flattened it. Baptista was shot in the back, later dying of his injury at the Josina Machel hospital in Luanda. Salvador Manuel Francisco points to one of the commanders as having fired the shot. Someone was able to take a photograph (now in the possession of Maka Angola) which clearly shows his prone body with a gunshot wound to the spine.

A second witness, mechanic Nascimento Domingos, aged 41, corroborates this account: “I saw with my own eyes Commander Bety (Comissar Elisabeth Rank Frank) leading the operation. Everyone here knows her. Also with her was Commander Ribas and many other ‘chiefs’ (senior police officers).”

The demolition went ahead without any of the machine operators or police checking whether anyone was still in the dwellings before they were knocked down. Nascimento Domingos and Salvador Manuel Francisco were among the first to realize that Helena’s house had been demolished with the children still inside. They tried desperately to intercede with the police to allow them to rescue the children.

Someone had a number for General Laborinho Lúcio (Secretary of State for the Interior) and called him begging for help. They credit General Lúcio with ordering the local fire service to get the children out of the rubble.

Salvador Manuel Francisco says: “I ran to help get (Helena’s) children out of the rubble. They were just barely alive and the little girl’s teeth had been knocked out.”

He alleges that a senior policeman (he wasn’t able to find out his name), who pulled him from the vehicle, impeded him from taking the badly injured toddlers to hospital. “He slapped me across the face summoning a colleague to seize my papers so that I couldn’t leave the scene.”

Salvador Francisco pleaded with them that his baby had died and that persuaded the officers to allow him just enough time to take the baby’s wake and effects out of his own home before it too was demolished.

Nascimento Domingos helped take the children to the Luanda General Hospital. He says, “They were still alive but messed up. They were beyond saving.”

After laying her two babies to rest, the grieving mother, Helena, returned to the parcel of land where their lives were cut short. She says she feels compelled to remain there, where she is closest to them. When Helena went back, she says she was seized by ‘ninjas’ of the Police Rapid Intervention Force who were guarding the lot. She alleges that they beat her and repeatedly raped her before throwing her off her land.

The people with power

Across the road from the disputed land, separated only by an asphalt link road to the Luanda ring road known as the ‘Via Expresso’, is an extensive walled estate owned by a man very close to the Angolan President.

Edeltrudes Mauricio Fernandes Gaspar da Costa is one of two Ministers of State at the Presidency: Minister Edeltrudes da Costa is the President’s Chief of Staff, responsible for all civilian or political matters, while General Manuel Hėlder Vieira Dias Jr (better known by his nom-de-guerre ‘Kopelipa’) is the Chief of the Intelligence Bureau, responsible for all security or military matters.

Minister da Costa was first brought into government by former Interior Minister, later Prime Minister, Fernando da Piedade Dias dos Santos “Nandó”. His career also encompasses a stint at the National Electoral Commission where his work further endeared him to the President who appointed him as his Chief of Staff on October 1, 2012. He had occupied this new, elevated, position for only just over a month before his neighbours across the road had their homes flattened for the first time.

It’s not clear when or how Edeltrudes da Costa first acquired his property. According to Helena João Teka, it is another world compared to its neighbours: “it’s an estate with sporting fields, horses, so many things, so much luxury.”

According to Edeltrudes da Costa’s lawyer, Eurico Paz Costa, the land that was officially registered as belonging to the João Cangumbe family, is now owned by one of the Minister’s relatives. He told Maka Angola: “the registered landowner is Mrs Maria da Conceição, also a client of ours, who by chance (our emphasis), is related to the Minister.”

There is considerable confusion over who ordered the land clearance. The Commander of the Luanda Military Region of the National Police is Lt Gen Simão Carlitos ‘Wala’. There is reason to believe that he investigated the dispute over the land and its clearance by police officers under his command. Helena says that General Wala visited the disputed land in 2014 and detained her for three days. When they let her go, General Wala spoke to her in person, “acknowledging that I am the legitimate owner of the land and advising me to go to the ‘Soba’ (the headman) to deal with the (dispute)”. And that is what she did.

The Soba, Moisés Kahungo attests that the Camangumba family had always worked that land [one of the requirements for land claims], until the expansion of the suburbs forced them to build on the land themselves. As Soba, Kahungo is the traditional mediator for conflict resolution for the Bita Sapú area which encompasses Mucula Ngola.

“On August 5, 2015, I held a meeting with General Wala in the presence of Mrs Helena. He asked for the documents relating to the land, including the list of populations and told me he would write to the Minister to find a way to resolve the issue”, says Moisés Kahungo.

The Soba, Moisés Kahungo, then organized a second meeting with Helena Teka and General Simão Carlitos Wala in September 2015. He proposed an investigation involving all the interested parties.

“Everyone should sit down together, the lawyers, the Generals, the Viana Municipal Administrator, so that we can find out how this parcel of land came to be in the hands of a family member of the Minister.” The Soba says: “they need to produce documentary evidence to explain who in the Minister’s family, this person whom I’ve never seen, cultivated this land, or who amongst the rural population who did cultivate the land sold them this property.”

Helena says: “The General came and I showed him the documents and we had a conversation. He acknowledged that I had the right to the land and that I could occupy my land. And that is where it was left.

Both Helena and the Soba were hopeful that something positive would come of this – but subsequent events led her to make an official complaint. On November 5, 2015 she addressed a formal written complaint to the Attorney General’s office, with copies to the FAA Chief of Staff and the Military Prosecutor. There was no response from any of these official bodies but the documentation proves that the authorities were duly notified of the case and failed to take action.

In her complaint, addressed to the attorney-general, General João Maria de Sousa, she refers to the first episode involving General Wala: “I was surprised by the presence of a column of military vehicles which came onto my parcel of land, under the command of Excellency Lieutenant General Commander of the Luanda Region (General Wala), with Colonel Silvano Ndongua the commander of the Unified Command Post at their head and a Lieutenant-Colonel Nguinamau. (…) The Luanda Military Region commander ordered the owner to leave the land immediately because this land is not hers and if she continues to insist on it, she will be thrown into a cell or killed.”

She alleges that General Wala tried to arrange a deal. “General Wala told me that he had spoken to the Minister (Edeltrudes da Costa) and they had agreed to compensate me and that the following Saturday I would have a meeting directly with the Minister. We waited but the Minister didn’t turn up.”

Over a period of months, Maka Angola attempted to arrange a meeting with General Wala to put to him the allegations of involvement by the Unified Command Post (Military and Police) who report to him.

The General was always “willing” to meet. But things got in the way of the meeting ever actually taking place. However, one of the general’s colleagues (speaking on condition of anonymity) was willing to share information to ‘clarify the situation’.

This source said: “You have been told a lie, pure and simple. Minister of State and Chief of Staff Edeltrudes da Costa, complained to the President’s Security Chief, General Kopelipa, that his land (our emphasis) was being invaded by military types.”

“General Kopelipa had a word with the Chief of the General Staff, General Nunda, who then called General Wala and gave orders to investigate what was happening on this land that supposedly belonged to the Minister. On the ground, General Wala realized that the Minister’s description of his land being invaded by military types was false. The General discovered that the Minister had not told the truth. So General Wala sent a message to the Minister to ask that he enter into peaceful negotiations with the civilians who owned the land. That is the truth. Yet now the man being insulted and accused is General Wala.”