A Journey for Rights and Dignity: A Participant’s Observation

Note: This text was initially delivered as the Hormuud Lecture of the African Studies Association, at its annual meeting in Chicago, on November 18, 2017.


Within days after delivering this lecture, I will be publishing the first report focused exclusively on extrajudicial killings in Angola.

These executions were carried out in the past year by the Angolan Criminal Investigation Service operatives across the two most populated neighborhoods of the capital Luanda, namely Cacuaco and Viana. In the report there are more than 100 victims identified and additional unidentified individuals suspected of being delinquents or simply innocent.

During my investigation I discovered the existence of an open field, next to a primary school in Viana (Escola Primária e do 1º Ciclo do Ensino Secundário nº 5113), that locals called the slaughterhouse or more commonly the death camp. The state operatives usually took their victims to this slaughterhouse in broad daylight. Often children were playing soccer in the field while students were hanging around on a break. The operatives let their victims out of their vehicle and executed them at point blank range. A bullet to the head was the signature shot. The bodies are left exposed for all to see.

It was a nightmare to get people to talk. Such was the climate of terror and fear in the affected areas where collaborators held the power to decide on a whim the life or death of their neighbors. These collaborators had the simple task of judging by merely pointing a finger at those to be executed without further questioning. Some tech savvy executioners carried ipads around with the pictures to identify their targets. Most were just trigger-happy.

But I finally had a major breakthrough. Days ago while undertaking the final cross-checking of some of my findings, I interviewed a mother, Teresa Monteiro, who the police took from her house at dawn. They beat up her 15 year old son in front of her and hauled him off to police station number 44 to force the mother to show where her older son, a suspected criminal, lived with his wife and two children. On the way, they told her to prepare the coffin for it would be her son’s last day. And it was. The mother also revealed to me that, on the same day her son was executed, more than fifteen youths met the same fate in her neighborhood. The death squads had disseminated the information, among local residents, that they had a quota of 250 youths to kill in that area of Luanda. And they were on track to meet their goal.

But there was also the equally shocking case of the petty criminals or suspects who had been released under a general amnesty, passed in July 2016. Many were hunted down and executed within weeks of their release. Such was the case of Kilandamoko João António, known as “Ti Porém”, who was released on December 9, 2016, after serving two years and a half in jail for robbery – only to be executed the very next month, on January 24, 2017. Ti Porém called his mother Makiesse, for her to see the face of the criminal investigation officer who was killing him at her doorstep.

Ti Porém had found a decent job as an electrician. But three times a week he had to report to the police station before going to work, and that day the police told him it was his last day reporting. A very well known officer and executioner, Pula-Pula, followed Ti Porém as the latter went back home to pick up his tools, and executed him in front of his mother at point blank range. The same Pula-Pula went to the wake and funeral, in the company of several police officers, in a display of the institutionalization of the extrajudicial killings and impunity.

The details of the modus operandi of the state-sponsored death squads reveal how psychopaths have been given license to kill.


We are here at an academic gathering on Africa. Why bring up such a dispiriting human rights issue, when Angola has just held presidential elections last August, and it seems all peaceful? From abroad there is a positive view of the country because a new president, João Lourenço, has been inaugurated after 38 years of rule by Mr. José Eduardo dos Santos.

Nevertheless, the party in power, MPLA, has remained the same for 42 years. In September, the extrajudicial killings resumed, after a break during the electoral period. Extrajudicial killings have always been an integral part of the arbitrariness of power in Angola. Why take notice now?

While reporting on some cases for my website, Maka Angola, I started receiving alerts on more extrajudicial killings and I realized there was a pattern, which needed to be investigated.

Partial view of the killing field, known as the slaughterhouse.

The extrajudicial killings underscore three major intertwined issues in Angola: first it is the arbitrariness of power and impunity that bred institutionalized corruption; second it is the culture of fear that prevented the emergence of an organized civil society; and, third it is how both have produced a low public expectations of accountability and delivery of services.

To a certain extent, the arbitrariness of power and impunity has shaped the peace that followed the end of the war in Angola in 2002. The disregard for the lives of common citizens has been one of the defining behaviors of the ruling elite. It is with such disregard for human lives that the leaders of the country have been able to maintain Angola’s position as the country with one of the highest child mortality rate in the world, after 15 years of peace. State resources that should have been allocated to the health sector, basic sanitation and food security have been plundered with abandon.

Some will say that 15 years is not enough time to recover from the war. However, this abuse of the population by their own leaders is not a product of war, but of institutionalized impunity. Furthermore, billions of dollars from oil revenues have gone unaccounted, and in the past decade or so, Angola has borrowed up to US $50 billion from China, as the Chinese ambassador to Angola, Cui Aimin, publicly revealed last August. The general public has not felt the benefits of such heavy borrowing.

Angola is a country where children die aplenty on a daily basis, and no public mobilization takes place to confront the tragedy. How can people find the strength to complain collectively about those executed under the label of being criminals, even though no investigation had taken place?

As for the culture of fear that prevails in Angolan society, it also merits a few more words. Angolans often ask themselves why ordinary people are so passive, when there is so much abuse by those in power. More often people refer to the massacres of May 27, 1977 when untold thousands of people were executed in a rage of power, as the trauma to justify their inaction.

Even with a new president, 40 years on, some of the executioners hold important positions of power, and remain the faces of fear mongering. This is a regime that cleanses and regenerates itself with blood on the streets.

More recently, in 2015, the Angolan regime deployed the army and special police forces in the massacre of hundreds of pilgrims of a religious sect on Mount Sumi, in Huambo province. The sect was growing outside the government’s control and challenging its authority. Then, it put the leader of the sect The Light of the Day, Kalupeteka, on trial, and convicted him to 28 years in prison, beyond the maximum sentence any individual can receive according to the Angolan penal code. As for the massacre itself, impunity prevailed. And the world looked the other way.

Impunity, fear and corruption have rendered Angolan society dysfunctional. I share one example with you, which is relevant to academia. Over the past 10 years, up to 17 universities, and over 40 other tertiary education institutions have mushroomed in Angola, but they lack academic quality and rigor. And on top of this, many students are unprepared. For instance, two youth activists who were very well known among youth protesters became informants for the state security in exchange for placements at the public university, even though they could not meet the basic admission requirements. It is dispiriting to be an academic in Angola due to the political pressures and the corruption of the system that has installed students and academics by political appointment.

When I received the invitation to deliver the Hormuud Lecture, I underscored that I am not an academic and do not have a PH.D. However, I took this opportunity to begin a conversation with academics. More often than not, foreign academics, journalists and political pundits dominate the analytical representations of Angola abroad. Among the scholars of Angola, the fundamental rights of people have yet merit due attention. That is why I am here.

I am a journalist by trade, and a human rights defender by consequence. I have dedicated my career to addressing the scourge of corruption and abuse of power because of the impact they have on what concerns me the most: human life, and human development in Angola. I bear witness to how life has become so cheap in my country.

There cannot be any serious conversation on human development or the body politics without addressing – in depth – the value of life in the country, and how it is protected or attacked by the powers that be and society at large.

Once, I entertained the idea of studying anthropology to become an academic, and I did so as a mature student. I held the belief that it would help me to analyze and better understand my own society rather than having the narrative of Angola being predominantly produced outside the country.

But I failed to reconcile my commitment towards rights with the demand to articulate fragments of reality within the discourses favored by academia.

Yet, three lessons from anthropology remain critical in the work I undertake nowadays. These are the primacy of rights, participant’s observation, and agency.

First, I treasure the advice of the codes of ethics of the Anthropological associations of the U.S and U.K that researchers have the primary responsibility in ensuring that the rights and the protection of the subjects of their study take precedence over those of and the interests of science.

I ask this audience, how do academics should respond and interact with the political and human rights contexts in countries such as Angola, where they do research? What are their duties and actions towards the places and people with whom they do research?

For instance, would these extrajudicial killings merit any academic interest? In the case of Angola, it could be argued that it would be a major safety issue for academics to delve into. It could also be argued that such cases might not be relevant to the study of politics or any trendy subject on Angola, like oil, the rise of the middle class or urbanism.

Thus, it would be suggested that major international human rights organizations, such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, investigate. Priorities, resources, visa issues and safety concerns would be tabled as major obstacles for such a job to be taken even by international organizations.

As for foreign journalists, it can be a challenge too. Let me share with you an anecdotal experience. In 2006 I published my second report on human rights abuses in Angola’s diamond fields. A Portuguese journalist, working for a mainstream international news agency, told me that he would not write about the report because, as he said, it was unscientific.

I had reported facts, the truth about widespread killings, torture and other abuses against locals by diamond companies. I did so based on the country’s legal framework that criminalized such practices. What scientific arguments were required to back up the facts, the truth and the laws of the land? Fortunately, the report received due international attention, and I even won the U.S. Train Foundation’s Civil Courage Prize that year. However, I kept wondering how it would have helped me if I had taken an academic approach, engaged in comparative analyzes, and had used only some of the evidence to back up my scientific arguments.

Second, on participant’s observation I came to interpret it differently. The areas covered in my report are home to more than half of Luanda’s seven million inhabitants. I provided ad-hoc training to as many as 15 local informants in the more critical neighborhoods to help me identify specific cases, and then focus the investigations on those ones until new ones called our attention.

One main ethical challenge that would not have arisen, had I just acted as a day-to-day journalist, was following up on executions that happened in real time, while investigating for the report. A colleague, who counseled me in the process, was of the view that I should publish the cases as I investigated them.

I had already done that with several cases, and had been met with a backlash of public support for the extrajudicial killings as a “good riddance” of criminals. I had also experienced the suffering of the police officer, Tiago Contreiras, whose colleagues had asked him to take a team to clean up the scene where they had just executed three young people. I reported how officer Contreiras refused to do the job, only to find out, minutes later, that one of the three his colleagues had executed was his own younger brother. Manuel Contreiras had traveled to Luanda to spend the weekend with his elder brother, the police officer, from Malanje, where he was a student and a devout Catholic. He asked for a ride at the wrong time. After my report was published, the bereaved officer was suspended, and the culprits given a free pass. It took a bitter follow up for him to be reassigned to a desk job.

By showing a pattern of psychopathic behavior within the Criminal Investigation Service, I believed and still do, that I would be able to counter the narrative sold to the public that the government is fighting crime the best way it can. What about the criminals that have plundered the state assets? Shall they be executed to? I ask in the report to make people see how extrajudicial killing is just a gruesome form of exclusion of the poor and pretty criminals.

Furthermore, by having tens of cases pieced together, those relatives and witnesses who have braved to speak out may have more protection. There will be many, way too many for the executioners to threaten or kill them. That is why, six months ago, I wrote a letter to the minister of Interior, Ângelo de Barros da Veiga Tavares, who also directly supervises the Criminal Investigation Service (SIC), about my investigations and the findings. This is not a lesson from academia, but one learned on the ground. I must follow up on these cases, on the witnesses and relatives as well as the identified executioners.


The minister of Interior, Ângelo Tavares, supervises SIC.

Finally, there is the lesson of agency. Over the years, I have witnessed how Angolans yearned for change, but one delivered to them and not as a result of their own actions. For me, the most challenging task was to contribute to change that perception and attitude by having the agency to be proactive.

Taking initiative

As Mr. João Lourenço was sworn in as president, last September, social media was abuzz with demands for him to enact change. But there has not been a single initiative worth mentioning of citizens organizing, and mobilizing to participate in the push for change to happen. Civil society remains dormant.

My work, which somehow has become multidisciplinary, has projected the need for agency. For instance, recently I was criticized for constantly reporting on the diamond-rich village of Cafunfo, in Northeastern Angola. The most recent writing I posted, weeks ago, was about the current death rate of five to eight children a day at the local public hospital due to malaria and lack of basics such as pills, syringes. The hospital even lacks electricity. The reason why there is always coverage on that village is because some local activists have learnt to have the agency to report on what they see wrong in their community, from health, human rights abuses to witchcraft.

So, my work has been possible for I have tapped into the bravery and courage of so many individual Angolans, because their rights have taken primacy in my work, first and foremost.

It is desirable that academics heed to the call of incorporating the issue of rights into their agendas on the work they do on Angola, and in other parts of Africa, as a new departure to really understand the continent and its people.

I thank you for your patience.

Next time, if I ever get invited again to an academic gathering, I will talk about my uncle, a healer, a witch doctor, a devout Christian who had members of the ruling elite as clients, and how his agency inspired me, in the first place, to study anthropology. It will be how he used his agency to stock up on dried codfish, which was essential in Angola, in the eighties and during hard times, for the ritual of Christmas celebrations left by the Portuguese. He wanted to take that back to his village to trade for cattle, but the long war caused his stock to rot over the years. He made concoctions for some of the generals and other high-powered people. He demanded, as part of the payment, three-piece suits for himself that had to be bought in Portugal, and good wine. My uncle would often call me to learn from his experiences, and I learned so much about his own and my family’s contradictions on their views of tradition and modernity. It was also a transforming lesson on the elite of my own country, and the agency a villager can have over the powerful based on his or her skills and local knowledge, even a dubious one.

And thus, we end on a more positive note.

Thank you so much.


Further reference

Graves III, W., and M. A. Shields (1991) “Rethinking moral responsibility in fieldwork: the situated negotiation of research ethics in anthropology and sociology”, in Ethics and the Profession of Anthropology: Dialogue for a New Era, ed. C. Fluehr-Lobban, University of Pennsylvania Press, pp. 132-151.