A violent put-down of last Saturday's anti-government protests in Angola drew widespread condemnation from local and international rights groups.
As did Monday's police raid and equipment seizure on one of the country’s few remaining independent newspapers, Folha8.
But behind injuries and outrage is emerging another story of a regime desperate to silence its critics as Angola prepares to hold only its third election in 36 years.
Since the first anti-government protest in March last year, the official response has been to accuse the organisers of trying to create instability and undermine Angola’s precious and long-fought-for peace.
After every demonstration, government, party and church officials appear on the state-owned Radio Nacional de Angola (RNA) and Televisao Publica de Angola (TPA) to criticise protesters and to remind everyone of the value of peace after living through three decades of war.
Long polemics also appear in the country’s only daily newspaper, Jornal de Angola, to accuse protestors of being sponsored by “external agents” trying to destabilise Angola for their own means, and blast foreign media houses for negative reporting.
Others point out that countries like Egypt and Tunisia have given up peace for turmoil and insist that sticking to democratic elections promises the best option for Angola.
That youth have chosen to demonstrate about the electoral process gives their cause some wider credibility – there are few in Angola who are not suspicious about how the polls are being organised – but it has also afforded the government the option of claiming the demonstrators are themselves anti-democratic in taking to the streets rather than casting votes.
This week Sports and Youth Minister Gonçalves Muandumba joined a list of talking heads appealing to young people to “fulfil their rights as citizens” and register for the elections, while a front page headline of the Jornal de Angola stated “Coesão nacional é a maior riqueza” (National cohesion is the greatest wealth).
However, beyond this now predictable media reaction to the protests – a relatively new phenomenon in a country where few dare to criticise – has emerged a more sinister and calculating operation.
While the demonstration in the town of Benguela was subdued by Angola’s notoriously heavily-armed motorbike-riding Policia de Intervenção Rápida (also known as “Ninjas”), police were apparently nowhere to be seen during a crackdown on protesters in the capital Luanda last weekend.
Around 40 youths gathered in the neighbourhood of Cazenga on Saturday morning to exercise their constitutional right to free expression and call for the resignation of the electoral commission president who they say is unqualified and partisan. They were set upon by a rabble of what some have described as “militias”.
Among the injured was rapper Luaty Beirao, who described to Think Africa Press how a gang of well-built men armed with stick and metal bars were waiting for him and his friends as they arrived at 9am to begin the march. The gang lashed out at people in the area, seemingly trying to elicit a reaction from the protesters.
"When we refused to be provoked, they changed their tune and said if we went away and cancelled the demonstration, they would leave us alone,” he said.
"We refused again and then they just went for us. I just remember being hit on the head and falling to the ground and then hearing shot after shot being fired into the air."
Beirao, a member of the movement Central 7311 (named after the date of their first protest) said the fact that the aggressors were “so organised and co-ordinated” and that the police vacated the area without sending in backup, made him suspicious the gang had been organised by a “higher authority”.
The police – who are yet to say why they did not intervene – have vowed to launch an investigation into what happened, but have dismissed the violence as clashes between rival gangs.
Photographs of the bloodied and roughly stitched scar across half of Beirao’s head – and images of other injured protestors – have been circulated widely on Facebook and Twitter along with snatched images of the men who carried out the attacks.
Also being widely distributed are pictures of Francisco Filomeno Vieira Lopes – the 57-year-old Secretary General of the small opposition party Bloco Democratico – emerging bandaged from hospital after his brush with the gang.
Bloco Democratico has claimed that Lopes – who was not at the protest scene when he was attacked – was the victim of a failed assassination attempt, and point the finger at the government.
According to a leaflet circulating Luanda, however, and a phone call broadcast live on Televisao Public de Angola the next day, the violence was nothing to do with the government. Instead, these sources apparently suggest the violence was orchestrated by a vigilante group protecting the country from “unscrupulous politicians” trying to upset the country.
Joao Mateus, whose face was not show on the screen when he called into the live news programme, claimed to be from a previously unheard-of movement called “Cidadaos pela Paz” (Citizens for Peace).
Mateus insisted that he and others had come together to stop politicians and political movements who wanted to “pervert the constitutional order and disturb the public peace” and “sow instability” in the country.
In an all-too familiar refrain, the caller went on to say that everyone should respect democratic elections before adding menacingly that his group would “continue to react” if the electoral process was further disrupted.
There are several things that do not ring true about Mateus and the Cidadaos pela Paz.
Firstly, it is highly unusual for Televisao Public de Angola to broadcast a live phonecall during its news bulletin, and especially unusual for that caller to be a random member of public who, once live on the programme, would have been free from the usual careful editing and censorship.
Secondly, if Cidadaos pela Paz is a genuine organisation which were acting on its own, it is odd that state television would condone its barbaric actions and insist they are hunted down to face justice over their various acts of violence.
The truth behind the supposedly spontaneous vigilante group, however, is not the only issue that remains in doubt around these recent happenings.
Returning to the police raid of the Folha8 offices, it is still unknown as to why the Direcção Nacional de Investigação Criminal (DNIC) decided to act two whole months after the weekly publication was publically reprimanded for printing a photo montage of President Jose Eduardo Dos Santos and two senior ministers in a criminal line up – the claimed reason for the crackdown.
Could it have been that the paper would very likely have published the photographs circulating on the internet of the victims and suspects from Saturday’s violence had it down been shut down?
Closing down Folha8 now is also a shrewd move on the part of authorities who have effectively cut off a stream of critical news in the run-up to the elections.
Nearly all other private newspapers have been bought up by government ministers or businessmen close to President Dos Santos and even the previously objective Catholic-run Radio Ecclesia is feeling the pressure and being discouraged from broadcasting certain topics and taking live phone-ins.
Angola is not a country to care what rights groups say and so this week’s condemnation by the Committee to Protect Journalists will be unlikely to have been taken seriously.
But there is a question from within Angola about whether Dos Santos’ MPLA (Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola) – which has already begun its customary donations of food and money to rural communities – may be going to unnecessary extremes to win a legislative election that is really theirs to lose.
The MPLA currently holds an 82% majority in parliament following their bulldozing of main opposition party UNITA (União Nacional para a Independência Total de Angola) in 2008.
And under the terms of Angola’s new constitution, there are no longer direct presidential elections, the head of state instead chosen from the top of the list of the party which wins the most votes.
UNITA, still seen by many as the party of their late war-mongering leader Jonas Savimbi, has struggled to define itself in a peace-time context, and lacks the financial muscle of the MPLA.
Many feel UNITA’s performance in opposition has been weak and disorganised. Indeed, against such a large majority, opposing any vote in parliament must seem futile, which is part of the reason UNITA has adopted a regular habit of walking out of parliament during contentious votes. This makes a statement but equally opens them up to criticism from the MPLA that they are undemocratic.
Furthermore, in December there was another disappointment when the party’s leader since 2003, Isaías Samakuva, was re-elected for another four-year term.
There is an unconfirmed rumour doing the rounds in Luanda that Samakuva was “asked nicely” by the MPLA to maintain his leadership to ensure “continuity” ahead of the elections and not risk the country’s peace.
But Samakuva’s reappointment comes with a heavy cost, in the form of the resignation of the charismatic Abel Chivukuvuku, who this week announced after 38 years he was leaving UNITA to form his own political party, the Convergência Ampla de Salvação de Angola (CASA).
A number of other senior UNITA members and cadres from other opposition groups and civil society movements are reported to be about to join him.
With only a few months to go before the elections and no clear funding source, the path for CASA is unclear, but one thing is for sure, Angolan politics are never dull.
Correction 16/03/2012: The first two paragraphs were amened to make clear that protests took place Saturday and the raid on Folha8 took place on Monday.
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