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Marques in Angola: The Perils of Speaking Truth to Power

The story of Rafael Marques de Morais reveals the dangers of speaking out against an authoritarian state.
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Rafael Marques de Morais.

Rafael Marques de Morais was startled awake at dawn by loud pounding on his front door. It was October 16, 1999 – three months after the 28-year-old journalist had published a scathing critique of the corrupt Angolan government.

“Don’t move,” he told his frightened wife. “They have come for me.”

Marques knew the risks when he wrote the manifesto 'The Lipstick of the Dictatorship' for the independent Angolan newspaper Angora. It was the latest salvo in a war of words with government officials incensed by Marques’ petition campaign to end the country’s brutal, decades-long civil war.

Now the fight was escalating. Marques walked downstairs in the dim light and opened the door to find a group of security officers with guns on his front step. One of them jammed a pistol to his temple.

“You’re under arrest,” he said. “Let’s go.”

Dictators and the press

There is a reason that dictatorships so often target the press. Lack of independent media prevents citizens from knowing their rights, learning about government abuses, or understanding how institutions work. It stifles opportunity for the country’s vulnerable and exploited to organise for reform. And it allows corruption at all levels to flourish, choking sustainable economic growth and livelihood options for the poorest citizens.

The observance of World Press Freedom Day on May 3 was little cause for celebration in sub-Saharan Africa. According to the watchdog group Freedom House, 50% of countries in the region do not have a free press, and 40% are only 'partly free'.  Angola’s restrictive environment (officially rated 'not free') is not even among the worst as 38% of sub-Saharan African countries rank below it according to Freedom House’s 2011 report.

Moreover, a census in December 2011 by the Committee to Protect Journalists found that 47 journalists were currently imprisoned in sub-Saharan African countries, most for having angered the government with their reporting.                                                                

Rafael Marques was once imprisoned just like those journalists. Now a prominent human rights activist, he continues to expose corruption and abuse, and agitate for accountability in a country whose president, Jose Eduardo dos Santos, is one of the longest-serving leaders in Africa.                                                         

Though Marques' prison ordeal occurred almost 13 years ago, it underscores the hardships many journalists still face in trying to expose the truth in autocratic regimes.

Finding a voice

Angola’s civil war (1975-2002), exacerbated by Cold War interventions and the country’s tantalising cache of natural resources, left hundreds of thousands dead. In 1979, during the strife, Jose Eduardo dos Santos, a member of the ruling party – the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) – assumed the presidency, where he has remained until today, over 30 years later.

Rafael Marques de Morais was born in Malanje province in northern Angola in 1971. As he grew up, he became disturbed by the worsening state of his country.  “I had never heard of a lawyer, [had] no idea of what human rights were, no idea of what fighting corruption was,” Marques tells Think Africa Press.  “I realised that the way of addressing the issues that concerned me was by being a journalist.”

As he soon learned, however, the job of a journalist can difficult in an authoritarian state.

Shortly after joining Angola’s state newspaper Jornal de Angola in 1992, Marques quoted part of an opposition leader’s speech criticising dos Santos as part of an article on the presidential election. Due to an editing oversight, the article actually appeared in print, and Marques’ editor was apoplectic. The enterprising reporter was soon demoted to the local news desk.

Thus began Marques’ steady descent down the career ladder, thanks to his tendency to inject unwelcome social commentary into even the driest reportage.

One day, assigned to cover the monthly update from Angola’s national institute of statistics – a beat where his editors apparently thought he could do the least damage – Marques accompanied the inflation and price index numbers with some “more readable” political analysis. “And that was the last straw,” he says, grinning wryly.

After being fired, Marques had a brief stint in a military training camp, took a one-year sojourn to London, and returned to Angola to write articles freelance. He also began working with the prominent pro-democracy foundation, the Open Society Institute, an association that would prove valuable when his conflict with the government began.            

Then, in 1998, after four years of precarious peace, the country’s civil war reignited. Marques was not only against the war, but also in danger of being conscripted.

“Death was everywhere…it was overwhelming,” recalls Marques. “And it was very personal. The youth were the ones who bore the brunt of all the fighting and died for what? There was no motivation for the war except the greed of these guys who were profiting from it. And I said, ‘what’s the point? What’s the point?’"

Putting up a fight

In early 1999, Marques wrote an impassioned opinion piece entitled 'Cannon Fodder' in an independent newspaper, decrying how Angolan mothers had become, as he summarises today, “breeders for the greed of these generals and the president and rebel leader".

Shortly afterward, Marques was summoned to Angola’s bureau for questioning. After a tense argument, a furious interrogator pounded the table before him and bellowed, “Do you want to be a martyr?”

Although Marques was eventually released, he soon discovered that several other journalists had been similarly threatened for publicly questioning the war. It was then that Marques made the decision that would jeopardise both his career and his personal freedom.

“I realised that unless I really took on some of these challenges, I would just spend my life being fired, reassigned, sent here and there, traded,” he says. “And then you come to the understanding that the only way to think of a normal life is basically to go for the jugular.”

Trouble started with a simple peace petition. In 1999, outraged at the escalating human toll of the civil war in Angola, Marques began collecting signatures for a manifesto calling on the government to stop the violence.

He had gathered almost 200 names when the petition found its way into the hands of a Member of Parliament from the ruling MPLA party. The MP immediately lambasted Marques on a live radio show, and followed up that weekend with a long denunciation of Marques’ activities in one of the country’s leading newspapers. Marques fired off his own rejoinder, which soon elicited another harsh editorial from the MP. 

“Then I thought, why am I wasting my time with him?”, Marques recalls.  “It’s not really about him, it’s about the regime.”

On July 3, 1999, Marques then published a piece entitled 'The Lipstick of the Dictatorship' (a play on words from the Portuguese term for police baton) in the independent newspaper Angora.

He began by poking back at his verbose parliamentary tormentor. “This gentleman is what one can call a coward bellicist,” wrote Marques. “He wants war, yes! But one fought by barefoot people and applauded by the rich. Otherwise, he would have volunteered to join the army.”

Then Marques broadened his critique. The real reason for the intractable war footing, he wrote, was to distract the country from the abuses of the MPLA.

“MPLA and the Angolan president, Jose Eduardo dos Santos, bear responsibility for the destruction of the country and the de facto disaggregation of the State institutions,” wrote Marques. “Moreover, dos Santos is accountable for the promotion of incompetence, embezzlement and corruption as political and social values…the persistence in the war is a pretence to cover up the dirt of the power holders.”

An outcry erupted among ruling party leaders. Several called publicly for Marques’ arrest. Undeterred, Marques took to the radiowaves, continuing his denunciations of the regime on the Catholic station Radio Ecclesia.  And then early one October morning, as Marques himself had privately expected, they came for him.

Marquez could have anticipated his rough arrest and imprisonment without charge based on his knowledge of the regime. But his  experiences in Angola’s prison system were eye-opening even for the cynical anti-corruption activist. “Until then,” he says, “I had no idea how evil that government was”.

After his arrest, Marques was sent to a grim, 1980s-era compound that had been designed by the Stasi, East Germany’s notorious secret police, to house political prisoners. He was not allowed to contact his family or his lawyer.

Used to engaging inquisitively with his environment, Marques found his world suddenly limited to the concrete walls of a prison cell.  There was no chair, no desk – even the walls were too rough to lean against. The toilet was a noxious hole in the ground inhabited by flying roaches. In the daytime, light choked through a gap in the ceiling, but at night Marques couldn’t even see the hand in front of his face.

It was also at night that the police would burst in, wake him up, and try to force him to sign blank documents that could later be doctored against him. Although Marques always refused, they had other ways of trying to break him. In addition to denying him all contact with the outside world, they also withheld food and water – but even as he grew increasingly desperate, Marques recalls sardonically, “I was quite pleased, because I didn’t need to use the toilet”.

Out of the frying pan, into the fire

Fortunately for Marquez, Angola’s endemic corruption also pervaded the prison system. One of the compound’s other inhabitants was a wealthy foreign businessman who had run afoul of the government by swindling a presidential advisor out of millions of dollars. But with his riches and influence, Marquez' fellow imprisonee was able to run the prison like his own shadow enterprise – and he had taken an interest in Marques.

Knowing the political prisoner was being denied the slightest sustenance, the man once managed to smuggle water and bananas into Marques’s cell. Although the journalist refused the offering, fearing it might have been somehow tainted, the businessman kept asking how he could help.

One day Marques responded: “Can you get a message out?”  “Of course,” the businessman declared. Marques gave him the phone number for an independent Catholic radio station and told him to pass on the message he was on hunger strike.

Two days later, Marques knew the plan had worked when the prison director accosted him angrily. “But we are the ones not giving you food!” he bellowed. “Say that to the public,” Marques retorted. “Say on the record that I am lying, that you don’t want to give me food.”

Faced with growing public awareness of Marques’ treatment, the government transferred him to a 'regular' prison, where he was finally given food. By that point, Marques had not eaten in two weeks. Soon after entering the new prison, however, Marques discovered he had traded one set of miseries for another. He was thrown into a cell with six other inmates in a space of about two by three metres. With no room to lie down, the prisoners slept leaning up against the walls which were crawling with lice. And, no longer in solitary confinement, he now came face-to-face with the horrors that had become routine in Angola’s twisted justice system.

Marquez met two young teenagers who had been imprisoned for months without questioning or trial. He befriended a young man who was once locked in an airless room with a dead body for three days as punishment. He saw a cell inhabited by “living skeletons”, where prisoners received so little food that at least one of them died each day. He was invited to join the card game of a group of inmates sitting blithely next to the dead body of a former comrade. 

Marques was shocked – “how can you play cards with someone right there who has just died?” he asked. “You’ll see,” one of them responded. “In three days, you’ll be sitting here playing with us, and you will ignore the body.”

On trial

Now officially charged with “defamation against the Head of State,” Marques might have remained in prison much longer were it not for increasing international pressure led by his employer the Open Society Institute (OSI). Thanks to the attention, Marques was finally released after 40 days in jail – though he still faced trial for his alleged crimes.

And when he reached the courtroom, a whole new set of government perversions emerged. The judge – a former state security officer – continually interrupted Marques’ lawyer so that the stenographer could not transcribe the words for the public record. The lawyer, Luis Nascimento, threatened to leave the courtroom if he were not allowed to properly defend his client.

“If you leave, I will disbar you for six months,” the judge responded even though such an action could only legally be undertaken by the Angolan Bar Association. Nevertheless, enraged and unwilling to legitimise the proceedings, Marques’ lawyer stormed out. The next day, the court replaced the experienced defence lawyer with a bailiff. “It [was] an exciting day for both of us,” Marques recalled drily in an article published by a Harvard University magazine the next year.

“Every time he is given an opportunity to speak for the record, he cries out, ‘I am satisfied.’ Once in a while, out of the blue, he sternly announces, ‘I demand justice!”, wrote Marques.

On March 31, 2000, Marques was found guilty, fined $17,000 and sentenced to six months in prison. He immediately appealed to the Angolan Supreme Court, which upheld the conviction. Faced with mounting international scrutiny, however, the court suspended his sentence, but ordered Marques to pay substantial damages to the president and confiscated his passport until the end of February 2001.

In 2002, the international group Open Society Justice Initiative, joined by British human rights NGO Interights, presented Marques' case to the UN Human Rights Committee, which ruled that Angola had violated several articles of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Going for the jugular

Despite his guilty verdict and long prison ordeal, Marques was not discouraged and continued his struggle against the government with renewed vigour. Still infuriated by the catastrophic toll of the civil war, Marques helped organise a coalition of 250 civil and religious leaders to call for an end to the violence.

Before his arrest, Marques had decided that the only way for him to live honestly in Angola’s warped political environment was to “go for the jugular”. And after days of experiencing starvation, seeing bodies rotting in the cells, and watching fellow inmates choking down banana peels, Marques came away with a better understanding of "the jugular".

“I realised then that the problem was corruption and human rights abuses,” he says. “So I dropped everything and decided just to focus on these issues. And I have been finding that the country is basically under pillage. It’s just total plunder. There’s no way to even describe it mildly, it’s just plunder.”

In December 2002, barely three years after his imprisonment, Marques published a scorching condemnation of government brutality in Cabinda, the oil-rich exclave province whose resources filled government coffers while its people remained desperately poor.

He followed it up in 2003 with 'Cabinda: A Year of Pain', a litany of the hundreds of human rights abuses, including summary executions, torture, rape, and illegal detentions, allegedly inflicted on the populace mostly by government forces.

Next, Marques turned the spotlight on Angola’s deeply troubled diamond industry, where private mining concessions often spelled disaster for local populations.

In a series of human rights reports, culminating in the September 2011 book Blood Diamonds: Corruption and Torture in Angola, Marques charged that private security companies, along with the Angolan military, routinely killed and terrorised villagers deemed to have interfered in corporate mining operations.

He cemented the allegations with a bold move in November 2011: he issued a criminal complaint against nine top Angolan generals accusing them of crimes against humanity in connection with diamond extraction activities in the resource-rich Lundas region.

These types of charges – along with a regular stream of news and analysis – were posted on ‘Maka Angola’, the anti-corruption website Marques founded in 2008 to spotlight government abuse and raise public awareness.

“I think what Angola needs first and foremost is to be educated about the reality of the country,” Marques explains. “To build a culture of scrutiny…to make sure those we elect to run our affairs are held accountable. And how can people be accountable if there is no detailed information on what is happening?”

He cites the country’s stifling traditions of colonialism and Leninism, “that historical drive to make sure people are not aware of what is happening.”

“My contribution,” he says, pausing thoughtfully a moment, “is to reverse that trend”.

Unplanned successes

Marques has certainly achieved some tangible success in this aim. The ‘Maka Angola’ website is the premier source of information about corruption in Angola, and received a substantial grant from the National Endowment for Democracy earlier this year.

Marques’ complaint against the “blood diamond” generals is also moving forwards in Angola’s legal system, and he has been encouraged by the attorney-general’s handling of the case so far.

Furthermore, the fallout from Marques’ 1999 incarceration eventually resulted in positive changes to Angola’s Press Law, most notably by heralding the end of the state’s monopoly on broadcast television.

Personally, Marques has received much international recognition too. He was awarded the Percy Qoboza Award for Outstanding Courage from the National Association of Black Journalists in 2000, the Civil Courage Prize from the Train Foundation in 2006, and the Reagan-Fascell Democracy Fellowship from the National Endowment for Democracy in 2011.

Marques is quick to insist that he has no grand designs – he says he is simply doing his job as a journalist in exposing some of the injustices in his homeland. But he also knows that that has come to mean that people will look to him for leadership on these issues, that they will text his phone during dinner with urgent requests for guidance, that they will sometimes take an extended silence as a betrayal.

“But if they are concerned and they think I can help them, is it right for me to say no?” he asks. "They have no-one else to turn to, or else they would have.”

And so he puts off writing his novel for a while longer. And he forges ahead with the exposés, the questions, the stories of those with no-one else to speak for them. He is living out the natural course of life when one decides at a young age that the only tenable option is to “go for the jugular” of an autocratic regime.

The accidental crusader

And yet, beneath the accolades, beneath the obvious dedication to his work, there is a hint in Rafael Marques of something almost wistful. Perhaps it is the same dark kernel in the heart of every accidental crusader, the thought of a different type of life.

The hint is there as Marques tries to remember why one of his friends in prison had been arrested in the first place. “I don’t recall,” he shakes his head. “There are too many. I made some notes, some stories came out, but uh…one thing I did was not to keep records of all these stories…”

Suddenly, uncharacteristically, he struggles for words. “Because I didn’t want to feel…I somehow…I just want to forget.”  After a long pause, his voice grows very faint. “But they are still there.”

Very slowly, Marques continues:  “I just want to forget,” he repeats himself. “And get to a normal pace of life…deal with normal things – if that is possible.”  But the faint laugh as he speaks the last word seems to indicate that he knows the truth.

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