A public reading in a Luanda bookstore by a group of young rappers. The result? Beatings, arrests, hunger strikes and absurd charges of plotting a coup d’etat. A pair of Brazilian journalists visiting Angola investigates the country’s climate of fear and violent intimidation in the waning years of Eduardo Dos Santos’ elongated presidency.
“Together with Luaty, I was writing the last songs for my album”, says rapper Leonardo Kossengue on a warm and dusty August afternoon in Luanda, Angola’s capital city. “Now I have to wait for him to be released from jail. I don’t want to finish the album without him.” He was speaking to reporters during a meeting at a location that was carefully picked so no one would spy on us.
We were in Angola doing an investigation on the Brazilian role in this country, one of Brazil’s main commercial partners on the African continent. While searching for data and documents about Brazilian companies, we talked to local young people in order to better understand the wider context of a political system that was once a socialist dictatorship and now wishes to be recognized as a full democracy.
On that afternoon, many local rappers spoke of Luaty with admiration. “It was Luaty who introduced me to rap”, says one of the young men, who asked to remain anonymous.
Today Henrique Luaty da Silva Beirão, 33 years old, is in danger of dying, [after weeks of]a hunger strike he went on in protest against the extension of his preemptive arrest without a trial. He has been incarcerated for 115 days, which is illegal in Angola. Prior to that, he spent 85 days in a solitary cell where he was allowed only one hour of sunlight a day. “Psychologically he is fine; he is still the same person. But physically his body is exhausted”, says his brother Pedro Beirão. “He’s taking a saline solution; otherwise he wouldn’t survive the week.”
Luaty and a group of 16 other young people, many of them rappers, are being accused of an incredible crime: conspiracy to overthrow Angolan president José Eduardo dos Santos, who has been in power for 36 years.
Fourteen of them were arrested last June in flagrante (caught in the act) for participating on an open study group inside a book store, where they were discussing the book From Dictatorship to Democracy, by American pacifist Gene Sharp. One of them was arrested the following day, and two girls have been cited.
The son of an high ranking member of the ruling MPLA, and important ally of the president, Luaty became famous for the rap show he hosted on a radio station called LAC. Also known as Ikonoclasta, the musician is an inspiration for numerous youths dissatisfied with José Eduardo dos Santos’ regime – or “Kota Zedu” as they call him, out of respect for his age (the president is now 73). They use rap as a way of protesting and informing. They are mostly young men, known by nicknames such as “Albano Liberdade”, “Mbanza Hanza”, “Cheik Hata” or “Nicola Radical” and Brazilian hip-hop band Racionais MC’s is among their idols. Through rap they call attention to the countless problems Angola faces: on concerts held on the “musseques” – the Angolan version of favela slums – and through radio waves. The second largest oil exporter in Africa, around 36% of the country’s population lives below the poverty line, and Angola has the worst infant mortality rate in the world.
One of the young men that we’ve interviewed suggests: “[President] José Eduardo must retire. He could take a position like counselor for life or something like that. He’s done a lot for the country already”. Such posture is surprising coming from Young people that call themselves “Revus”, short for revolutionaries. But Angola is a country that has lived 27 years of a civil war which, until it ended in 2002, had waves of mass killings that have traumatized the population. Because of that the young men we’ve interviewed reiterated many times that they will not take arms. “Kota Zedu, we need to talk/ Tie up your dogs, don’t let them come for us/ We only want to talk, says the lyrics of one of their raps.
It was Luaty who spearheaded the first demonstrations against the government back in 2011, at the height of the Arab Spring, a movement admired by them.
The activists’ goal was to mobilize the population for a regime change. On that year, hundreds of young people would attend the demonstrations in Luanda, but those numbers were reduced due to the constant pressure and watchfulness of the Angolan secret police and also by episodes of repression that ended in bloodshed. On March 2012, for example, as they gathered in rapper Carbono Casimiro’s house to organize a demonstration, around forty Young people were attacked by pro-regime men armed with knives and sticks. Luaty suffered serious head injuries and Mbanza Hamza broke one of his shoulder blades.
Three years after that, the few that still take to the streets to protest against the president’s seemingly eternal rule have to live with constant arrests, beatings and pressure from their families for them to stop talking about Angola.
“We’ve asked him to stop because in this country we know that those who are in favor of democracy, of the struggle for freedom of expression, are regarded as threats. They get arrested”, says Marcelina Antônio de Brito, one of the sisters of Inocêncio Antônio de Brito, the rapper known as Drux. His sisters have begged the 28 year old to “stop being a revolutionary” – which in Angola means organizing demonstrations, study groups, or openly criticizing the government on social networks. “That put his life in danger”, says Marcelina, who states she has no knowledge of “the practice of reading books” by her brother. It’s not that she doesn’t agree with him: “I like his rap. He denounces that democracy per se is weak. And in reality the rich become richer and the poor become poorer”.
Ever since August the sisters, wives and mothers of the 15 arrested activists are leading a movement to demand a definition about their relatives’ situation – they haven’t been formal accused by any court, and the deadline for their preemptive arrest, which is of 90 maximum, has expired long ago. They soon were also targeted by Angolan security forces. “I haven’t suffered any particular threats, but I know I’m being followed. The SINSE is after me, following my every step, says Gertrudes Dala, Nuno Álvares Dala’s sister, referring to the State’s Intelligence and Security Service. “They stay in the neighborhood, or anywhere you might be, and walk around as if they were ordinary citizens, but they are following your actions. I don’t know if they want to arrest us as well… I don’t know what to know.” When the police arrived at her home to do a search “they confiscated everything: a phone, diplomas, a computer, everything! I have nothing in my home now! I’m going through a dire situation…”, complains Gertrudes, who was supported by her brother.
Some of the wives have it even worse, like Sara João Manuel, a housewife that was supported by her husband, mechanic Fernando António Tomás, also known as “Nicola Radical”. Since his arrest, she’s been getting help from her other brothers and she’s been receiving donations to support her two children. During a demonstration last August, Sara was assaulted by policemen who released dogs on the women. “I didn’t see a doctor because I had no money, I had nothing back then, and I was alone. The person that used to help me was arrested. I have no means”, she says.
“A coup d’etat isn’t accomplished with books and pencils… They are civilians; they’ve never been a part of the military. How can a book and pencil create a coup d’etat?”, reasons Fernando Baptista, father of Manuel Nito Alves, an 18 year old that had been previously arrested in 2013 for using a T-shirt that read “down with the dictator”.
Since last week, as Luaty risks dying from the hunger strike, the situation became tenser.
Four vigils were organized in front of the Church of the Holy Family in Luanda, and a hundred people dressed in white gathered and lit candles. On Sunday, they were surrounded by a branch of police called the Rapid Intervention Police (PIR, in Portuguese), which came with trained dogs and water trucks to disperse the crowd, so they decided to abandon the site. On Monday, October 12th 2015, police surrounded another church where a mass was to be held for the well-being of those arrested. On the same day, Jornal de Angola, one of the country’s newspapers, accused those that took part on the vigils of “giving sequence to the plot that the 15 people accused by the Federal Prosecution Office planned on executing”. The state-owned TV network has announced that the vigils are illegal.
“We are going to keep organizing masses, I just don’t know how”, says activist Laurinda Gouveia, one of the girls that have been cited.
To Pedro Beirão, Luaty’s brother, the main issue is to keep his brother alive; Luaty is determined to maintain the hunger strike until the state formally sues him.
Despite the fact that the Federal Prosecution Office has already formalized an accusation, it still wasn’t accepted by Angola’s judicial system – and no one knows when that is going to happen. Only after the charges have been accepted is that the lawyers can request that their clients wait for trail in freedom. “All of the deadlines have expired, and we’ve heard no official statement until now. We, the families, are constantly waiting for something, but no one says anything. A Luaty’s case is one of life or death”, says Pedro Beirão.
Pública News Agency has obtained exclusive access to the accusation document made by the Federal Prosecution Office against the 17 youths. The accusation is based on the collective reading of a single book written by American pacifist Gene Sharp. The book was adapted to Angola by Professor Domingos da Cruz and was the focus of a study group that gathered every Saturday afternoon at the Kiazele book store, located in downtown Luanda.
“This book has inspired revolutions in Eastern Europe, in Nordic countries, in African countries like Tunisia, Burkina Faso, Egypt, Libya and some Latin American countries that overthrew their respective governments and presidents and whose consequences were so nefarious that they’ve left those countries ravished by disgrace, destroyed by vandalism and by the wars that followed”, says the Federal Prosecution Office’s document.
The document continues, describing the meetings, that were watched and taped by an infiltrated police informant. “Once the three-month program was finished, they would take action, executing the teachings they’ve had to overthrow the “regime” or “the dictator”, by starting strikes, general demonstrations, with violence […], creating barricades and placing tire fires on every main road in Luanda, especially around 4 de Fevereiro airport, and others marching towards the Presidential Palace, with women and children carrying white handkerchiefs, waiting to be followed by other groups from all over the country, in order to “destroy the dictator” which, to the accused is the President of the republic, José Eduardo dos Santos.”
The Federal Prosecution Office argues that the Angolan Reunion and Demonstration Law only allows protests “in which rights and better welfare conditions are demanded”. Besides that, “the Constitution clearly and expressively states that the President of the Republic can only be deposed when he renounces, fires himself, or by court order, and not by the so called peaceful demonstrations”.
“The accused have acted at their own will, deliberately and consciously, even though they were aware that their conduct was reproachable, forbidden and punished by law”, concludes the text, asking that the 17 youths be sentenced for “crimes of preliminary acts for the practice of rebellion” and “attempting to attack the President of the Republic or other members organs of the State”.
Eliza Capai and Natalia Viana Translated from Portuguese by International Boulevard
01 Dec 2015