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Vol 56 No 21

Published 23rd October 2015


Hunger strike stirs dissent

As the oil price crash weakens the economy, protests against corruption and repression are gathering strength

President José Eduardo dos Santos's government has remained unmoved as the popular rapper and civil rights activist Luaty da Silva Beirão's health deteriorates sharply after almost a month on hunger strike in prison. Another of the 15 men detained four months ago, Albano Bingo-Bingo, is also in failing health after two weeks without food (AC Vol 56 No 15, Fifteen on file). Amnesty International says that Beirão, known as Ikonoklasta, is now being fed through an intravenous tube.

Beirão's protest has emboldened others, including the co-opted parliamentary opposition, to speak about worsening conditions in the country. Over the weekend of 20 June, police swooped on a meeting of a reading group in Luanda. The book under discussion was From Dictatorship to Democracy by Gene Sharp, an advocate of 'non-violent revolution'. Thirteen men were arrested that weekend and two more in the days that followed. They have been accused of 'preparatory acts' to staging a coup and an attempt on the life of the President. Two women are under investigation for the same crime but not in custody. Meanwhile, in a separate case in the oil-producing exclave province of Cabinda, human rights activist José Marcos Mavungo last month received a six-year gaol sentence for sedition.

Prosecutors announced this week that the trial of the 15 men and two women in Luanda would start on 16 November, nearly five months after the arrests. Many of the detainees have been kept in solitary confinement. In recent weeks, reports have emerged of torture and inhumane conditions. Angolan law allows for 90 days' detention pending trial. Once that had expired, Beirão began his hunger strike.

Then President Dos Santos failed to appear for a state of the nation address to Parliament on 15 October, leaving it to Vice-President Manuel Vicente to read out a speech which made no mention of the hunger strikers and growing dissent. Vicente downplayed the effects of the oil price crash, announcing that although public investment would be cut by half this year, the economy would still grow by 4%. Few believe that as Brazilian and European expatriates have left the country in their tens of thousands and projects are grinding to a halt (AC Vol 56 No 20, Luanda seeks Eurobond lifeline).

Vicente's ally arrested
Once the presidential heir apparent, Vicente has his own particular political problem following the arrest of Chinese dealmaker Sam Pa (aka Xu Jinghua) in Beijing on 8 October as part of a crackdown on the Sinopec oil company, which has big operations in Angola and also Ghana (AC Vol 56 No 10, Sam Pa's pals in Asmara). Vicente and Pa worked closely to establish the Hong Kong-based Queensway Group of companies. In turn, Queensway formed China-Sonangol, a joint venture with Angola's state oil company, which Vicente headed at the time (AAC Vol 6 No 9, Spotlight on Queensway Group).

It was in March 2011 that Beirão called from a concert stage for Dos Santos to step down, prompting a string of street protests. People who had never been involved in protest action have turned out to demonstrate against the detentions and for church vigils in support of Beirão. The singer comes from a political family: his late father was a senior official in the ruling Movimento Popular de Libertção de Angola and a friend of Dos Santos. The son is known beyond the small circle of the MPLA elite and his fate resonates with the urban middle and working classes. The simultaneous gaoling of so many people has ensured more dissent.

Although there has been little media coverage of the detentions outside the Lusophone world, Beirão has received visits from diplomats from the European Union, Portugal, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom. Lisbon's gesture was unusual from a country that had hitherto been reluctant to condemn abuses in Angola for fear of losing more business to China. With signs of Beijing changing its policy towards Angola, that looks less of a risk.

Beirão has asked that he and his co-defendants be released on bail as a condition of ending his hunger strike. In rejecting this easy face-saving solution, the government may see one of its most famous dissidents die in gaol. Although civic activists are now more willing to speak out, the government's response so far has been harsher repression as social conditions deteriorate. 

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