A group of former presidential guards had planned to march towards the presidential palace, on May 27, in protest against the social and economic conditions in which they were living.
The date is filled with symbolism. In 1977, a march towards the presidential palace was used to justify the massacre of tens of thousands of people by the late president Agostinho Neto and his supporters, as a purported measure against a coup attempt. The tragedy of May 27 is still an open wound in Angolan society and a traumatizing event for many families who never recovered the bodies of their loved ones or knew what happen to them.
The protest of last week did not materialize as the Military Bureau of the Presidency (Casa Militar) and the Presidencial Guard Unit (UGP) met with the leaders to address their concerns. But, on the same day, a local FM broadcaster, Radio Despertar, reported the abduction of a lone protester, Alves Kamulingue, aged 30, in downtown Luanda after midday.
His wife, Elisa Rodrigues, told Maka Angola, she first learnt of her husband's kidnapping from a friend of his, Isaías Cassule. Two days later, on May 29, the family of Isaías Cassule, aged 34, informed the local media that he went missing too.
A whirlwind of speculations ensued. Most of them derided Mr. Cassule as capable of staging his own disappearance for self-promotion or of striking a deal with the regime to discredit critics. Thus, several interested groups have been discouraged to take up the issue strongly, to avoid falling foul upon the reappearance of those missing, with no story of abduction to tell.
Mr. Cassule, who has a regular job as a private security guard, is known in the youth protest circles as a persona non-grata. He has made his views known on the organization of protests to negotiate personal financial gains with the regime. While many of the youth organizers have braved through arrests, severe beatings, convictions, and constant harassment, Mr. Cassule is also known for failing to turn up at the protests that have been swiftly repressed by the police and armed pro-government militias.
The two missing men and Alberto António dos Santos form the triumvirate that leads an informal gathering of some individuals, known as Movimento Patriótico Unido - MPU (United Patriotic Movement). The latter is a former auto mechanic in the Military Bureau of the Presidency (Casa Militar). This connection set in motion a chain of reactions that local analysts are grappling to make sense of.
The root of the announced protest lies in the layoffs of several hundreds of presidential guard reservists from two companies that had been set up by Casa Militar to integrate them into civilian life. "In 2002, we were demobilized and transferred to Brigada Especial de Limpeza [a garbage collection company] as garbage collectors. In 2010, we received news that the company had been extinct, less than a month later after we went on strike, and staged a public protest to demand our salaries in arrears", said Neto Zumba, 45, who served as a presidential guard for 17 years. Neto Zumba also explained that the workers set up a commission to negotiate on their behalf, took the case to court, "but Casa Militar did not answer to the courts summons".
Unable to find legal or administrative redress, a group decided to call for a public protest and sought support from civil colleagues, who had also lost their jobs at Casa Militar, to draft a letter to the authorities to inform them of their plans. These were Alberto António dos Santos, who has links with the Movimento Patriótico Unido, and Bunga André Garcia.
In turn, Alberto António dos Santos invited Isaías Cassule for their movement of a few to join the protest. Both Mr. Santos and Mr. Zumba explained that Mr. Cassule then suggested incorporating in the letter a broader cause of protest, rather than just the social conditions of the former presidential guards. Thus, the letter included the social and economic conditions of the ex-combatants from the three former liberation movements: the ruling MPLA, UNITA and FNLA.
The soldiers delivered the letter on April 2, to give plenty of time for the authorities to respond to their demands, upon which they were willing to cancel the protest. Neto Zumba also added that once the organizers announced, on a local private FM radio station, their resolve to take to the streets, other groups of former soldiers and ex-rebel fighters, pledged their support and participation.
On May 12, at 10 AM the head of BCom, the other company set up by Casa Militar, met with representatives of the ex-presidential guards outside the national football stadium 11 de Novembro, in the outskirts of the capital city. According to the testimonies of both Alberto Santos and Neto Zumba, colonel Moniz of BCom, who is himself an ex-officer at the presidential guard, simply said that someone else would talk to the representatives.
"Shortly thereafter, general Bento Kangamba turned up and said that he was meeting with us on behalf of general Simão, chief finance officer of Casa Militar, to resolve our problems", said Neto Zumba.
But the meeting did not go smoothly because, according to Neto Zumba, the general only offered to arrange compensations for the former presidential guards and not the civilians who had lost their jobs at Casa Militar. As complaints flared up, the meeting was adjourned. General Kangamba set up a new meeting for May 14, at the provincial headquarters of the ruling party MPLA, but he never showed up. Then, a commission of three former presidential guards received a call to meet with senior officers at the presidential palace, in which they received instructions to collect documents from all the petitioners in order to solve their demands.
"In light of this meeting, we cancelled the protest as we expected our situation to be finally resolved, but other groups which had joined us wanted to take to the streets anyway", said Neto Zumba.
The soldier who led the commission to the presidential palace, Ricardo Colino, referred to the phone call the author made to him, to learn about the meeting at the presidential palace, as "an aggression against my physical integrity." Nevertheless, he stressed that "we are taking care of the issue at a high level. The Presidential Guard Unit and Casa Militar are addressing our problems and that is all I have to say."
Protest off, kidnappings happened
The puzzling question remains on why would the two political activists be the target of a kidnapping when the protest had already been aborted?
Initial suspicions befell on general Bento Kangamba, a shadowy businessman and owner of a football club Kabuscorp. He has been publicly denounced on several occasions as the driving force behind the pro-Dos Santos militias who have been terrorizing anti-regime protesters, and abducting some. The vice-president of Kabuscorp, Mr. Raúl, was personally involved in the kidnapping and torture of two youth protesters on March 10, this year.
General Kangamba is a member of the Central Committee of MPLA, and is close to president Dos Santos, whose niece he is married to. On June 4, general Kangamba denied, on the Catholic-run FM broadcaster Rádio Ecclésia, any involvement with the militias. "Have I been promoted to the rank of three-star general to command militias? This [accusation] is lack of respect. It is envy", he said.
As for Isaías Cassule, his capture at nightfall, of May 29, unraveled as an elaborate trap. Alberto António dos Santos recalls the string of events:
"He [Cassule] called me in the morning to inform me that someone had filmed the kidnapping of Alves Kamulingue, and wanted to share the images with us. I met him at his house and off we drove to the rendezvous. After 20 to 30 minutes into talking to Tunga, who said he had the video, several men encircled us to grab us. I slipped out of one's hands and ran away."
But Mr. Cassule's family has issues with his account. "We are concerned about the behavior of Mr. Santos, because he should have come to us to explain how he managed to escape capture and the other did not", said his uncle Tomé Nzambi. In his defense, António Alberto Santos justified that he is in hiding for fear of being kidnapped too. He said he explained to the family, over the phone, that if his protection can be guaranteed, he will have no problems in speaking directly to the family. Mr. Nzambi explained that him and other relatives, including a brother of the missing who is a police officer at the Provincial Police Command, have searched police stations, hospitals, jails and morgues for Mr. Cassule or clues of his whereabouts, but to no avail.
A senior police source contacted for this report declined to comment on the kidnappings "for lack of information."
The Past Political Connection
Isaías Cassule is a former child soldier turned politician. Until 2008, he was the Bengo provincial secretary of the now defunct Angolan Party for Democratic Progress (PADEPA), which regularly staged public protests against president Dos Santos regime. With the same frequency, the police used arbitrary violence to quell them, and often threw the leaders in jail. In 2001, the leadership of this party staged a remarkable sit-in protest outside the presidential palace, and for the action they were severely beaten up, locked up and released days later.
Yet, in 2008, Isaías Cassule joined a pro-MPLA faction of the party, which had been armed to destroy this promising political outfit of youth leaders. He spent up to 20 days in jail, in the same year, but without due process, for acts of vandalism against party properties in possession of the ousted leadership.
PADEPA is also the previous connection among Isaías Cassule, Alves Kamulingue and Alberto António dos Santos.
The Right to Protest
The Angolan Constitution has enshrined the right of citizens to protest, and without the need for any kind of authorization. It establishes that, for protests in public places, local authorities shall be informed with anticipation, only to ensure public safety. On June 2, president José Eduardo dos Santos reiterated the constitutional right to protest but downplayed the significance of the regular demonstrations against his regime as being small in numbers. He further dismissed the protests, which his security apparatus has been squashing, as imitations of what has happened in other countries. He was referring to the Arab Spring that toppled several dictators in the region. The president's view is that "we want to imitate what others are doing, even when these often, this imitation, results in negative practices, in search of models that cannot be adjusted to our traditions, habits, customs and sometimes even the laws we have adopted."
Now, the president needs to clarify if the political kidnapping of protesters is part as well of the traditions, habits, customs and the laws he mentioned, and provide evidence of his claims. Otherwise, the president will ultimately answer for such violence, just as Mubarak did in Egypt.