21 November 2013

Angola: Activists Are Not Food for Crocodiles

Photo: Louise Redvers/IPS
Police keep watchful eyes on demonstrators (file photo).


The kidnapping and presumed killing of the Angolan political activists Alves Kamulingue and Isaías Cassule, in May 2012, is finally getting the attention it deserves from the Angolan political establishment, and from society at large.

The case represents a new low for human rights in Angola. But, for the first time, it also brings the issue of human rights to the forefront of the political conversation in the country.

On the side of the political parties, UNITA, the main opposition party, is trying to tap into civil society's anger by organising a demonstration on 23 November. The initiative is to be welcomed, but the manner in which it was announced was insensitive, and the way in which it recalls the political crimes of the past has the potential to open old wounds.

The ruling MPLA, meanwhile, has resorted to warlike rhetoric in its attempts to discourage the protest. Its statement was a political disaster that simply reveals that in the absence of sound arguments, the party relies on political intolerance and violence.

What this is really about is a clash between, in one hand, the rights of citizenship and freedoms enshrined in the Constitution, and, on the other hand, the rule by fear and the authoritarian control of society.

The Kidnappings and the Crocodiles

Everything that we know is thanks to information leaked by a state official involved in the case, who gave details of the alleged operation to the independent news website Club-K before any official statement had been made. The weekly paper A Capital, which is controlled by the security apparatus, gave a longer account that detailed the individual actions of those who kidnapped, tortured and killed Alves Kamulingue and Isaías Cassule. It also told how members of the National Police, the Provincial Criminal Investigation Directorate (DPIC), and the Intelligence and State Security Services (SINSE) threw the body of one of the victims to the crocodiles, which thus devoured the most important evidence of the crime.

The two activists were summarily executed for trying to organise a demonstration on 27 May 2012, which would have gathered some 2,000 former soldiers - the majority former members of the Presidential Guard - protesting against the non-payment of their pensions.

UNITA's Arguments

On 15 November this year, UNITA called for a nationwide demonstration to be held Saturday, November 23. The party called on all Angolans, regardless of their party affiliation, to demonstrate peacefully and within the law, in support of democracy and freedom.

But at the same time, UNITA also reminded people of the crimes committed under the auspices of the MPLA in 1975, during the civil war, and the targeted killings of politicians and journalists in the 1990's and early 2000's.

By doing so, UNITA committed a crude political error that deserves criticism. If it wishes to draw attention to the MPLA's past political crimes, then UNITA must remember that it too is responsible for a long list of political crimes committed during the same period.

UNITA's statement refers to the Constitutional Court's Accord 319/2013, which gives the President absolute power over anything that his government does. UNITA correctly made reference to this judicial decision in holding President José Eduardo dos Santos responsible for the disappearance and presumed execution of the two activists.

That judgement by the presiding judge of the Constitutional Court, Rui Ferreira, and hi peers was a poisoned chalice for the President. It gives the Head of State judicial sanction for running the country like a personal fiefdom, but also no cause to sleep peacefully when he resigns from or is forced out of power. According to the Constitutional Court ruling, the President can be held responsible for all human rights violations carried out by his government.

It is a sign of political maturity when political parties represent the collective feelings of the people, and use existing legislation as the point of reference for their political arguments. This requires the ability to engage with society not only in expressing its anxieties, but also in catering to its collective demands.

UNITA has never shown itself able to do this, or to put the public interest above its party-political aims. It deserves support for responding to Angolan society's rightful indignation by calling the demonstration. At the same time, UNITA must be advised to set an example by putting collective interests above party political ambitions. Now, more than ever, it needs to keep a calm and conciliatory tone, and reject any temptation to take political advantage of the event. The demonstration must be simply about human rights, if it is to honour the memory of Alves Kamulingue and Isaías Cassule, the martyrs.

With this in mind, it is important to note that UNITA invited MPLA activists to join the demonstration. UNITA emphasised that "Angola needs the MPLA" and the ruling party's "patriots" UNITA also invited SINSE and DNIC staff to join the protest.

The MPLA's Arguments

The MPLA issued a statement on November 19, in which it added its voice to that of civil society and the opposition in condemning the "vile act" against Alves Kamulingue and Isaías Cassule, and expressed its solidarity with their families. The MPLA also expressed "its total support for initiatives taken on the basis of the law, against the act in question."

But apart from this introduction, the MPLA statement reads like a war declaration. It shows once again the MPLA leaders' habit of resorting to violence and thus showing themselves to be incapable of responding to what society legitimately wants. The MPLA is exploiting the fear that still exists in Angola as a result of 40 years of war.

The MPLA takes the opportunity to recall atrocities committed by UNITA in the past. The statement emphasises that the MPLA won the war. The losers in the war were the people, who lost their loved ones, their property and innumerable opportunities for human development.

The MPLA also lambasts UNITA's call for a public demonstration, even though this is legitimate and protected by the Constitution. It is at such moments that citizens need to demonstrate, peacefully, to make their voices heard.

The MPLA describes the call to demonstrate as "absolutely disproportionate and opportunistic" and unleashes a torrent of accusations of "chaos", "anarchy", "subversion" and "terrorism" on UNITA's part, simply for calling the demonstration.

The Constitution clearly enshrines the right to demonstrate. The MPLA is once again showing its extreme political intolerance and lack of scruples in resorting to such inflammatory discourse at a sensitive moment for the development of democracy in Angola.

If they are to be consistent in expressing solidarity, the MPLA's leaders should visit the bereaved families and offer them moral and material support. They could also organise a minute's silence in the National Assembly in memory of the activists. After all, Parliament is also the People's Assembly. Only by taking public measures in support of human rights will the MPLA leadership be able to demonstrate that it can match its words with action.

Respect for the Law

UNITA has been accused of leading a timid and ineffectual opposition. But in 11 years of peace, no one among the Angolan people has accused the UNITA leadership of violating human rights or committing illegal acts that threaten public order.

In fact, despite its shortcomings as a political party, UNITA has shown respect for the principles and values enshrined in the Constitution.

Only the MPLA Political Bureau and its most ardent supporters have fallen back on the irresponsible habit of making gratuitous threats of violence and a return to war.

Through the actions of its President and the government that he leads, the MPLA has shown complete disrespect for the law. The MPLA, which legitimised the concentration of absolute powers in the hands of the President, must therefore be held responsible for his abuse of these powers.

Since 2011 the MPLA government has violated the Constitution by violently suppressing Angolan youth's attempts to demonstrate peacefully. On June 15, the Dos Santos regime used the Angolan Armed Forces to supress a demonstration by 15,000 people, most of them women, in Cafunfo, Lunda Norte province. The women were peacefully demanding an end to the killing of women peasants, most of whom had fields bordering the diamond concession zone operated by Sociedade Mineira do Cuango.

The current situation shows that the threats of violence against UNITA are in fact a threat against all Angolans who are trying to defend human rights and the collective interests of the Angolan people.

Honest and patriotic MPLA members must not be ashamed to defend the interests of the Angolan people, particularly respect for human rights.

The demonstration scheduled for November 23 deserves the support of all Angolans who share the justifiable anger at the disappearance of Cassule and Kamulingue. Activists are not food for crocodiles.

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