The crocodiles of the River Dande may have earned their place in Angolan history. As 2013 moved towards a turbulent close, the nation recoiled at the news that a body of a murdered activist had been left on a river bank to be eaten. If reports are correct, the incident might lead to an investigation of what happened to two former members of the Presidential Guard, Alves Kamulingue and Isaías Cassule, who disappeared in May 2012 while organising a protest against the non-payment of military pensions. Even if the perpetrators are not brought to justice, the incident marks a tangible change in the political temperature.
Public demonstrations in Angola, unimaginable a few years ago, are no longer a novelty. Grievances have included corruption, poverty, and the president's long tenure, and often the violent suppression of one demonstration has only served to fuel the next. Nevertheless, it was difficult to know where these would lead, and how the relatively small group of activists would find common cause with wider society. For a year after Kamulingue and Cassule disappeared there was no news of their whereabouts, though campaigners kept the issue alive to the point where the interior minister, in an unprecedented move, agreed to meet the families of the missing men.
Their disappearance was among various issues that were to be aired at a demonstration in Luanda on 19 September this year. In preparation for that protest, a teenager called Manuel Nito Alves ordered a pile of t-shirts to be printed with the words "Zedu (dos Santos) out, disgusting dictator". For his efforts, young Nito Alves spent eight weeks in custody without due legal process. Meanwhile, the demonstration had barely begun before it was suppressed by the police. Nine people were arrested, and released on bail after appearing in court the following day. No sooner had they left the courtroom than seven of them were re-arrested when they were caught talking to journalists. Three journalists were also detained, along with a bystander who was accused of photographing the incident. It took a further appearance before a judge to secure the seven activists' release.
Nito Alves remained in detention until he began a hunger strike and was released on bail in early November. Around the same time, leaked information revealed the fate of Kamulingue and Cassule: after their abduction last year, the pair had been tortured and murdered, and the body of at least one of them dumped by the crocodile-infested river. Civil society and opposition parties planned a march to commemorate Kamulingue and Cassule on 23 November. Hours before the protest, the presidential guards shot dead an activist from the CASA-CE opposition party, Manuel Ganga, who was putting up posters near the presidential palace. The demonstration went ahead in the morning. Nearly 300 people were arrested.
In the background to this chain of events is General Bento Kangamba, who once again made news in October: the Brazilian judicial authorities issued an international warrant for his arrest on charges related to the trafficking of women in prostitution networks. This was not the first time Kangamba had faced criminal convictions. In 2000 and 2002, Angolan courts sentenced him on two separate counts of fraud, the first of which resulted in his expulsion from the MPLA Central Committee. He was nevertheless later rehabilitated in the party, and last year, the same year that he married a niece of President dos Santos, he was appointed a three-star general in the army. The lack of an extradition treaty between Angola and Brazil means that the general can sleep easily.
Amid the shocks and uncertainties of the last few months in Angola, what is clear is that the law and the judicial system have become a political battleground. The battle lines are marked, on the one side, by the progressive legal framework that survives from the 1992 Constitution and the fragments of functioning judiciary, and on the other, by an authoritarianism that stems from Angola's birth in wartime, the concentration of power in the presidency by legal and by illegal means, and the clandestine networks (not unique to Angola) that are called state security.
Recent events have, on the one hand, been marked by the gratifying sight of Angolan state functionaries doing their jobs according to the law: the officials who met the relatives of Cassule and Kamulingue; the magistrate who ordered the release of the arrested demonstrators in late September, and ordered their release a second time after they were illegally re-arrested; the prosecutors who, allegedly, have opened an investigation into the Cassule and Kamulingue murders. Also notable is the fact that someone in the shadows of the state security apparatus was prepared to leak information in a case that had evaded the formal channels of justice. On the other hand, we have the arbitrary arrests, the police's defiance of court orders, the extra-judicial killings and the impunity of General Kangamba.
Why should all this talk of legality matter? One line of thought holds that states whose economies depend on oil extraction can turn their backs on their people, since the regime's survival depends above all on its ability to manage its relationship with foreign investors. There's no question that Angola's increasing importance as a petroleum producer since the beginning of the century has allowed the Dos Santos regime to shore up its power. Yet that is only part of the story. If oil wealth is enough, why then has the government made such efforts over the years to convince Angolans and the world that the regime is deserving of support?
The state's current language of authority has two distinct dialects. One of them, seen by the outside world, is a discourse of democratic nationhood and development. The other owes much to the "revolutionary legitimacy" of the 1970s and 1980s - a time when the MPLA claimed legitimacy on the grounds that it had liberated Angola from colonial domination, and was defending the emergent nation against American imperialism and apartheid aggression. The echoes of that time can still be heard today when politicians and newspaper editorials hint that any challenge to the status quo is the work of nefarious foreign forces. Since 2002, the government has deployed the idea of peace in its attempt to marry democratic norms to "revolutionary legitimacy": peace is the MPLA's gift to the nation, and while the existence of opposition is to be tolerated, actually to support the opposition is an act of ingratitude to the MPLA, and, what's more, threatens to take the country back to war.
Responses from the authorities to the news about Cassule and Kamulingue and the subsequent demonstration have ranged from fighting talk by the MPLA Politburo, to complete silence from the presidency: Dos Santos spent most of November in Spain for medical treatment. Events of the past three months have blown holes in the government's attempts to claim peace and order as its private property. It began with the detention of Nito Alves, who coincidentally but proudly bears the name of the MPLA's most famous dissident, killed in 1977. But young Nito was also just a teenager whose policeman father wanted nothing more than that he pass his exams. People knew his detention was illegal, and was motivated by a personal slight to the president.
Then there was the news about the revelation of what had happened to Cassule and Kamulingue. The phrase "o país do Pai banana" (roughly translated, banana republic) was coined some years ago by Angolans who are embarrassed by acts of corruption that play into the worst stereotypes of African dictatorships. The news of the crocodiles evoked the kind of regime that people find most repugnant.
When the presidential guards killed Ganga and detained his thirty companions, yet another line had been crossed. CASA-CE, a party born in peacetime and popular among disillusioned former MPLA supporters, now has a martyr. The leader of UNITA, Isaías Samakuva, was among those overcome by tear gas during the November protest. Treating political parties in this way is not helping the image of a parliamentary democracy - it is, however, strengthening an alliance between mainstream opposition politics and the activists who began demonstrating almost three years ago. The rule of law may be in short supply, but Angolans know it when they see it.
Justin Pearce is a teaching fellow in the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Cambridge. He has been following Angolan politics since 2001. His next book, Political Identity and Conflict in Central Angola, 1975-2002, will be published by Cambridge University Press in 2014 - https://cambridge.academia.edu/JustinPearce - justin.pearce AT gmail.com