With its totalitarian government and a president in power since 1979, Angola stands out as one of the most repressive countries in the southern African region. Dubbed a “psychological prison” in the words of one activist, Angola’s constrained civil society environment has recently gotten worse.
Last month, several concerned citizens were rounded up by Angolan security agencies and accused of attempting to disrupt public order and state security. At one such incident, 13 activists, including prominent rapper Luaty Beirão, freelance journalist Sedrick de Carvalho and members of civil society groups, were picked up from a meeting where they had gathered to discuss nonviolent strategies for civil disobedience based on Gene Sharp’s book From Dictatorship to Democracy: A Conceptual Framework for Liberation. In Angola’s constrained environment, information flow is scarce but there are credible reports that the activists remain in detention and that their lives may be in danger.
Suppression of any form of criticism of the authorities in Angola is not new. Journalists and activists are regularly harassed and prevented from doing their work. In May this year, investigative journalist Rafael Marques de Morais was punished with a 6-month suspended prison sentence and the seizure of his passport on charges of defamation for writing a book. His book, published in 2011, Blood Diamonds: Torture and Corruption in Angola, exposes serious human rights abuses in the diamond mines of the north-eastern Lunda province, describing murder and torture perpetrated by private security agents and diamond mining companies while also implicating several army generals considered close to the presidency in corrupt deals.
The predicament of the people of Angola appears to be a classic case of “resource curse”, where a tiny group of political and economic elites conspire to control and deny the vast majority of the people a share of the country’s vast natural resources. Of late, there is increasing interest in Angola’s fabulous oil wealth, which is concentrated in the oil rich, politically contested and militarised enclave of Cabinda. One of its most well-known human rights defenders, Marcos Mavungo remains in detention amid despite his deteriorating health. He was detained in March this year on questionable “charges of sedition and threatening state security” for planning a peaceful protest against poor governance, corruption and rights violations in Cabinda.
With the mainstream media completely controlled by the state and the ruling MPLA party, civil society organisations (CSOs) play an important role in exposing government corruption and human rights abuses. But their existence remains imperilled by bureaucratic red tape. The existing process of registering CSOs in Angola is ambiguously administered, and often used by authorities to keep organisations in legal limbo and uncertainty. Several human rights groups remain challenged by non-receipt of their certificate of registration from the Ministry of Justice.
Under a new presidential decree passed in March this year, the public prosecutor’s office is empowered to suspend the activities of national and international NGOs on suspicion of money laundering and illegal or harmful acts against Angola’s sovereignty and integrity. The decree also places heavy burdens on CSOs, requiring them to provide information about their programmes, budgets and sources of funding. CSOs are already subjected to various forms of intimidation by state authorities. The decree provides further ammunition to officials to limit CSO activities.
All this is happening while Angola is being courted by several political leaders and captains of industry for its oil. In a country suffering from searing inequality, rampant corruption and rights abuses, this latest assault on civil society will further impede the ability of concerned citizens to challenge their unjust predicament.
This article was first published on 9 July 2015 in Equal Times