Crony Capitalism and Crushed Dissent in Angola

The nation has become the heart of the Second Scramble for Africa.

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Dec 10 2013, 3:10pm

Sunset over Bairro Operário in Luanda

Rarely covered in the English-speaking press because of its past as a Portuguese colony, the behaviour of the government in Angola is becoming increasingly troubling. Crony capitalism isn't rare on the African continent – or indeed anywhere else in the world – but Angola's iteration is particularly extreme. Following a civil war that ran on and off from independence in 1975 to 2002, Angola’s elite – overseen by 71-year old President José Eduardo dos Santos – has fed greedily at a trough of oil and gas. Dos Santos’ daughter, Isabel, is the richest woman in Africa. Angola is the second largest oil producer in Africa, has long been a major partner for BP and is seen as a place for big companies to make big bucks.

Now, though, the south-west African country has crept into the news for its “banning” of Islam, following the closure of dozens of mosques in this overwhelmingly Catholic country. The government has hid behind crafty legal talk. “There are eight Islamic denominations here, all of which requested registration. But none fulfilled legal requisites so they can't practice their faith until concluding the process," Foreign Minister Georges Chikoti told the press. Which seems to be a convoluted admission that the government is trying to keep an eye on those it is suspicious of.

Street vendors in the São Paulo neighbourhood of Luanda, the Angolan capital

The “foreignness” of Muslims has been played up and, as it is in many non-Muslim countries, used as a political football or a way of stirring up ill-feeling. The threat of “Islamic terrorism” is invoked, despite there being no factual evidence for this in Angola. A number of street vendors in Angola’s capital, Luanda, are Muslim migrants from West Africa, or single women trying to earn a living for their family, and the government has been trying to clean them off the streets. Luanda, like London, is a gleaming monument to global capital, a metropolis repeatedly held up as an incarnation of the “Africa rising” meme, full of Chinese-built towers. It is also the capital city of a country in which 70 percent of the population live on less than $2 a day alongside an elite with a penchant for Porsches.

While the obstruction of Islam says something about the ugliness of the ruling system in Angola, it is also something of a red herring, in that it has distracted attention from the ill health of President Dos Santos and the growing protest movement inside the country. Recently, leaked documents from the Ministry of Interior brought to light the abduction, torture and eventual killing of two retired soldiers who organised a protest over unpaid pensions. They were called António Alves Kamulingue and Isaías Sebastião Cassule and their bodies were thrown into the crocodile-infested Bengo river by members of the Angolan security and intelligence service, SINSE. Then, last weekend, Manuel de Carvalho "Ganga", an activist in the Angola opposition party CASA-CE, was shot by members of the Presidential Security Unit while out distributing pamphlets relating to the deaths of the two retired soldiers.

Independence Square, where most political demonstrations (try to) gather

Hours after the shooting, UNITA, now the main opposition party, held one of the most significant rallies since the end of the civil war. Three hundred demonstrators were detained and the police used tear gas to disperse crowds. As Leslie Lefkow of Human Rights Watch told me: "Political tensions are rising because of the murdered activists but also because of the government's broader clampdown on protests and free speech. It's a potentially combustible mix, especially as questions mount over the president's health and the succession."

The president’s health is key here, as he has yet to announce his succession plan and this potential weakness may have been a reason for the leak that detailed the killing of the two retired soldiers. President Dos Santos has been in Barcelona since the beginning of the month and one of Angola’s few independent media sites, Maka Angola, cites sources who say Dos Santos “suffered a prostatic renal crisis, which required him to spend at least 30 days under observation”. The government denies this and says Dos Santos is doing just fine. Perhaps he’s just a big Gaudi fan.

Maka Angola is run by an independent journalist called Rafael Marques. The government likes to point to his existence as proof that they allow criticism of their regime, but they have also thrown a total of 11 criminal defamation charges his way and have had him beaten up.

Construction in downtown Luanda

This crackdown on protesting and the continued stranglehold on the media and civil society is showing people how alienated they really are. In a country that generates a vast amount of wealth, inequality is staggering. As Angola expert Jon Schubert, of the University of Edinburgh, told me: “There’s a post-war consensus of ‘peace and stability’ to discredit any form of criticism that has so far been replicated across the social spectrum, but since the first youth demonstrations in April 2011, this consensus has been broken. This, in turn, questions the legitimacy of a president who is clinging on to power, and whose families and cronies have looted the country. The 'trickle down' effect of neo-liberalism is nowhere to be seen in the daily lives of people, and thus people are – understandably – asking where the promised ‘benefits of peace’ are.”

The people protesting on the streets right now are from a wide range of backgrounds. There are organised political parties, war veterans and then a varied cross-section of young people who feel betrayed by the regime. Some are middle- and upper-class kids who come from families that were traditionally associated with the regime. Some are street vendors. Many more are from an emerging class of young activists who work a number of jobs to survive on top of volunteering and studying in their spare time. They cannot be easily defined as a group.

While they are monitored and beaten up, their government continues to strike big deals with big companies and Western governments. The British foreign office showed a real flair for timing when they announced, a couple of days after the Angolan Ministry of Interior leak that revealed the killing of the two war veterans, a new “High Level Prosperity” partnership with five African countries, including Angola. All five countries have oil and gas deposits and the deal does nothing more than highlight the commercialism at the heart of current British foreign policy.

Downtown Luanda, with the Assembly of the Republic (parliament) in front

Angola is a relatively new market for the British, who traditionally have stronger trade ties with former colonies. As a British Foreign Office spokesperson told me, the new partnership with Angola was considered purely on economic grounds and the political situation in the country was a separate issue.

In Portugal too, economic expediency has taken precedence over political correctness. The Portuguese Central Investigation and Criminal Prosecution Department recently announced that it was closing preliminary corruption investigations into two top Angolan leaders, vice-president and former state oil company boss, Manuel Domingos Vicente, and General Francisco Higino Lopes Carneiro. Portuguese Prosecutor Paulo Gonçalves said he hoped this would “contribute to clearing up the atmosphere of diplomatic tension that has tarnished the friendship between the two brotherly peoples with misunderstandings”. The former colonial power's economy is propped up on Angolan investment.

The British Foreign Office spokesperson told me that, “We were keen that the pilot extended beyond countries the UK had historic ties with – i.e. Francophone and Lusophone markets.” New markets, new frontiers: this is the language of the second scramble for Africa – it’s just that in Angola, there is an elite with as much money and power as their counterparts in the West. Angola may be thousands of miles away, but it’s closer than we think.

Follow Oscar on Twitter: @oscarrickettnow

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