The sign reads 'Liberate the Angolans' minds'. Members of protest group Central 7311 calling for Angolan president José Eduardo dos Santos to step down.
LUANDA | ANGOLA | Violent crackdowns are smothering Angola’s small-scale youth protests against the expected re-election of Africa’s second longest sitting president, José Eduardo dos Santos. But the movement’s musical inspirators refuse to stay silent.
“This is the country of Father Banana. This is the country of Father Banana. Nobody wins from me.” [From ‘O País do Pai Banana’ by Angolan rapper MCK, 2011. DOWNLOAD the mp3]
José Eduardo dos Santos (69), in power since 1979 and the world’s third-longest serving ruler, is running for another 5-year term as president on 31 August as leader of the ruling Popular Movement for Angolan Liberation (MPLA). "Indirectly" because the number one on the winning party’s list is automatically elected president, according to the Angolan Constitution. Dos Santos won the first round of a presidential election in 1992, but rebel group UNITA's leader Jonas Savimbi refused to accept the result, plunging the country into civil war. Ten years later, MPLA won the civil war as well as the 2008 general election that followed (with an 82 percent landslide). Since the MPLA pretty much controls the electoral commission, it is widely expected to win again in Angola’s second elections since the end of its 27-year civil war (1975-2002).
MCK [pronounced MC Kappa], Brigadeiro 10 Pacotes, Carbono Casimiro, Ikonoklasta (Luaty Beirão) and others see the election as a farce and are fighting to prevent a continuation of Angola’s authoritarian regime. “Despite bans, illegal copies of my discs are sold in the street and at big markets. My music finds its way to almost every musseque [slum] household through the ‘candongeiros’ [cheap, blue Angolan taxi buses], where they are extremely popular,” MCK says in a Luanda café. His most recent album, released in January, is titled “Proibido Ouvir Isto” (Forbidden to Hear This).
[‘Tragic History’ from the album ‘Spiritual Nutrition’, in which MCK compares Angola to Nigeria. "We export oil, we export suffering. That’s our reality…"]
Since 2010, a small-scale youth movement inspired by intellectuals, rappers and the North-African uprisings has held a series of unprecedented protests in the Angolan capital, Luanda. Human Rights Watch this month exposed arbitrary arrests, detentions, alleged abductions and two unsolved and possibly forced disappearances (See Angola: Protesters Detained, Disappeared). The youths' cry for change has been echoed by opposition parties and war veterans demanding overdue payments. Critics are keeping an eagle eye on what they claim is a fraudulent electoral process.
MCK (30) is slender, wears glasses, has a Philosophy degree and studies Law in the evening hours. He became famous after the death of 27-year-old Cherokee, a car washer who was killed in 2003 by members of the presidential guard for singing one of MCK's songs. The murder drew the collective attention of the international press and NGOs, and MCK himself raised the money for Cherokee’s children’s education.
A bit of background history: following independence in 1975, Angola’s existing colonial war morphed into a power struggle between liberation movements in a Cold War context. The MPLA government was backed by Cuba and the Soviet Union, UNITA rebels by apartheid South Africa and the United States. The war ended in 2002, following the death of UNITA leader Jonas Savimbi. By then, half a million Angolans had been killed and a million uprooted.
A lot has changed in the stable and peaceful years since the war. Angola is now Africa’s second largest oil producer and the world’s fastest growing economy of the last decade. Oil-backed Chinese credit lines have fuelled an impressive housing and infrastructure boom that has glamorously transformed the capital’s skyline and enabled the free movement of people across the country. Life expectancy has gone up from 45.2 in 2002 to 51.1 in 2011, the expected years of schooling from 5.1 in 2000, 8.0 in 2005 and 9.1 in 2011.
The glamorous facelift of the Bay of Luanda, to be finished before the 31st of August, election day. These parks, benches and playgrounds are to be for everyone, but while many applaud the project, cynics wonder why so much effort is being put into spraying the grass beds when most people in the slums don’t have access to running water.
But many Angolans feel part of a different set of statistics. In 2011, Angola ranked 148 out of 187 countries on the UNDP Human Development Index and 168 out of 183 on Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index. The country earns $45 billion a year from oil exports alone, yet more than a third of Angolans live below the poverty line. In Luanda, around 70 percent lives in shanty towns, often with no access to clean water. And in one of the world’s most expensive cities, a cleaner or guard earns on average 300,00 USD per month while a handful of politically well-connected Angolan families are wealthy beyond most people’s imagination.
“At a public school or hospital you won’t meet the child of any of our public officials. They undergo medical treatment abroad. Their kids study abroad. My ideal Angola is one with equal opportunities for all,” MCK tells This is Africa.
Rapper Carbono Casimiro
The existence of these two worlds, the political awakening of civil society and North Africa’s revolutionary turmoil inspired some Angolan citizens to start raising their voice. “We want liberty, social justice and a better distribution of our public wealth. These people [the government] are addicted to power, and with them the changes will never be possible”, rapper Carbono Casimiro says. He lost his IT job when he started voicing his concerns on stage.
Poster of President José Eduardo dos Santos on apartment block. The text on this poster reads: "We are the party of the truth, liberty and the people"
MCK and Carbono Casimiro say they have been anonymously assaulted and threatened with death numerous times. Both face bans and attempts have been made to buy them off. MCK says he has been offered high political positions by various parties, including the one in power. “All with one goal in mind: silence.” At the same time, the ruling elite appears to be taking the street’s signals seriously. Access to higher education, employment, poverty reduction, social housing schemes, improved supply of water and electricity and boosting Angola's democratic credentials are high on the official agenda. ‘Angola a crescer mais, a distribuir melhor’ [Angola to grow more and distribute better] is MPLA's election slogan this year.
MCK acknowledges the positive changes in Angola. “Killings nowadays are rare. If Cherokee had died today, the public reaction would have been a lot stronger. The number of independent media has grown a lot, as has civil activism. We have many more educated young people, thanks to the gradual recovery of our educational system. And above all, you can now easily achieve public visibility through the internet."* [*Internet penetration in Angola is well below 10 percent]. But the wealth gap remains wide and the democratic process a farce, he says.
The two middle-aged men at the table behind us finished their soup an hour ago, but remain seated in silence. One of them doesn't hide the fact that he's watching us. MCK turns around to grab his jacket. “Yes, I’m often followed,” he says when I ask if he's noticed the guys.
When we ask for the bill, the young waiter smiles, visibly impressed. He shakes his head, waves his hand; he does not want us to pay. “He recognizes me, almost everyone does,” MCK says cheerfully as we walk outside. “I get many similar reactions from people when I walk the streets of Luanda.”
Read Part II: Angola's politically-conscious rappers vs. apolitical kuduristas. Why is Ikonoklasta awaiting trial in Lisbon? How do some of Angola’s key intellectuals explain the youth movement protests? How did Brigadeiro 10 Pacotes end up in the US? And last but not least: who are Angola’s pro-government rappers?