Hassan Ghedi Santur

Something terrible happened on Thursday April 16, 2015 in the foothills of Mount Sumi in central Angola. Exactly what transpired and how many people were murdered is still unclear. The government sealed off the area immediately and has not allowed independent journalists or human rights groups access despite repeated requests.

What is known so far is this: state police were sent to arrest Pastor Jose Kalupeteka, the charismatic leader of A Luz do Mondo, Light of the World, an offshoot of the Seventh Day Adventist Church. Some of the pastor’s 3,000 followers defended him and, according to government officials, nine police officers were killed. This wasn’t the first time the state had political trouble with the pastor. Kalupeteka and his followers have, for instance, resisted government census-taking in their region—a stronghold of the country’s main opposition party, UNITA.

On the morning of April 16, the state police and national army took action. According to some eyewitnesses, this is when the alleged massacre happened. Angolan investigative journalist Rafael Marques de Morais, writing for The Guardian, reported that his sources (some of them whistleblowers within the army who took part in the raid) told him that pilgrims who were praying with the pastor “were mown down indiscriminately, many of them praying to the end…These officers also [said they] bore witness to the filling of mass graves, dug by an excavator, in the nearby village of Cuassamba.”

The exact number of the dead remains unclear. But grainy footage taken on cellphones show scenes of horrific carnage. According to UNITA, 1,080 civilians were shot in cold blood as they attempted to run or hide—a far cry from the dozen or so “armed fighters” the government acknowledged were killed in the operation. But since the government turned the site into a military base, independent verification of the dead remains elusive. In May, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights spokesman Rupert Colville called on Angola to ensure "a truly meaningful, independent, thorough investigation into the reports of alleged massacres” by opening the site to international investigators.

In response, President dos Santos’ regime demanded an apology from the UN body for even suggesting anything untoward had taken place.  This was to be expected. Obfuscation by the Angolan government following mass killings is nothing new. It had used similar tactics to hide the details of 1992’s Halloween Massacre, in which thousands of civilians were murdered by the army following a disputed election. And before that, there was the now infamous May 27, 1977 massacre that resulted in the deaths of an estimated ten thousand people.

A miscalculated political threat

Paula Roque, a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group calls the alleged massacre at Mount Sumi a miscalculated political threat that speaks volumes about just how nervous President dos Santos’ regime is when it comes to dissent. Any hint of civil unrest is crushed before it gains momentum.

Jose Eduardo dos Santos, a Soviet trained petroleum engineer, came to power thirty-six years ago when he was elected as the head of the People's Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA). On November 11 this year, the country celebrated the fortieth anniversary of its national independence from Portugal. But the vast majority of Angolans have seen little independence in the decades since. Right after independence, the country spiraled into a bloody civil war that lasted until 2002. An estimated one million people were killed and more than four million displaced. With an iron grip, dos Santos saw the country through the civil war as well as an economic boom that has made Angola the second largest exporter of oil in Africa. But in the last year, the country’s economic situation has changed dramatically. With the huge drop in international oil prices, dos Santos’ government is experiencing a severe liquidity problem that has complicated the regime’s old governing style: a mix of patronage politics and coercion.  

The old governance plan is no longer sustainable, Rogue told me during a telephone interview from Lisbon. “To run the country the way they did required a lot of money coming from oil. Money that allowed them to secure patronage. Money that allowed them to build the intelligence services and all the security apparatuses that allowed them to rule… So if the government no longer has the money to buy loyalty and support, how is it going to govern? It will probably govern using more force.”

In recent months, Angola’s vast security apparatus has been busy, arresting anyone who dares public protest or even criticism of the President. In June, over a dozen citizens were arrested in the capital Luanda. Their crime: taking part in a book club. According to The Guardian, the offending book was Gene Sharp’s From Dictatorship to Democracy: A Conceptual Framework for Liberation. The text has been described as a blueprint for “nonviolent resistance to repressive regimes.”  Luaty Beirão was one of the organizers of the book club. The thirty-three-year-old rapper and political activist has been in jail ever since.

On Tuesday December 1, Beirão, along with seventeen other defendants testified in court for the first time. Reports from the courtroom says that he had denied promoting a violent revolution and instead called for the president to step down voluntarily. Since his arrest, Beirão has become a symbolic figure in Angola’s nascent youth revolt.  

As for A Luz do Mondo, its leader remains in custody, while many of the estimated three thousand followers who were present at the scene of the alleged massacre are still unaccounted for. “The sect is now being hunted,” says Roque. “They’ve been declared a threat to national peace and security and therefore all of their followers have to be dealt with. The security forces can interpret that through either imprisonment or through killing them, so the crackdown is still continuing.”

The resource curse

“Angolans gain nothing from their country’s oil riches, and if they want to change their lives they will have to fight. There is widespread anger and disaffection.” Richard Dowden, British journalist and the author the book Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles wrote those words in 2008 at the height of Angola’s much heralded economic boom. Dowden also predicted that “as a new generation comes through, feelings of anger at the oppression and exploitation will grow.”

At that time, oil prices stood at $140 dollars a barrel and the nation was flush with new money. The country seemed well on its way to becoming a major African success story. Instead, Angola has become an example of yet another African country beset by the oft-mentioned “resource curse.” The Southwestern African nation of nearly twenty-four million people is blessed with abundant oil and natural gas reserves, diamond fields and rich agricultural land. Yet the country was recently named the nation with the world’s highest child mortality rate. 167 out of 1,000 children in Angola die before their fifth birthday.

And despite a booming economy that has been growing close to 10 percent for many years—a growth rate Angola’s former colonial master, Portugal, would kill to have—more than half of Angolans live on less than $2 dollars a day. Roque says the resentment and anger so many Angolans feel toward the ruling elite would not be as severe if the regime used some oil money for initiatives aimed at the poor, and developing infrastructure that would benefit rural communities and the urban poor. Instead, much of the oil money has been exploited through elite patronage, corruption and mismanagement.

The conventional wisdom is that President dos Santos and the ruling elite have been able to get away with the plundering of the country’s natural resources in part because China, Angola’s largest benefactor, shields the regime from internal or external pressure to reform. But blaming China for Angola’s lack of accountability is too simplistic, according to Howard French, a veteran journalist and the author of China's Second Continent: How a Million Migrants Are Building a New Empire in Africa. I went to speak with him at Columbia Journalism School where he is an associate professor. French told me that, “Angola has never had to pay attention to or make concession on questions of human rights or corruption even before China entered the scene…The U.S. was involved in major ways with the Angola civil war.” In what he described as the ultimate case of a marriage of convenience, French says U.S. oil giants Chevron and Exxon Mobile were able to secure major contracts in Angola’s petroleum industry while its leaders got to do as they wished with the wealth generated from those contracts.

Even after the Cold War, the United States and other Western countries never pressured Angola in any meaningful way over corruption, lack of genuine democracy or alleged massacres. French says that even as recently as the late 1990s, when Madeline Albright, then U.S. Secretary of State went to Angola with Susan Rice, the current National Security Advisor, to “huddle with the Angolan regime, nothing was said in a high profile way about any of those things because the Unites States…had an important stake in Angola that trumped any of these other issues.”

Amnesty International and other groups have called on Western countries to do more to pressure Angola’s regime over its human rights record. But just how much Europe can do is unclear. “Western pressure on this front would probably not be transformative, the regime still has a lot of money and international allies,” Ricardo Soares de Oliveira, professor at Oxford and the author of Magnificent and Beggar Land: Angola since the Civil War. However, told me in an email interview. de Oliveira also believes that like many African autocrats, dos Santos cares about international perception, and therefore some pressure from the West to reform might be helpful. “It would be a start, especially as the regime does care about having a good enough international reputation.”

As far as international influence is concerned, China is the only country that truly matters to the dos Santos regime. Angola has borrowed over $25 billion from China which Beijing recoups with oil. For years this was a win-win deal. China gets much needed oil to fuel its economic growth—not to mention a monopoly on massive infrastructure projects in Angola using Chinese labor and building materials—while Angolan leaders get billions of dollars free from pesky questions over human rights and corruption.

However, since late 2014, the falling international oil prices coupled with China’s own economic downturn have caused unprecedented financial strains on Angola’s government. But what if China’s current economic troubles metastasize into a full-blown financial crisis? Would that spell the beginning of the end for dos Santos?   

A regime in panic mode

The anger and sense of exploitation that Richard Dowden observed among ordinary Angolans seven years ago have only gotten worse with time. Thanks to the huge drop in world oil prices, coupled with depreciation of the local currency, the kwanza, the fragile foundation of Angola’s almost entirely oil-based economy is beginning to show. Dos Santos’ solution to his government’s money woes has been to cut popular gas subsidies and impose a hiring freeze on all public-sector jobs.

Many Angolans who once feared the country’s vast security apparatus are now risking arbitrary arrests and sham trials in order to express their anger at a minority ruling class that seems indifferent to their suffering. Country-wide revolt, a notion previously hard to imagine, now seems possible. And although still small, political and economic protests in the capital have become more frequent. The popular revolutions that had deposed the seemingly invincible rulers of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya were sparked largely by the economic desperation of everyday citizens. Could the same thing happen in Angola?

It’s not likely, according Roque. “We won’t see an Angola-Spring,” she says. “What we might see is the government implode…the country is going through a very difficult financial period. Basic food staples have tripled in price. The price of fuel has doubled. Does that mean people will take to the streets? That’s a difficult thing to see happening in Angola.”

de Oliveira is also skeptical that the palpable anger and frustration felt by most Angolans can turn into an organized, effective revolt capable of toppling such a well- entrenched regime. “The question is whether [dissatisfaction] can coalesce around positive, inclusive and progressive political dynamics. I’d say that it is difficult to tell, but on the face of it, you don’t have the conditions for that in Angola,” de Oliveira maintains.  

How much longer will the country’s huge youth population remain unemployed as they watch the pristine white yachts of the ruling elite dotting the capital city’s beaches? A few of these yachts are said to belong to the president’s children, including his eldest daughter Isabel dos Santos. Forbes this year ranked her net worth at $3 billion. She, of course, has denied any connection between her staggering wealth and her father’s thirty-six-year rule of the country.

Cultura do medo

To ensure his continued reign over Angola and its vast riches, dos Santos and his MPLA party are tightening the noose on everyday citizens. The tiniest political or economic protest is met with overwhelming force, as the alleged Mount Sumi massacre suggests.

Disenchanted youths, war veterans, human rights activists and journalists continue to be silenced with arbitrary arrests. Meanwhile, the government’s surveillance of citizens through spyware and warrantless searches marches on unabated.

Fear, intimidation, violence and mass killings have been constant themes in Angola’s political life since independence. But the country’s ubiquitous “cultura do medo,” “culture of fear” in Portuguese, seems to be reaching a crescendo as the ruling class readies itself for the day the masses approach the gates of their mansions.   

Hassan Ghedi Santur is an Associate Editor at Warscapes. He is a Somali-Canadian freelance journalist. He is currently based in New York City where he is pursuing a Master's degree at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in politics and global affairs. He is the author of the novel Something Remains. Twitter @hgsantur