Angola – A New Politics of Memory? The President and the Ruling Party’s Dark Past

This is my third post on Angola’s recent leadership transition process and the end of President José Eduardo dos Santos’s 38-year rule, in a context where some of Africa’s longest-serving presidents are also no longer in power.[1] This new analysis will continue to focus our attention on the actions of the new president, but this time it will centre on issues regarding the collective memory.

As discussed on another occasion, this unprecedented transition started in 2017, first at the state level and then at the ruling party level. The MPLA, one of the longest-ruling parties in Sub-Saharan Africa[2], won the 4th multiparty elections and, as a consequence, the party’s head-of-list candidate, João Lourenço (JLO), automatically became the 3rd president of Angola since the country’s independence in 1975. Moreover, after the ruling party’s 6th Extraordinary Congress held on 8 September 2018, JLO also became the 5th president of the MPLA since its constitution as a liberation movement during the late Portuguese colonial rule.[3]

Like his predecessor, the new Angolan leader now has a triad of powers (the state, the executive and the ruling party) and it is quite interesting to note that, among his “surprising” political actions, there is one that is particularly relevant, which has to do with unresolved historical grievances related to both a major bitter episode and the greatest taboo within the MPLA’s history: the 27th May. This revisitation of the past leads us to two broader questions: how do Africa’s longest-serving political parties deal with their own violent pasts? And how do new leaders revisit the past as a strategy of power consolidation? To put it more concretely, in what sense can JLO’s recent positioning regarding the MPLA’s violent past, whose memory has been muffled by the former leader, be considered a strategy of political survival and of a continuous boost of power?

But first, let’s make an incursion into the responses of the new president to some important historical grievances in the collective memory.

The return of the enemy’s mortal remains

Almost one year after the elections of August 2017, JLO promised to return the deceased remains of Jonas Savimbi to the main opposition party before the end of this year, which will very likely happen in 2019. According to the researcher Eugénio Costa Almeida,  JLO returning Savimbi’s remains to UNITA on the 22nd February next year would be of great significance, since this date marks the 17th anniversary of the death of the former UNITA leader, who was killed along with other generals and guerrilla soldiers in a clash with the government troops in the Moxico province during the civil war in 2002.

JLO already supported the relocation of the remains of UNITA’s historical military, General Arlindo Chenda Pena “Ben Ben” – who died in South Africa in 1998 and was buried near Pretoria – to the Bié province in Angola. Furthermore, this general was also awarded, posthumously, with the 1st Class Military Merit Medal during the last anniversary of Angola’s independence.

The current UNITA leader, Isaias Samakuva, has acknowledged the support of the new Angolan president for bringing General Ben Ben’s body back to the country in such a quick procedure, after years in which such an action would be “unthinkable”. With this declaration, the leader of the main opposition party unintentionally recognizes that JLO’s presidency marks a new era of possibilities.

Thus, these two gestures reinforce the idea of a new leadership different from the previous one in terms of national reconciliation efforts, which has an important symbolical charge, especially because Dos Santos has the epithet of the “architect of peace”. Furthermore, it also serves power consolidation purposes, as it continues to reduce the critical tone of the main opposition party during such an important phase of leadership affirmation.

The recognition of the MPLA’s first presidents and the decoration of some persona non grata

The reconciliation efforts also went to the ruling party arena and are especially noted in two important events: the 6th Extraordinary Congress of last September and the 43rd anniversary of Angola’s independence on the 11th November.

At the MPLA’s Extraordinary Congress, JLO made an opening speech with one surprising moment of “breaking the silence”:  the mention and recognition of the first two MPLA chairmen, Ilídio Machado and Mário Pinto de Andrade. Moreover, the party’s conclave approved a final resolution to honour these two historical political individuals, as well as others that were important during the genesis of the ruling party.

Following the party’s watershed congress, the new president honoured several historical figures of the MPLA’s turbulent past with special decorations, including the two first MPLA presidents and Viriato da Cruz, during the 43rd anniversary of the country’s independence. The Angolan researcher Claudio Fortuna sees in these presidential decorations an action of intraparty reconciliation, as JLO’s predecessors (Agostinho Neto and José Eduardo dos Santos) had removed these historical figures from the “vernacular imagery” of the party’s militants and of the MPLA’s history.

The intraparty reconciliation effort is also considered by some of UNITA’s cadres, such as General Paulo Armindo Lukamba “Gato”, to be an important first step on the part of JLO in the ongoing process of national reconciliation, as one can now openly talk about figures concealed from the MPLA’s own history. Therefore, perhaps it will have a positive impact on other figures outside the ruling party, such as Jonas Savimbi.    

In this year’s anniversary of Angolan independence, the new president also decorated ostracized Angolan personalities who were critics of Dos Santos’ regime by extolling their sense of patriotism.[4] These intraparty reconciliation efforts reinforce the notion that JLO is different from the increasingly unpopular Dos Santos, thus gaining the sympathy and support of party members who have been alienated from the MPLA.

Breaking a deafening silence: the 27th May

Still concerning the intraparty reconciliation process, JLO, in clear contrast to Dos Santos, has recognized an open wound within the MPLA’s dark past after independence: the so-called 27 May 1977. This violent episode occurred during the presidency of Agostinho Neto, when the group of the so-called “Revolta Activa” chaired by Nito Alves challenged and even tried to change Neto’s leadership. As a result, Nito Alves’s supporters were not only expelled from the MPLA, but also detained and subjected to torture, in addition to the arbitrary arrests of a great number of people and thousands of deaths. According to Assis Malaquias, this episode “marked the beginning of the end of the revolutionary vision of the MPLA”, which became a more exclusive and reserved organization.[5]

In the first major interview with JLO by the Angolan journalist Gustavo Costa, which was published on the 17th November, the new Angolan president recognized that the 27th May is still an open wound that should receive careful attention. Also on the same date, the justice and human rights minister, Francisco Queiroz, acknowledged that there had been an overreaction to the events which followed the “attempted coup d’état” of 27 May 1977. More importantly, Queiroz declared that those excessive actions violated human rights through arbitrary executions and arrests, and that must be remembered in order to avoid something similar happening again. The minister also opened up the possibility of repairing traumatic wounds, namely by resolving the issue of death certificates and other matters related to this tragic event.[6]

A few days later during a press conference with JLO in Lisbon the 24th November, on the occasion of his official visit to Portugal, the new Angolan president reaffirmed the excesses made by the government at that time and that his new government is open to dialogue to see how the reparation of such deep wounds can be made “in the hearts” of many grieving families.

The president’s second moment of “breaking the silence” has a symbolic meaning, but will it have practical consequences? Many victims – such as José Fragoso, former MPLA militant and vice-president of the Associação Cívica 27 de Maio – are skeptical about the practical effects. This “survivor of the 27th May” remembered that in 2001 – one year before the end of the war, when the Association made its first conference denouncing the executioners of the 27th May – the MPLA reacted by considering the victims and survivors as misunderstood patriots, instead of coupists. Nevertheless, this new executive has expressed the possibility of reparation measures, albeit it in vague terms.

Opening the box of painful moments in the MPLA’s history occurs in a context of the affirmation of JLO’s leadership; in an effort to build a consensual optimistic view around his new era and legacy, JLO is asserting himself as a strong president that is willing to revisit the past to bring back those who were alienated by former leaders and who are demanding the right to truth and their rightful place in the ruling party and in the country’s history.

Is transitional justice on the horizon?

Among his political actions as Angola’s new leader, JLO is also coping with the issue of collective memory, having to break a major silence concerning the MPLA’s violent past, namely, the purge of the 27th May[7]; however, there are no concrete measures on the table so far.

Specifically, it is not clear whether the Angolan authorities will:  1) disclose the documents and facts that clarify what really happened, including the results of the Commission of Inquiry created by President Agostinho Neto himself and chaired by José Eduardo dos Santos; 2) carry out the registration and list disclosure of all detainees and disappeared people, including the return of the victims’ deceased remains to their families; and 3) build a national monument to the victims of the 27th May, as is demanded by some representatives of those victims.

As the researcher Filipa Raimundo points out, transitional justice “refers to the process of reckoning with an authoritarian past through judicial and/or non-judicial means”, in which political elites can also adopt a strategic silence to “neither forgive and forget nor to prosecute and punish”. In Angola’s case, what we see is a new leader dealing with some historical grievances still in the collective memory through a first attempt at breaking the silence, but we must not forget that, in a context of leadership consolidation with an intrinsic challenge, the national reconciliation process also implies an intraparty reconciliation and the end of some narratives linked to power relations within the MPLA. This fact could be very sensitive to JLO’s political survival, due to the importance of the ruling party to his own power. On the other hand, the demands from several members of civil society for telling the truth and making reparations have not been echoed by the parliamentarian elites (both in the ruling party and the opposition), and silence seems to be the strategy.

For now, transitional justice is still lost on the horizon.

Notes

[1] For instance, the Gambian President Yahya Jammeh lost in the 2016 presidential elections after 22 years of power or Robert Mugabe’s resignation after 37 years as Zimbabwe’s President.

[2] Along with the CCM (Tanzania), the BPD (Botswana), the RDPC (Cameroon), the SWAPO (Namibia) and the ANC (South Africa).

[3] The year of the MPLA’s foundation is still a controversial subject, as some authors maintain that 1960 was the true foundation year, contrary to the party’s official version of 1956. See Pacheco, C. (1997). MPLA – Um Nascimento Polémico. Lisbon: Vega.

[4] For instance, the musicians Bonga or Waldemar Bastos. Worth mentioning is the surprising meeting between JLO and “hashed critics” in civil society on the 4th and 5th December, including the persecuted journalist and activist Rafael Marques, as well as the rapper and activist Luaty Beirão, who was jailed for rebellion against President Dos Santos.

[5] Malaquias, A. (2007). Rebels and Robbers: Violence in Post-colonial Angola. Uppsala: Nordiska Afrikainstitute. For more about the 27th May, see Mateus, D. & Mateus, A. (2013). Purga em Angola. Lisbon & Luanda: Texto; Milhazes, J. (2013). «Golpe Nito Alves» e outros momentos da história de Angola vistos do Kremlin. Lisbon: Alêtheia; Pawson, L. (2014). In the Name of the People: Angola’s Forgotten Massacre. London & New York: Palgrave Macmillan; Reis, J. (2018). Angola: 27 de Maio – A história por contar. Lisbon: Vega.

[6] For instance, people whose father’s names do not appear on their identity cards.

[7] The president’s wife, Ana Dias Lourenço, was also a victim, having been arrested due to a supposed connection to the nitistas.

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