‘There are signs of hope, but we are not waiting with our arms crossed but pushing for reforms that improve our lives’

Angola saw a change at the top in 2017, when President José Eduardo dos Santos stepped down after a staggering 38 years in power, to be replaced by President Joao Lourenco. His rule was characterised by close control of the nation’s oil wealth, to the benefit of his family and the ruling elite, which necessitated a tight grip on civil society to prevent it exposing corruption and demanding a fairer distribution of wealth. As part of the state’s repression of civil society, in 2015, 15 young activists were arrested and detained for taking part in a group that discussed a book on liberation. The group were held in poor conditions, mistreated and, after an unfair trial, found guilty of rebellion. One of that group, activist and rapper Luaty Beirão, speaks to CIVICUS about what changes may be underway in Angola, and how civil society is trying to engage constructively to seek reform under the new president.

1. What changed for Angolan civil society in 2017?

2017 was a very interesting year for us. After six years of struggle aimed at our President, José Eduardo dos Santos - who when we started had been in power for 32 years, and in 2017 marked 38 years in power - he finally did not run for the presidency again. So we have a new president for the first time. I was born under dos Santos, and finally I have a second president.

It’s the same regime and the same party that has been in power for 42 years, so we were not expecting the new president to act against his predecessors. What dos Santos did towards the end of his term was put his family, especially his children, in very sensitive positions in our economy. His daughter Isabel dos Santos was chair of the national oil company, Sonangol - oil is our main resource - and his son José Filomeno dos Santos managed the US$5 billion sovereign wealth fund. We did not expect the new president to move so swiftly, but in under 90 days he’d sacked Isabel dos Santos and got José Filomeno dos Santos under control: he should not last much longer because he’s recently been implicated in the Panama Papers scandal. Two other children - Welwitschia and José Paulinos dos Santos - were in charge of two private companies, Westside and Semba Comunicações, which had a US$30 million contract with the state to run public TV service Channel 2. But now they have lost the contract and Semba Comunicações has closed.

The new president is also giving some space for judicial and state investigators to track how public money was used. Some cases are starting to arise, including some that affect the former president’s family interests. Isobel dos Santos, the richest woman in Africa, is also being sued abroad. Things are starting to catch up on them really quickly. It is interesting to see the new president allowing this to happen, although it might come back to bite him: it is impossible for him be clean because he has been in government for so many years.

One of the main reasons why we thought the new president would not do anything is that under the Angolan electoral system we vote for a party, not a candidate for president, and dos Santos remains the president of the ruling party. We expected him to tell party members what to do. We knew there was disruption within the ruling party, but the level of disruption is only now becoming apparent.

2. How is civil society reacting to these changes and the new opportunities that may open?

For us, there are signs of hope. The new president’s intentions appear to be good, so we should give him the benefit of the doubt.

In 2011, we decided that confrontation was the only way to go, because if we tried to do small projects on the side, they would only come and shut us down. We decided that to get our ideas working, we first needed to liberate ourselves from totalitarian rule.

Now the old president is gone and the new president is showing some openness, so we want to explore the situation and find out how far this openness reaches. Instead of looking for confrontation, as we had to do in the past, we have started to propose ideas, especially on social media. This is because to cast an image of himself as more democratic and open to modern society, the new president has official accounts on Facebook and Twitter, as do the Minister of Communication and the Governor of the capital city, Luanda. So we know they are reading our comments and they know we are there not just to be critical, but that we want to give them the benefit of the doubt. There are things we want to propose and see how they react to them, so we are testing them. I hope this interesting phase we're now in will shift us away from the need that we had before to be confrontational.

Even huge opponents of the old regime are applauding some of the new president’s initiatives. Hope is rising in Angola. We hope he is wise enough to keep it going longer. I hope he takes in all this positive energy and he finds it contagious and carries on going.

But we are not just waiting with our arms crossed. We are pushing for reform initiatives and showing the government that we are ready to back its actions if they are going to have positive repercussions in improving our lives and lifting the limitations we suffered from 1975 to 2017.

3. What changes should take place to show that the new president is serious in seeking reform?

There are many simple things that can be done, and small steps can keep hope alive. We want to carry on believing. We don't want to be disillusioned.

The new president should acknowledge the need for a strong civil society, rather than try to co-opt it into government. It would help if civil society actors saw their points of view taken into consideration when major decisions are made. The government should show more openness, for instance by being more present on social media and making live broadcasts of meetings.

There should be a constitutional reform. The 2010 constitution was designed to suit dos Santos. It gives too many powers to a president that is not even directly elected by the people. The president appoints judges to the Constitutional Court, the Supreme Court and the Military Court, and these judges report directly to the president, so there is no separation of powers. This needs to change. If the president wants to effect real change, he should reduce his own powers.

Regarding corruption, the new president should open a public debate and the public should accept that it is useful to know who were guilty of stealing public money and where the money went. But rather than focusing on sending those people to prison, we need to find a way to recover the money and have it invested in Angola.

We don’t expect the new president to transform the country in two days, but we do want him to show he is willing to listen and put into practice other people’s ideas, to experiment and open up.

We want to not have to be constantly fighting and confronting the powers that be. It’s exhausting, especially when you get beaten up, you get stitches in your head and you have to spend a year in prison. I would really love to shift my activism. I just want to feel like an active citizen. I want to carry on sharing my thoughts and ideas without being involved in conflict the whole time.

4. Apart from corruption, what are the major challenges that the new president faces?

There is urgent need to invest in education and health. Although theoretically we have free access to these public services, in practice that is not the case, and people in the ministries that are supposed to make these services work have stolen money, so we lack basic equipment and supplies. There is need for serious investment, starting with education, which will also help with public health knowledge. We need educated Angolans to manage the country. We are still very reliant on foreign capacities and foreign consultants, who charge huge amounts of money. We should also be developing tourism, but for the time being it is very hard to get visas for Angola.

Long-term investment is needed. Our national budget for the last 15 years has had double the amount going to security than to education and health. We are not at war and face no military threat. The only explanation for this is that the military control society. In fact, there are three different secret services operating in Angola.

Holding local elections is another important task for the new president. Local elections have been delayed for over seven years so far, with excuses such as lack of money or the need for a new law that has not been drafted. Of course, the ruling party doesn’t want elections because it risks losing constituencies.

There are good things going on in this part of the continent. Why can’t we follow the good examples instead of always comparing ourselves to the worst cases?

5. What role should the international community and civil society play? Do we need to change our approach to Angola?

When we started our movement in Angola, we were not thinking about finding supporters. We just did it out of urgency. But when you act following your heart and convictions, you draw international attention. Luckily for us, when we landed in prison a worldwide civil society movement advocated on our behalf.

There are always more things that can be done. But the situation on the ground is so dynamic that it's hard for big structures to follow through and adapt quickly. One of the things big structures need to do is acknowledge their difficulty to adapt and recognise that civil society movements worldwide are becoming increasingly less formalised. On the other hand, for informal groups it is also hard to adjust to the formal ways of access to international civil society organisations. We don't even know the jargon or terminology. We don’t know how a letter to the UN should be structured. There may be a need for capacity building in that regard. It might help if we were shown how to identify and reach out to the right people in the right places, and if we had help in building networks and identifying similarities and parallels that could serve as a basis for dialogue.

  • Civic space in Angola is rated as ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor, indicating serious restrictions in the freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression.
  • Get in touch with Luaty Beirão through his Facebook page, or follow @LuatyBeirao on Twitter.