On April 16th, Angolan security forces, including a heavily armed rapid intervention police unit, raided a religious encampment under the leadership of self-proclaimed prophet José Julino Kalupeteka with the aim of arresting him. Kalupeteka’s controversial religious sect, dubbed “A Luz do Mundo” (Light of the World), was known to shun certain state-sponsored activities such as vaccination campaigns, the national census and public schooling. About 3,000 people were living peacefully in the hilly encampment when the police struck.
Much has been written about the Mount Sumi event both in English and Portuguese by several reputable sources: Aslak Orre writing for the CMI, Rede Angola’s Luísa Rogério and Maka Angola’s Rafael Marques. But almost two months after the tragic events in Huambo and even an official statement from the UN Human Rights Office (promptly slammed by the Angolan government), we’re nowhere closer to knowing what exactly happened in Mount Sumi, Huambo, why it happened, and how many people perished. The Angolan government speaks of “only 13 dead”, while others, including prominent civil society activists and opposition parties, speak of a massacre of more than a thousand civilians.
What is clearer, however, is the government and its security forces’ violent relationship with its citizenry. Ironically, it deploys the discourse of peace as a weapon.
The raid was a failure. Several policemen were killed by sect members armed with machetes, for reasons as of yet unclear, and an unknown number of civilians died. The first reports by state media here in Angola mentioned only the fallen policemen; it was only days later that we learned that civilians had been killed as well. It’s here that reports begin to significantly diverge. Immediately after the massacre, the government cordoned off the area to any and all civilians and declared it a military zone. It took a full two weeks for the first visitors, parliamentarians from UNITA, the main opposition party, to be granted access, closely followed by the leader of the country’s third largest party (CASA-CE) and then Rede Angola’s journalists. All three say that something macabre took place.
That such an event can take place 13 years after the ruling MPLA signed its landmark peace accord with UNITA, effectively ending Angola’s 27-year civil war, is cause for great concern. It underscores the regime’s deep, systemic unease with sectors of the public that it doesn’t control, including certain religious groups, human rights activists, opposition parties, and protesting youth, and their willingness to use disproportionate violence against these groups.
While the state acts violently, it speaks of peace. The government goes to great pains to highlight the country’s thirteen years of peace as an act entirely of its own making and less that of the Angolan people. State media refer repeatedly to President José Eduardo dos Santos as the Architect of Peace, adding another brick in the wall of his cult of personality. Peace has allowed for our national reconstruction. Peace has allowed for our economic boom. Peace has allowed for the creation of our billionaires, our Marginal, our Miss Angola pageant, our takeover of Lisbon’s expensive Avenida da Liberdade and half their banks to boot. It’s a discourse that removes the Angolan people from the equation and casts them not as willing participants of peace and an essential part of its maintenance, but as beneficiaries who owe something to the state.
Thus, peace is brandished as a weapon. Speaking ill of the government or complaining about it means that you don’t want the peace it’s so generously given you. Protesting against the gross mismanagement of public funds means you are a nuisance and not invested in peace. Asking too many questions means you don’t like peace. Protesting about it in the streets means you actively want a return to war. The government’s official mouthpieces — the national newspaper and the national television channel (the only ones with national reach) — use this line of thinking to devastating effect.
For example, the regime has actively promoted violence against peaceful, law-abiding demonstrators as a way to “keep the peace.” One of the most notorious examples of this was when an unidentified man, using a pseudonym, was broadcast live during the nightly news program physically threatening demonstrators with violence if they did not stop their (tiny) public protests. He was doing so, he said, in order to maintain peace.
It’s important to note that this use of peace as a weapon to silence criticism and stifle civic conscience isn’t just limited to rhetoric. During the wave of (tiny) anti-government protests in Luanda (in 2011, 2012, and 2013), state-sponsored militias carried out brutal attacks against unarmed youth demonstrators both during and before the protests. But the sheer economic reality of this mindset is even more revealing. As Tom Burgis writes in his book, The Looting Machine,
Angola’s 2013 budget allocated 18 percent of public spending to defense and public order, 5 percent to health, and 8 percent to education. That means the government spent 1.4 times as much on defense as it did on health and schools combined. By comparison, the UK spent four times as much on health and education as on defense. Angola spends a greater share of its budget on the military than South Africa’s apartheid government did during the 1980s, when it was seeking to crushing mounting resistance at home and was fomenting conflict in its neighbors.
That a post-conflict nation is spending so much of its budget on defense when its population is woefully undereducated and its health system oversees one of the highest infant mortality rates in the world is frankly maddening. Angola has wasted a decade of double-digit economic growth and the highest oil prices in its history on guns. During peacetime.
As Kalupeteka’s sect can attest, the country’s heavily-armed security force doesn’t need much provocation to “enforce peace.” Even if it means combating its own population.