The increasingly shaky edifice of Luanda

How Nito Alves has become the symbol of a slowly emerging movement that has shaken the Angolan government’s narrative of post-conflict stability.

Roque Santeiro Market in Luanda, Angola. By Yan Boechat, via Flickr CC.

Two weeks ago at the Lisbon Urban Roots music festival the afro-electronic group Batida, in collaboration with Angolan artist Ikonoklasta, called for solidarity with Angola’s youngest political prisoner, Nito Alves, who is fast becoming a symbol of the Angolan regime’s repressive attitude towards its critics. On the 12 September 2013, seventeen year old Manuel Chivonde Baptista Nito Alves was pulled off the street by police and detained under charges of defamation. His crime? He had requested the printing of twenty t-shirts with the following written on them: “Zé-De fora. Nojenta. Ditador” (Zé-Dú get out. Disgusting dictator) with the back reading “Povo angolano, quando a guerra é necessario e urgente em Angola para mudarmos o governo ditador” (People of Angola, when a war is necessary and urgent in Angola for us to change the dictatorial government). Whether or not one agrees with these slogans, is not relevant to the essence of this article. Zé-Dú is the nickname for the aging President José Eduardo dos Santos who has been in power for 34 years and shows no intentions of leaving. Alves was arrested when going to the printing service to pick up the t-shirts that he ordered. He has been detained since then, with almost no access to family or lawyers. Much of his detention has been in solitary confinement due to fears that when placed with other prisoners he was politicising them.

While the detention might be written off as yet another example of the authoritarian nature of the Angolan regime, the Alves case has taken on a growing symbolic significance due to his age, his political affiliations, and oddly enough, his name. The extended detention without trial of a minor is enough to perturb even those who do not align themselves with Alves’ views or his manner of expressing them.

In a heartfelt letter entitled “Nito Alves: His Courage is Our Salvation” published on the Angolan website MakaAngola, José Eduardo Agualusa, a well-known Angolan author who has often been critical of the Angolan regime, voiced the thoughts of many when he compared Alves to his own sixteen year old son and then wrote: “I cannot agree, and I do not agree, with the terms in which young Nito Alves expressed his rebellion. Nevertheless, his rebellion is mine. His courage, however, is his alone. While the cowardice of José Eduardo dos Santos shames all us Angolans, the courage of young Nito Alves saves us and uplifts us. Nito Alves, my son, our son – thank you!” The truth is that Alves has become the symbol of a slowly emerging movement that has shaken the Angolan government’s narrative of post-conflict stability.

Since March 2011 an eclectic group of urban youth inspired by the events of the Arab Spring have been organizing anti-Dos Santos protests identifying the President’s long rule as one of the root causes of corruption and human rights abuses in the country. Unlike their North African counterparts, the protests have not been large in size. Sometimes they are as small as fifteen, but are not usually more than a few hundred people. However, it is their symbolism as the first organized form of public resistance against the MPLA regime since the late 1970s that has surprised Angola watchers and the government. Despite often facing extreme police brutality and attacks from plain-clothed thugs these protests have not only continued for the last two years, but have spread. Protests, which began as Luanda phenomena, have occurred in Benguela and even the diamond province of Lunda-Norte. In theory, there is a little the government can do to officially prevent protests as Article 47 of the constitution states that people wishing to protest have only to notify the relevant authorities, they do not have to necessarily receive permission. Given that simply banning protests is not technically possible, the government has tried a variety of tactics to prevent them. Government actions have included claiming that alternative events are being held in the same spaces that protestors wish to use, holding youth concerts at the same time as the protests, accusing the participants of being frustrated layabouts, or more recently, performatively pretending to show concern for the Angolan youth by holding official youth conferences across the country under the auspices of a newly instated program entitled Diálogo Juvenil (Youth Dialogues). The government is concerned, and it should be, because one date hovers as a shadow across all these activities, and it is one, which, ironically enough, is encapsulated in Nito Alves’ name.

The major historical trauma of post-independence Luanda was the brutal repression of an urban uprising and attempted coup against the Neto regime on 27 May 1977. The leader of the uprising was, as history would have it, Nito Alves, a charismatic young member of the MPLA who had been the Minister of Interior until his differences with Neto led to his expulsion from the party and his arrest. With Cuban support, Neto crushed the uprising and arrested its leaders who were then executed. The violence did not, however, stop there. The following months would see a brutal purging of dissidents and intellectuals as Neto’s MPLA sought to consolidate its political control. From 1977 until the outbreak of protests in 2011, organized non-party based protest against the MPLA was almost unheard of. However, now a new group of youth with hopes for the future, and ironically, a new Nito Alves, have come to the fore. The comparisons to be drawn between the previous critical moment in Angolan history, and the present one are only too obvious. If some Angolans believe 1977 was a crucial turning point in Angolan history, many are beginning to see the present one as another potential such moment. The MPLA’s loss of a municipality in Luanda in the 2012 election, despite its overall victory (72% of the national vote) is a small indication of an increasingly shaky urban edifice.

If the first Nito Alves was the sacrificial symbol of the Angola that could have been, the young Nito Alves is fast becoming the symbol of an Angola that could be. As the yields of more than a decade of peace become increasingly unclear, especially to those who cannot remember the war, dissatisfaction amongst Luanda’s poor and even many of its wealthy is growing. But the issue is reaching beyond Angola, acting as a testing ground for the efficacy of international sympathies in mobilizing around African civil society causes. Amnesty International has launched a letter writing campaign in solidarity with Nito Alves, and MakaAngola, Mãos Livres, and Club-K are circulating a petition calling for his release. Nito Alves then, as Agualusa suggested, is not alone, but representative of growing changes in Luanda and perhaps Africa more generally, which point the way to a different future to that assumedly imagined by many of the continent’s political elites.

UPDATE: At the time of the publication of this article, the President of Mãos Livres, Salvador Freire dos Santos, announced that Nito Alves had been released from detention. Although released, he must report to a police station once a week until he is tried.

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