Nicki Minaj’s Angola

Africa is a Country asked a group of writers and thinkers what they think the 15+2 trial means for contemporary Angola, which celebrated its independence on November 11.

Updated: Minaj, right, with Isabel dos Santos, left, post concert. Credit: Screengrab from Instagram.

Nicki Minaj’s decision to go play a concert in the Angolan capital, Luanda, has refocused the spotlight again (particularly in the United States, where Angola rarely features in the media) on the trial of the “15+2” and on general political repression there. The Angolan state accuses these seventeen civil society activists – fifteen arrested in late June and jailed since then and two accused but not detained by the state – of organizing acts of rebellion against the state (planning a coup, in other words) and an attempt against the President. The trial is now in its fifth week.

If this is the first you’ve heard of this trial, we suggest you do some reading. We have covered the arrest and the social protest around it here, here, and here. Others have written about here, here, and here. For an analysis of the trial here is makaangola’s take.

Africa is a Country asked a group of writers and thinkers what they think the trial means for contemporary Angola, which celebrated 40 years of independence on November 11. Here is what they had to say to each other and to us.

Dum Spiro Spero:  In 2002, the Angolan civil war ended after three decades of bloodshed, famine, destruction of infrastructure and rupture of the social fabric. In the same year, Malcolm Gladwell published Tipping Point: How Small Things Can Make a Big Difference. In the book, Gladwell defines the tipping point as being that “magic moment when an idea, tendency, or social behavior crosses a threshold, tips and spreads like fire.” Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation in Tunis in December 2010 which led to the Jasmine Revolution and, arguably, to the wider-scale phenomenon known today as the Arab Spring, is one fitting example.

If we believe Gladwell, then perhaps it is fair to say that Angola has just witnessed its first tipping point – finally, at age 40! In a society where the voices of dissent are often stifled (if not completely silenced), the national outcry generated around the infamous case of the 15+2 activists currently under arrest – and the parallel wave of international support for their unconditional release – is no small feat.

What remains to be seen, however, is if the upcoming trial of these young men and women will be a harbinger for true, tangible change in Angola. The outcome of their trial could represent a quantum leap in the way the Angolan regime is viewed from within. A fair trial could be interpreted as a sign of better things to come. Angola desperately needs less uniform thinking in order to make progress on all fronts. This includes the mammoth task of uplifting the living standards of at least two thirds of its citizens who have yet to benefit from the much-vaunted economic growth reported over the last decade. Angola also needs more tolerance towards non-conformists like these activists who probably represent many other muffled voices and minds. An unfair or bogus trial, on the other hand, will only consolidate the label that the Angolan regime has had for several years: an African state with muscle and “attitude”.

In a BBC survey conducted in 2008, a small majority of Angolans claimed to trust the country’s legal system. After many weeks of this trial, will their opinion change at this pivotal moment of Angola’s modern history?

Claudio Silva (@caiplounge): The unprecedented wave of national and international support generated around the case of the 15+2 political prisoners is certainly a tipping point in Angola’s recent history. But I’d say it’s the first of several that will come our way during the next decade or more.

It’s clear that Angola has a long way to go in its nation-building process. History hasn’t been kind to us – from slavery to colonialism to civil war, we’ve been a constantly fractured society that has often found it difficult to agree on who should govern the country and how. But when the civil war ended in 2002 we finally had the chance to govern ourselves without the violence and destruction of war.

Unfortunately, I feel that we haven’t taken the best advantage of our newfound peace and our newfound wealth. In a decade of unparalleled economic growth (11% average annual growth over the past 10 years), we were unable to address the country’s most pressing social needs, such as our sky-high infant mortality rate, our woeful education system, our completely inadequate health system and our access to drinking water. We were unable to diversify our economy. Instead, we made some politically-linked Angolans extremely wealthy and widened the gap between rich and poor. Most tellingly, we were unable to use our wealth for the benefit of most Angolans.

On top of this, we’ve made sure to consolidate MPLA’s hegemony over society. Civil liberties and the rule of law continue to be blatantly disrespected. And so it is that in the year we are celebrating our 40th independence, we’re also decrying a police force that beats up the mothers of the 15+2 detainees in the streets of Luanda in broad daylight and a government that finds it necessary not only to threaten a peaceful vigil with water cannons and anti-riot police but also to declare vigils illegal.

What kind of country will we have when we celebrate 50 years of independence?

Lara Pawson (@larapawson): I don’t entirely trust Malcolm Gladwell. That said, the Canadian journalist’s most recent book also has uncanny echoes with the trial taking place in Luanda since November 16. It’s called David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants.

I believe that the stone has been hurtling towards Goliath’s head ever since the 27 February 2011, when rapper Luaty Beirão stood on a stage in Luanda and bellowed, ‘Ti Zé Tira o Pé: Tô Prazo Expirou Há Bwé!’ In lyrical slang, he was telling President José Eduardo dos Santos to step down from power – to loud applause from the audience.1

Thinking about this trial, and the 15 men who have been detained since June, accused of allegedly plotting to overthrow the president, I’ve been reflecting on the thoughts of Agostinho Neto, Angola’s first president. I’ve been re-reading his poetry, including Aqui no cárcere (Here in prison), which was written in a Luanda prison cell in 1960. Ponder these final lines:

Here in prison
rage contained in my breast
I patiently wait
for the clouds to gather
blown by the wind of History

No one
can stop the rain.

They could have been written for this very moment. Their poignancy encourages me to feel deeply optimistic for Angola. In 1960, the battle for liberation from Portugal’s fascist regime was beginning. Neto knew that Portuguese colonials would be the losers, just as the courageous and inspiring men and women on trial these last weeks know that the winds of history are blowing in their favour. It has not been easy and it will not be quick, but as Amílcar Cabral insisted, the ‘seed that has long lain waiting’ will eventually spring forth.

Justin Pearce (@DrJustinPearce): I wish I could be optimistic. It’s nice to think that a few heroes might stop a behemoth regime. But think back ten years or so, when people were saying every month that the Mugabe regime had reached its tipping point. It wasn’t just that Zimbabwe was out of cash and producing nothing except new crops of zeroes on the national currency. Zimbabwe also seemed to have an alternative: an alliance (albeit unholy) between organised labour, indigenous business interests and civil society, with credibility at home and abroad. This alliance was associated with a political party which, for all its internal contradictions, had established an institutional foothold using the opportunities offered by a constituency-based elections and decentralised local government.

Mugabe faced down his opposition with the boot and the baton. He doesn’t look like he’s leaving any time soon.

Compare Angola. The decline in the price of petroleum has caused a foreign exchange crisis, but Angola still has a functioning economy: the world will always want oil, even if it’s paying less for it. Angola has no labour movement to speak of. Indigenous business exists only by the grace of the presidency. Civil society is bolder than it was, but isolated. The main opposition party has given voice to some popular concerns but it struggles to break out of its wartime self-regard as a quasi-state answerable to its own devotees, rather than a political alternative able to reshape the current order. A centralised political system ensures that no one outside the MPLA gets anywhere near a position of influence. The palace’s control of the cash flow restricts opportunities to a still smaller circle.

The Dos Santos regime is stronger than the Mugabe regime ever was. The most striking similarity between Zimbabwe and Angola is the regime’s eager return to the boot and the baton. Angola has the cash and the institutional culture for more boots and batons to come.

Paulo Inglês: Contrary to what has been said by the government media, there is no order (produced by the Government) versus a disturbance or disorder produced by the Revú Movement. Instead, we have a different perception of orders. The Revú Movement challenged the order that has been dominant in the last ten years. An order which, some claim, did not offer a real break with a political culture characterized by a sort of soft authoritarianism.

Where the government sees an incipient democracy, with some failures but still a democracy, the Revú Movement sees authoritarianism, even with elections. The Revú movement wants to change this “status quo” and go a bit further in the democratisation process.

The trial is not, in this regard, the scenario of judicial disputation, but a “stage” of political disputation. The Benfica court is a kind of new Parliament, the place of hope, dreams and desires of an entire people, but also a place of loss and frustration.

The trial is still slow, sometimes annoying and almost endless, and the society, represented by the 17 respondents, keeps waiting stoically. At the end it is a disputation between political obstinacy and common sense and I hope the latter will prevail, whatever the dramatic situation of the moment and the coming days, tipping point, or step along the path.

  • Minaj is only the next in a long line of pop stars who played for dictators (on Angola, Mariah Carey has been to Luanda to play for the Dos Santoses too). See here, here and here for some background.

Further Reading