Angolan rights activists say young protesters lead pro-democracy push using Internet


Young Angolan protesters who have been able to mobilize online have invigorated anti-corruption and pro-democracy campaigns, traditional political activists in the southern African nation said Monday.

Elias Isaac, country director in Angola for the independent Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa, Marcolino Moco, a member of Angola’s ruling MPLA who is nonetheless a sharp critic of longtime President Eduardo dos Santos, and Horacio Junjuvili of the opposition UNITA party held a news conference in neighboring South Africa Monday to discuss their concerns about the state of democracy in the southern African nation.

In South Africa, the three said, they have access to a free media lacking at home. Young protesters have circumvented censorship by using Facebook to spread word of gatherings, and have posted videos of their demonstrations — and the often brutal police response — on YouTube.

Human Rights Watch has called on the Angolan government to “end its use of unnecessary force, including by plainclothes agents.”

“It’s a very small movement. What is so interesting about it is this disproportionate response,” said Human Rights Watch researcher Lisa Rimli.

Rimli, who did not attend Monday’s news conference in Johannesburg, said in a telephone interview that the government may be particularly wary of the potential of the protests to spread in an election year. She said the government has been unable to track the leaders of the group, and that protests have continued despite arrests and violence. Meanwhile, traditional activists have struggled to hold demonstrations, she said.

Isaac said the young people’s protest movement includes demonstrators from impoverished neighborhoods in the capital, Luanda, that are seen as opposition strongholds. But he said young people with the means to travel abroad and links to dos Santos’s MPLA party also are protesting, demanding that Angola enjoy the economic and political developments that they have witnessed abroad.

Moco, who was prime minister from 1992-1996, said those calling for greater political freedoms are fighting an entrenched and powerful machine run by dos Santos, who has been in power since 1979. Dos Santos’ critics say he has been able to use the country’s oil wealth to consolidate power for himself, his relatives and his cronies even as most Angolans remain poor.

Moco said the protests by young Angolans, though small, give him “hope that something is going to change, one day.”

Angolans have endured decades of violence, starting with an anti-colonial war that began in the 1960s, followed by a civil war that broke out after independence in 1975. The civil war ended in 2002 when the army killed UNITA leader Jonas Savimbi.

Today, many older Angolans fear pushing too hard for political reforms could lead to renewed civil war, said Junjuvili, the UNITA politician.

But “the younger generations are fed up,” Junjuvili said.

The youth protests began in 2010 with fewer than a hundred people at scattered demonstrations in Luanda, Isaac said. He said the number of protesters who turn out is slowly starting to grow, and that demonstrations are being held more frequently. Last month, one was even held outside Luanda, in Benguela, a southern coastal town.

“We believe that, bit by but, these things are going to spread,” Isaac said, though he acknowledged a mass protest could be met with mass repression.

To date, the protests are far from the scale that was seen in Egypt or Libya, where popular demonstrations toppled longtime leaders. But Moco, the former prime minister, said the president should heed the lessons of the Arab Spring.

“I don’t see,” he said, “how Mr. Eduardo dos Santos can’t see what is happening in the world.”

HRW’s Rimli said the young protesters “have the feeling that they have nothing to lose.

“They have been successful in one aspect: People lost fear.”