“When Freedom Died” in Angola: Alves and After
by John Saul

   As David Birmingham (Birmingham, 2006) has written,

  "The defining moment of Angola’s loss of innocence came a generation ago, on May 27, 1977. When the younger folk in Luanda feel reasonably safe from the prying ears of the security services, they ask ever more insistently, “Daddy, where were you on May 27?” In a country where most women are politically marginalized, they might even ask mother where she was hiding when the blood started flowing in the prisons. The pervasive fear of “preventive detention,” which normally reduces freedom of speech to mere freedom of conversation, is based on folk memory of the extensive witch hunts that followed the 1977 attempt by young idealists, including some radical young women, to overthrow pragmatic graybeards. That was the day when the Angola dream began to unravel. That was when the old president’s cancer began to take terminal hold. That was when scores between guerilla factions were resolved. That was when freedom died. (emphasis added).

  This essay will examine that moment in Angolan history, a moment too little noted by historians or analyzed carefully and critically by Angolans themselves – in part because of the pervasive fear that continues to stifle discussion amongst almost all Angolans of such a “dangerous” topic.

      There is some relevant scholarly discussion to be sure. There are, for example, the writings of Carlos Pacheco (Pacheco, 2000) and Jean-Michel Mabeko Tali in his O MPLA Perante Si Proprio (Tali, 2001) on - in a phrase Pacheco uses several times in his Repensar Angola - the “chamado golpe de estado,” the “so-called” coup attempt, led, ostensibly, by Nito Alves. And there is, even more tellingly, the writing on the “purga em Angola” that followed the “golpe” (as surveyed by the Mateuses, in their book entitled, precisely, Purga em Angola (Mateus, 2009], by José Milhazes, [Milhazes, 2011], Felicia Cabrita [Cabrita, 2008], and Leonor Fugueiredo [Figueiredo, 2010[) a “purge” that saw, at a conservative estimate, 30,000 people summarily executed by the MPLA and its Cuban allies (although, as noted below, some estimates do run as high as 80,000!). Moreover, the “chamado golpe,” the popular upsurge that underpinned it and the purge itself became, shortly thereafter, the trigger for the MPLA to further impose its authoritarian control of Angolan society at its own Congress of November, 1977, and formally constitute Angola as a “Marxist-Leninist” one party state. May 27, 1977, then: a day when freedom in Angola did indeed die.

    Of course, this process of authoritarian consolidation did not occur in a vacuum but, instead, was taking place under palpable conditions of siege. Both the FNLA and Unita were far less savoury (and militarily aggressive) claimants to power than was the MPLA, and their backing both by apartheid South Africa and by the hawkish assertions of the United States was equally cruel. No question: the MPLA did stand up against precisely the right enemies and the Cuban military presence, culminating in the historic defeat of the South Africa at Cuito Cuanavale, assisted the MPLA crucially in doing so. Such a context must be fully acknowledged in this essay, but it cannot disguise the fact that the cause of freedom in Angola was also blunted, crucially, by the authoritarian actions of the MPLA itself...and also, it would seem, by Cuba’s military contingent that was then present in Angola. This pattern of repression is, in fact, the principal focus of the argument of the present essay and it will serve to underpin my efforts to establish enough concrete evidence to make such charges stick. 


It is useful to begin by locating the roughly simultaneous armed struggles against Portuguese colonialism in Mozambique and (most centrally here) in Angola with some comments as to the crystallization, at the dawn of the sixties (right across the region and in the wake of the Sharpeville massacre, the Angolan upsurge, and related developments elsewhere) of a growing awareness of, and a gnawing resentment towards, the fact that the wave of decolonization to the north in Africa had come to an apparent halt at the Zambezi. It now appeared to nationalists in all five soon-to-be contested territories (Angola, Mozambique, Rhodesia/Zimbabwe, South-West Africa/Namibia and South Africa) that they would have to have much more dramatic, even militarized, confrontations with the white-minority regimes in the region than had tended to be the case further to the north in Africa in order to realize their own aspirations for decolonization. The emergence of such consciousness, and the organizational expressions it found were to be distinctively defined by the dynamics of each particular territory, of course. But the shared project of Africans (and their allies) throughout the region was also to find expression, not least in support from elsewhere on the continent (this constituting one of the few fronts of relatively successful pan-African assertion: e.g. PAFMECSA and the OAU’s own Liberation Committee), and also from even further afield (in the form of a growing global liberation support/anti-apartheid movement).

    Concomitantly, the shared threat that challenge from below by their colonized populations represented brought a greater sense of common purpose to the white enclave and enabled it to activate various sources of global support for itself. For the nature of western involvement was largely supportive of white domination; indeed, in the case of Portuguese intransigence it was ultimately necessary to experience a revolution within Portugal itself in order to resolve “the colonial question”! And in Lusophone Africa itself? In Mozambique, for example, a military victory over the Portuguese was forged under the leadership of Frelimo’s Eduardo Mondlane and Samora Machel and, in the first years of independence, developed into a self-consciously revolutionary project that stretched in its implications well beyond the goals of “mere” national independence. True, the subsequent realities of externally-defined destabilization, of quasi-civil war, of international pressures, and of internal contradictions served to roll back the country’s revolutionary aspirations and with time facilitated Mozambique’s virtual recolonization by global capital - there then emerging a Mozambique that, although now formally more democratic, saw the original hopes for genuine national transformation there become deeply compromised - in social, economic and political terms.


    Much the same story was true of Angola, even though it too did manage to overthrow the yoke of Portuguese colonialism.  Thus, the apparent stability of Portugal’s over-rule was disrupted by outright rebellion in Angola in 1961 and then by the emergence of sporadic but ultimately successful guerilla warfare and political mobilization. At the same time the new nationalism that underpinned this “success” was much less unified than that in Mozambique, with three different movements (MPLA, FNLA and UNITA) vying for primacy.  MPLA ultimately managed to establish a governmental project, one that itself proved to be quite vulnerable, for an extended period, to the guerilla-based (and in part at least ethnically-defined) opposition of Jonas Savimbi’s UNITA and the latter’s aggressive South African and American allies – this despite the Cuban assistance that the regime was also, importantly, able to draw upon. In consequence, in the 1980s and 1990s and with MPLA’s once radical rhetoric long-since rendered meaningless, Angola settled into a wasting pattern of civil war, the country’s rival protagonists (MPLA and UNITA) funding themselves, into the new century, from international oil revenues on the one hand and the proceeds of illicit diamond trading on the other.[ii] Then, with Savimbi’s death in 2002, UNITA did in fact tend to evaporate, but the weight of recent history had produced a markedly authoritarian “oil state,” in Tony Hodges formulation, and, for the bulk of the country’s population, a socio-economically disastrous, politically repressive, and physically dangerous situation.


    In short, the country, already burdened by a so-called “resource curse” (represented by the temptations for local elite and foreign interests alike that sprang from the existence of large oil reserves within the country), saw the crystallization of an economy formidably subordinate to and dependent vis-å-vis global capital and, simultaneously, the consolidation of the markedly selfish and authoritarian stranglehold upon state power held by the MPLA elite. Why did this happen? Obviously, the wasting effects of the war imposed upon Angola played some role, sufficient of a preoccupation to help sideline any more transformative project. But the fact remains that within the MPLA camp itself and even in the territory of the country that it most confidently controlled (notably Luanda and its most immediate hinterland) the MPLA elite were quite-consciously choosing for themselves a distinctly counter-revolutionary path for Angola (paradoxically, a kind of counter-revolutionary path of their own within the setting of rather differently premised regional counter-revolution being crafted at precisely the same time by South Africa, the United States, Zaire and their allies inside Angola, especially UNITA). Here the crucial events were those identified as, firstly, the moment of the Nito Alves coup (which, as noted above, Pacheco has consistently termed in his work the “chamado golpe” [the so-called coup]) and, secondly, the horrific and incalculably scarring purge which followed it.


The “chamado golpe” and “the purge”: establishing a narrative


For what was to occur in post-liberation under the MPLA was quite simply the imposition of a high-handed and profoundly undemocratic outcome upon the liberation process then in train; indeed virtually every detail of Angolan subsequent history graphically documents this fact. In this the MPLA elite was to be checked, albeit only momentarily in the mid-1970s, by the assertions of popular movements on the ground and the efforts of a new generation of very active young Angolan idealists. But this popular and potentially revolutionary force was precisely what the MPLA chose quite simply to crush (once again in the name of dealing with the “fraccionismo” that the core leadership had so often demonized in the past) during the second half of the 1970s as it asserted a unilateral claim to central power in Angola. Thus the Mateuses even quote Eduardo Macedo dos Santos to the effect that Agostino Neto said to him immediately after his being received by a tumultuous crowd on his arrival at Luanda airport on his return in 1974: “Eduardo, we’re looking at a well-structured and formidable force here. We have to understand it...and dismantle it.”[iii]

(Mateus and Mateus, 2010, pp. 58-9) The status of this statement by Neto is somewhat controversial, it must be said, deemed by some to be actually an account, by yet a third person, of Macedo dos Santos’ own account of what Neto had actually said. Perhaps the most important point, however, is that Neto and the MPLA proceeded to do just what he implied here that they should.


    Here, then, a key moment was what Carlos Pacheco has, as noted above, repeatedly referred to in his important book, Repensar Angola, as the “chamado coup” (so-called coup) of Nito Alves, an event, variously described and interpreted, that brought things to a head on May 27, 1977. (Pacheco, 2000) Much remains still to be learned on order to establish more precisely the parameters of this event: For example, was there indeed an actual coup or more along the lines of a counter-coup (i.e., the “chamado coup” thus being seen as primarily a fiction of the regime’s own making in order to excuse its subsequent repression)? What was the precise line-up of various political factions, of diverse regional forces and distinct generations? What was the interplay between civilian actors and military players? Such questions have never been fully unpacked or answered. One main reason: it is extremely dangerous for any researcher to do so. There has never been any kind of formal governmental inquiry into the actual events around the days “when freedom died,” and the apparent testimony of most Angolans is that they fear state reprisal were they ever to dare privately, even this long after the fact, to do so.


    After all, one of the key figures at the top of the MPLA hierarchy at the time of the “chamado coup” was the then foreign minister José Eduardo dos Santos and he now continues to reign as President of Angola today - having presided, in that very position, over studied state silence regarding these events for almost forty years. This is not too surprising perhaps; he, like the rest of the senior MPLA leadership, would seem to have a lot to hide with reference to the “coup” and its aftermath. Thus, as noted, no legal proceedings were ever launched against any of the presumptive coupistas at the time; many of them were merely murdered without due process or any further explanation. Nor has there ever been much of a public process through which to investigate or to further ventilate the nature of their “crimes,” or to explore in any detail the manner of their deaths, incarceration and torture – this despite the forming of a rather derisory “official tribunal of investigation” into the events in their immediate aftermath which was chaired by none other that José Eduardo dos Santos himself.[iv]


    Indeed, it is the bloody aftermath of the “coup” and the grisly role of the MPLA leadership in implementing the massive “purga” that followed it that may tell us most about the coup itself and its import for Angolan society.[v] For there then occurred what, as I have stated, can only be described as the crushing of a nascent popular movement of real promise and potential creativity in the musseques of Luanda and elsewhere in the country; this was carried out at staggering human cost, by the MPLA leadership - a grim, state-driven, massacre ensued, a “holocaust,” as some have termed it (Botelho, 2008), that saw the killing, outside any and all legal processes, of some 30,000 people (this being the most plausible estimate, although some estimates do run as high as 80,000).[vi] These were by no means all, or even mainly, “Alvesistas”: the terror (marked by death, wide-spread torture, and long term incarceration in various “detention camps”: the Cadeia de Såo Paulo, the Campo de Concentraçåo de Quibala and the Campo de Concentraçåo de Calunda, for example) was sweeping enough to include an entire range of people of very diverse political persuasion and resident in various regions of the country.[vii] And this “clean-up” process lasted for several years, thereby heightening the fear, paranoia and long-term trauma that it left in its wake. A further fact is that the death list came to be defined to a significant degree along generational lines, the Angolan ambassador to Canada recently conceding at a public gathering in Toronto that this was basically a confrontation that ranged the MPLA’s old guard against its younger militants![viii]


    Consider, too, the scope of these numbers of the dead in comparative terms: many times the count of those killed by the Pinochet regime in the aftermath of its Chilean coup, for example. And, in proportion to the size of their relative populations, on almost exactly the same level as the much remarked upon 500,000 persons killed by Suharto and company in their extermination of Communists in Indonesia in the 1960s. In fact, if the MPLA/Cuban war is considered by some to have been an “unknown war” these events in Angola constitutes, even more surely, an “unknown massacre.” For such numbers permit no other conclusion than that the MPLA, literally, waded through blood to establish its hegemony. Note too, that, during this trial by fire, the membership figures for the MPLA itself dipped precipitously in 1977 as the “weeding-out” continued (from 110,000 at the time of the “coup” to 32,000! [Mateus and Mateus, 2009, pp. 150-51). And this, what was left of the MPLA, was the party that could now move dramatically to further stiffen the terms of its own rule, its Congress later in the year affirming its official transformation, as noted above, into a hard-line Marxist-Leninist vanguard party. (Tali, 2001)


The dialectic of coup and massacre in Angola  

But how to think about the simultaneity of these two moments (coup and massacre) of the 1970s in Angolan history – linked as they also were and as we have suggested to a third moment: the stiffening by the MPLA of the terms of its own rule later in that same year (1997) when, as noted, it also moved, now purged, to transform itself, officially, into a vanguard party. For this was to be the framework of its firmly authoritarian domination for the next several decades, with many of its forbidding structures still quite prominent in the polity of the “new,” dramatically neo-liberal, Angola that currently houses on-going MPLA rule. Of course one major question about coup/purge dialectic locates itself right here: to what extent was the Nito Alves coup the cause, in and of itself, of the inordinate measure of sheer killing that followed it; to what extent was it merely an event exaggerated in its recounting to serve primarily as an excuse for the MPLA to rid itself of an untold number of tiresome critics?


    There is another question too: how credible does Alves himself seem as leader of any such push from below that “threatened” to force the MPLA leadership to be ever more responsive to its ostensible base among the mass of the Angolan people both in Luanda and beyond? The fact is that he seems in many ways to be an unlikely candidate for such a popular-democratic role. H was an active militant on the Dembos forest front of the MPLA for some years and thus initially closer to the MPLA’s small spur command centre in Brazzaville and to Luanda itself than to the movement’s rather distant “Eastern Front,” let alone the MPLA’s main leadership hubs in Dar es Salaam and Lusaka. Yet Alves would nonetheless eventually become a central player within the organization. As such he would be a key actor in helping to sideline both Daniel Chipenda’s Eastern Revolt and the Brazzaville-centred Active Revolt within the organization at the time. Moreover, once in Luanda after the Portuguese coup he was also to play a major role in suppressing such so-called “ultra-leftist” groupings as the Amilcar Cabral Committees and the Henda committees - to the latter of which Alves, in his “Maoist” phase has once been close. It was after this Maoist phase, of course, that Alves was to become much more a protagonist of a Soviet line – this latter being in and of itself a not very convincing seed-bed of democratic proclivities, needless to say.


    Nonetheless, the Luanda experience does seem to have been a learning experience for Alves in much broader ways. For, with others, he was caught up, both as leader and participant, in the dramatic popular resistances in Luanda that were so important in backing down the FNLA’s attempted march on the capital and shoring up the MPLA’s claim to power. At the same time he also seemed to sense that the MPLA leadership, increasingly identified in his thinking as dominated by right wing forces and becoming a “bourgeoisie-in-the-making,” was not as interested as it might have been in building seriously upon such expressed popular energies. Indeed, now more than ever, democratic empowerment from below and a new, more radical agenda of socio-economic change seemed to be becoming his mantra and that of many of the younger cadres from a range of locations throughout the country. Moreover, his own advocacy of such possibilities – too often caricatured on limited and doubtful evidence as being merely “racist” or “populist” - was soon to cost him dearly within the MPLA. Thus, in 1976, Alves (by now the Interior Minister in the new MPLA government) and his close colleague, the ex-political prisoner José van Dunem, a key political commissar in the army (and husband of another left notable of the time, Sita Valles, herself a leading functionary in the government’s Department of Mass Organization) were actually deposed from their leadership posts (as was Valles). These events marked important drawings of the lines of factional battles and there also seems no doubt that many Angolans, particularly in parts of Luanda bulging with vast numbers of the impoverished (Sambizanga, for example), took these expulsions as a personal set-back, one feeding a further sense in some popular quarters of a considerable distancing from the MPLA establishment.


    Such was the setting for a coup attempt, then. But what of the coup itself: “chamado” or real? One possible reading:


What happened in Angola may well have been primarily a provocation, long and patiently planned, one designed to encourage the “nitistas” to lose their heads and come out into the streets, thereby justifying a counter-coup (by the government itself), this also carefully planned


Neto and his group were focussed on the internal debate since the township-based Popular Committees were important centres of such debate amongst the people. And, as was natural, they were also concerned about the question of delegates to the [MPLA’s Party] Congress.


It was necessary {they felt] to avoid the Nitistas arriving in numbers at the Congress announced for the end of 1977. And for good reason. For there was a real risk of their winning the principal leadership positions. The focus of Neto and his group was, without doubt, on power. And to retain it they would do anything.[ix] (Mateus and Mateus, 2010, p. 176; my translation)


This seems quite plausible but the fact is that the hard evidence is not easy to come by. Nonetheless, the “chamado golpe” does seem to have been as much a popular demonstration - including even the brief takeover of the radio station in Luanda that transpired - as a serious coup attempt.


    It is also true, of course, that it did engage the energies of some military personnel, especially those of such Dembos notables as the celebrated Monstro Imortel (Joåo Jacob Caetano) and Bakalof (Eduardo Ernesto Gomes da Silva).  Moreover, there was the noteworthy fact of the bodies of the six senior MPLA notables found in a burnt out ambulance in the capital during the events – an apparent “fact” that was certainly resorted to as an explanation/excuse for the leadership’s reprisals that followed. Yet, needless to say, the provenance of this atrocity, was never scrupulously and publicly investigated, so that the Mateuses, for example, can write of the incident evincing considerable skepticism about such official accounts as exist. Moreover, as pointed out above, so brutal was the MPLA’s response to the “chamado coup” that it must be considered to have gone well beyond the bounds of dealing with the ostensible coupistas themselves. In retrospect, the results of the entire affair (however interpreted) must have been entirely to the old guard’s taste: internal opposition to the latter’s authoritarian project, and to the ultimate right-ward socio-economic turn it was to oversee, had been strangled for at least a generation into the future!


The Cuban role


It seems clear that Cuba’s own role in facilitating Angola’s victory, as well as the region’s overall victory against racial tyranny, was formidable – from the very first days of its arrival to support the MPLA in the teeth of the FNLA siege (under Mobutu’s tutelage) and to help counter the first invasion of Angola by the South African Africa army (with the UNITA movement in tow and with American encouragement) in 1975. And this pattern of vital assistance would continue, Cuba acting, at considerable cost to itself, both human and material, to help defend Angola against both a number of successive incursions by South Africa and the United States as well as the malign efforts of those countries’ main Angolan cat’s-paws, the FNLA and, especially, Jonas Savimbi and his UNITA movement. And the culmination of this Cuban role: “the battle of Cuito Cuanavale” itself, an event that provided a particularly important reference point for any positive evaluation of Cuba’s role. Indeed, there seems little doubt that the inability of apartheid to impose its will on the region as signalled by the Angolan/Cuban victory was also a key to the transfer of power, in Namibia, to SWAPO. Indeed, it helped, taken together with a number of other developments, the beginning of the end of the hegemony of the apartheid state both in the region and in South Africa itself. (Gleijeses, 2013)


    At the same time it is important to mark, as we have begun to do above, what else was happening during Cuba’s watch in Angola. For the MPLA, as we have suggested, was also advancing a less savoury cause of its own: the consolidation of an arrogant and authoritarian project for post-liberation Angola. But where, we might ask, was Cuba while all this was going on? It was in an unenviable position certainly, linked to a regime that was at once a murderous one but one whose overall cause it was also servicing militarily in what was undoubtedly a “just war.” Yet is also true that Cuba itself has not had so exemplary a record of democratic practice and democratic concern as, automatically, to be given the benefit of the doubt in such matters - even if it undoubtedly has also lent itself unselfishly to a host of “anti-imperialist” causes over the years and, domestically and through a wide range of exemplary social programmes dedicated to the servicing of popular needs. For the chief point here is quite straightforward: Cuba was not likely to begin to lose confidence in the MPLA, as the formal holder of power in Angola, as it moved to act in a high-handed and militaristic manner in defense of “its revolution.” Nor did it to so.


    In fact, Cuba had taken great pride in supporting the official MPLA even when the Soviet Union’s confidence in the official MPLA seemed momentarily to waver during these years. Gleijeses, for example, suggests that “the plotters...enjoyed the sympathy, if not the active support, of the Soviet embassy,” and even quotes, in apparent agreement, the (wildly overstated) 1978 statement to a Senate sub-committee by then U.S. Ambassador Andrew Young that “The Cubans and the Russians haven’t been always united in Angola...When there was a recent coup attempt against Neto, it was pretty clear from African sources that the Russians were behind that coup [sic].” Meanwhile, he affirms, “the Cubans sided with Neto.” All of which (not least Young’s claims) is not, as it happens, quite true. And yet recall Gleijeses’ citing of Raul Castro’s revealing reaction at the time to the events in question:


In the 1960s, Cuba would probably have embroidered its role in the coup with snide remarks about the less than honorable role played by the Soviets. The Cuba of the 1970s was more restrained. A few days after the failed uprising, Raul Castro replied to his Soviet counterpart, who has asked for Cuban assessment of the revolt, in impeccable fashion: his letter contained no reference to Moscow’s role, but detailed what the Cuban troops had done “at the request of President Neto in order to establish order.” (Gleijeses, 2002, p. 372]


    But there is considerable additional evidence that the Cubans chose actively to assist the MPLA in consolidating by force its continued hegemony. But as we have suggested above this “fact” itself warrants careful scanning. Instead, scholars, of the left and right persuasions, have seemed merely to acknowledge the fact that Cuba played an important role both in defeating the “golpistas” in 1977 and in the mopping up (read: largely physically eliminating) of the dissidence these golpistas had come to represent over the several years following the May, 1977s event themselves. And to leave it at that1 But this is to trivialize both the very real differences of line that existed within the MPLA of the time and to miss the real drama of the “purga” itself. Even minimally, as one my correspondents noted upon reading my first draft of this paper, it at the very least bears stating that “As far as the Cubans were concerned, I would think an important question is the precise extent to which they actively colluded in the police-security aftermath. I guess there is a distinction to observe between direct and indirect complicity.  But there, quite simply, can’t be any good rationale for hushing up such matters.  It all sounds dreadful.” True enough, though further study, were it to prove at all possible, into the records pertaining to the Cuban mission itself could still shed additional light on the exact details of the role Cuban actually played in these events.


    Meanwhile, some may continue to argue that the Cubans were never entirely at ease as the MPLA regime ran amok in enforcing its rule; at best, they might then argue (as suggested above), that the Cubans were quite simply caught between a rock and a hard place – too committed, for many good reasons, to the MPLA regime to abandon it or indeed to criticize it too forcefully as it turned not only increasingly authoritarian but also distinctly murderous. Yet there are many others who would argue that the Cubans must in fact have taken a quite active role in the entire chain of coup-related events that occurred, including the extensive “mopping up” activities alluded to above, and should now be prepared to talk about this more openly than they have done. (Mateus and Mateus, 2009, pp. 100-104) To repeat in this regard my correspondent’s point previously cited: whatever else may be true, there “quite simply can’t be any good rationale for hushing up such matters”!


Alves lives?


Meanwhile, as far as Angolan authorities are concerned they have managed, as noted above, merely to sit on these “matters” for almost forty years, despite certain demands by family members of the deceased for explanations and by other more general requests for more transparency about these events. But any such demands/requests have not been frequent, sustained or terribly loudly voiced. For the truth, most informed observers agree, is that the society remains traumatized by memories both of the “chamado golpe” and, even more, by memories of the pitiless killings which followed it. Only recently, in fact, have some questions in Angola begun to be voiced courageously - on various blogs and via other informal media - both about forty-year old events and about present authoritarian practices. Outspoken criticisms do not come easily into play, of course. Witness one recent headline, “Angola: Police Detain 23 at Anti-Government Protest in Luanda,” this announcing an article which proceeds to report on “an attempted anti-government report demonstration by the informal group of youths known as the Angolan Revolutionary Movement (ARM).” As the article then details: “A 2,000-strong police contingent, including armed police with machine guns and dogs and hundreds of state security agents, prevented the demonstration from occurring.” Shades of 1977; indeed, this item precisely epitomizes much about the texture of Angolan political life ever since that time. (AfricaFiles, 2013)


    Lara Pawson of the (British) Guardian newspaper is another who has reported on a new Angola, writing in 2011 of an “Angola...stirred by the spirit of revolution,” with her article’s subtitle then suggesting that while “it may not be ready for an uprising on the scale of Tunisia or Egypt yet...the tide is beginning to turn in Angola.” (Pawson, 2011) Indeed, after demonstrations at that time, Pawson wrote that


in direct contradiction to article 47 0f the new Angolan constution approved in January 2010, which grants the citizens the write to demonstrate peacefully, Bento Bento [the MPLA provincial secretary in Luanda] announced: Whoever tries to demonstrate will be neutralized because Angola has laws and institutions and a good citizen understands the laws, respects the country and is a patriot. The secretary general of the party, was only marginally more blunt: “Anyone who demonstrates,” he said, “we’re going to get you.”


This is not idle rhetoric. The MPLA has long relied on excessive brutality to quash opposition. As Sousa Jamba, a journalist and member of Angola’s main opposition party, UNITA, wrote last week: “The scars of 1977, 1992, etc, have not disappeared. We have a history in which demonstrations in the street, particularly in the capital, end in tragedy.


As Pawson then reminds us, Jamba is referring to 27 May 1977 so much discussed above and she notes that “the government’s response [then] – supported by the Cuban army – was extreme. Violent retaliations went on for months, killing thousands – some say tens of thousands – of innocent people. Many men and women were arrested and tortured, and some were held in concentration camps for years.” And now, as Pawson quotes Angolan journalist Rafael Marques as writing, “Opposition is frail but unhappiness with the MPLA is overwhelming.”


    More startling still is a more recent article by Pawson (Pawson, 2013; see also Pawson, forthcoming) that tells of the resistance clustering around the person of a second Nito Alves, the serendipitous resonance of his name being apparently more coincidental than not – though it occasions from Pawson the headline: “Nito Alves: the teenage reincarnation of resistance in Angola: The imprisoned 17-year-old activist shares a name with a rebellious political figure from the 1970s, and the authorities are unnerved. (emphasis added)” And she continues:


 “They are afraid of the people, they are really nervous.” So replied an Angola friend, a journalist since the 1970s, when I asked him why his country’s police had been holding a 17-year-old boy in solitary confinement without visitors or access to lawyers since mid-September…


All this it would seem merely for having had printed and then wearing a provocative t-shirt, challenging the president, José Eduardo dos Santos himself! For, ...if Nito Alves really is an icon, it is not only because of his initiative and courage. He symbolises the way that a growing number of young Angolans have lost the fear that has cowed their parents for decades. Indeed to anyone with knowledge about the country’s...history, this particular young man is an uncanny echo of the past.

  This because the present-day Alves “shares his name with one of Angola’s most taboo, and now dead political figures.” True, “thanks in part to thousands of Cuban soldiers, Nito Alves’ challenge to power failed” and, as a consequence, “thousands...of people were killed in the score-settling and purges that took place during the following week and months.” Now the new Nito Alves “rightly or wrongly, views the man who led the 27 May uprising as a fallen hero, a symbol of popular resistance to the entrenched – and extremely wealthy – MPLA elite. In a note smuggled out of Alves’ cell earlier this week, the teenager claims that because of his name and because he supports a local association that seeks justice for the victims of the 1977 purge, he has been threatened with death.” As Pawson concludes, “Despite their shared name being coincidental...the authorities appear to dislike the historical symbolism”!


    Similarly, Marissa Moorman – in her article “The battle over the 27th of May in Angola” (Moorsom, 2013) - also writes of the rebirth of the earlier Alves’ fame/notoriety as a positive dimension of the now-revival of a progressive politics in Angola. She does so in reporting on the MPLA’s being upset that, this year (2013) “a new social movement, the Movimento Revolucionário, organized a demonstration to remember the victims of the 27 de Maio as well as Alves Kamuligue and Isaías Cassule – two activists who disappeared last year after organizing veterans and presidential guards in a mass demonstration for pensions in arrears on May 27, 2012.”[x] This year the demonstrators were merely “beaten up,” although one, “so severely that he couldn’t move, [who] was refused treatment at four Luanda health clinics” and another who is “still in custody, [having been beaten by order of the provincial commander of the National Police, [and] accused of attempted homicide, and denied access to his lawyer”!


    As she also reminds us of the original period of “coup” and purge,

"Estimates of the numbers {many of them young people) killed in Luanda and other cities in the aftermath [of the supposed coup] range from 12-80,000. Thousands were jailed and killed. The state’s [then] newly formed secret information service (DISA), modeled on Salazar’s PIDE, dates to these terrifying days. Many describe the settling of personal rivalries and party vendettas in the chaos. All agree it put an end yo a vibrant, healthy, culture of political debate within the MPLA. Youthful engagement in politics was crushed or turned to vile ends...[In sum] 27 de Maio serves as a powerful cautionary tale: one that parents use to keep their children from protesting or getting involved in politics at all (opposition politics, that is), warning that it will bring ruin or death."


She further notes that one opposition party, the Bloco Democrático did publish several years ago an analysis “drawing a straight line from those events to the authoritarianism of the current leadership, the violence of the state and the intolerance of political debate.” And it is also true that, since the publication of various new books “in Portuguese about such events and since the Associaçao 27 de Maio, founded in the early 2000s, began to advocate for official recognition, historical investigation, and a truth and reconciliation commission of sorts for the 27th of May by victims, families of victims and friends of victims, things have begun to shift.” But “shift”? Perhaps, but not, it must be emphasized, very rapidly. As a result, Moorman concludes, “theories about what caused the 27 de Maio abound: a thermidor in the revolution, unresolved racial issues within the party, the contradictions of class, overzealous youth. One thing is clear: without an official reckoning, speculation and conspiracy theories will continue.”


    But are such indications of demonstrations and renewed questioning straws in the winds of change, nonetheless?[xi] It must be hoped that this is so and that the struggle for a more genuine liberation in Angola continues – despite the decades of enforced silence and a present set of circumstances within that country that are very far from open, democratic and in any way progressive in character.



[i]. An earlier version of this paper was first presented to the first meeting of the Lusophone Studies Association/LSA, held at York University, October 29-November 1, 2013


[ii]. On this changing reality see, especially, Tony Hodges’ two related editions, Angola from Afro-Stalinism to Petro-Diamond Capitalism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001) and Angola: Anatomy of an Oil State (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004).


[iii]. The Portuguese original reads: “Eduardo, estamos perante uma força estruturada e consideråvel. Temos de a conhecer e de a desmateler,”


[iv]. Interestingly, however, one of the military judges (Joao Neves, sent, as part of a national team, to investigate the linked events in the East of Angola) concluded of the national picture that “Foi um verdadeiro genocidio. Em Angola devem ter morrido umas 30,000 pessoas.” (Mateus and Mateus, 2009, p. 156).


[v]. The coup itself was a topic much debated at the time in progressive Africanist circles, including in the pages of the Review of African Political Economy/ROAPE (of which I was a “contributing editor” at the time). For example, a much more negative view of the nature of the Alves challenge to MPLA rule is to be found in Paul Fauvet’s several contributions to ROAPE at the time (Fauvet, 1978, pp. 88-104 and 1979, pp. 149-52). It is worth noting, however, how dependent Fauvet’s analysis is on the accounts in MPLA-aligned newspapers of the time; moreover, Fauvet, like Basil Davidson, who also wrote in ROAPE in support of his (and the official MPLA’s) position (Basil Davidson, 1979, pp. 152-3) says next to nothing about the realities of the purge and of the massacres clearly associated with it. Other ROAPE articles with rather different slants included Tony Southall (Southall, 1979 - this being a review of Claude Gabriel’s Angola: le tournant Africain? [Gabriel, 1978]), Gabriel’s own “In Defence of the Angolan Masses” (Gabriel, 1980, pp. 69-74), and W. G. Clarence-Smith (Clarence-Smith, 1980, pp. 74-76).


[vi]. See inter alia, Felicia Cabrita, Massacres em Afica (Cabrita,  2008), especially ch. X, “A Revoluçao Perdida de Sita Valles” and, crucially, Dalila Cabrita Mateus and Alvaro Mateus (Mateus and Mateau, 2009). The latter, in subscribing, after a great deal of impressive research, to the figure of 30,000, further note that the “Um responsavel da DISA [Departimento da Informaçao e Segurança de Angola] ouvido por nós fala em 15,000. A Amnistia Internacional fezum levantamento e avançou com 20,000 a 40,000 mortos. Adolfo Maria, militante da chamada Revolta Activa, e José  Neves, um joiz military, falam de 30,000 mortos. O jornal Fola 8 refere 60 000. E a chamada Fundaçao 27 de Maio fois até aos 80 000” (pp. 151-2). See also the revealing biography of the admirable militant Sita Valles (she being one of the principal martyrs of Angola’s “chamado coup”) written by Leonor Fugueiredo (Fugueirido, 2010).


[vii]. This is a crucial point: the sheer number and political diversity of those killed by the regime suggests that far more was at stake then merely “dealing with” Alves and his immediate comrades. Alves’ own career was, in fact, an uneven one and warrants further careful study (if such research should ever prove possible to carry out!) But it is even more important to emphasize that it was, precisely, a new generation of “trouble-makers” who were thus being removed physically by the MPLA from the political game.


[viii]. At a conference on “Africa’s Unknown War: Apartheid Terror, Cuba and Southern African Liberation,” held at the University of Toronto, September 27-28, 2013.


[ix]. The original quotation in Portuguese reads: “O que se passou em Angola tera sido uma provocaçåo, longa e pacientemente planeada, de modo a levar a nitistas a perderem a cabeça e sairam a rua, justificando assim um contra-golpe, também minuciosamente preparado. Agostinho Neto e os seu estavam preocupados com o debate interno, pois as Commissøes Populares de Bairro eram grandes centros de debate com a populaçao. E, come seria naturel, tambem estavam preoccupados com o problema dos delegados ao Congresso. Havia que evitar os nitistas chegassem ao Congresso, anunciado para finais de 1997. Com efeito. Existia o sério risco de conquistarem os principais lugares de direcçåo. A preoccupaçåo de Neto e dos seus era, pois, o poder. E pelo poder fariam tudo.”


[x]. Louise Redvers. “Dos Santos feels heat over 'murder'” [Redvers,2013]. As Redvers continues, “A leaked report claiming two long-missing activists were tortured and murdered by government agents has sent shock waves through Angola and sparked plans for a nationwide street protest.

The episode has turned the spotlight on President José Eduardo dos Santos, who has been working hard to polish his legacy as he appears to be preparing the ground to step down after 34 years in power. Former soldiers António Alves Kamulingue and Isaías Sebastião Cassule went missing in May last year after they were involved in organising a street protest in Luanda for war veterans complaining about unpaid military pensions. From the outset it was believed they had been detained by agents of the State Intelligence and Security Service of Angola (Sinse), the powerful agency notorious for operating an underground network of informants reporting to the presidency. Amid appeals from international groups including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the International Commission of Jurists and the United Nations Human Rights Commissioner, Navi Pillay, who visited Luanda in April this year, the Angolan authorities strongly denied any involvement in the pair's disappearance and pledged to investigate. Now 18 months later, an extremely detailed, confidential Sinse report describing how the pair were tortured in police cells and murdered has been leaked to Angolan website Club-K. Reacting to the report, the office of the attorney general made the extraordinary admission that, "given the evidence collected, it became practically proven that the two missing citizens were kidnapped" and that they might have been murdered.” Meanwhile, as for Nito Alves, a court order of November 8, 2013, ordered his release, with what longer term implications for him we will have to see.



AfricaFiles, 2013. “Angola: Police Detain 23 at Anti-Government Protest in Luanda.” September 20.   

  Birmingham, David, 2006. Empire in Africa: Angola and its Neighbours. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press.

  Botelho, America Cardoso, 2008. Holcausto em Angola. Lisboa: Vega.

  Cabrita, Felicia, 2008. Massacres em Afica. Lisboa: A esfero dos livros, especially ch. X, “A Revoluçao Perdida de Sita Valles.”


Clarence-Smith, W. G., 1980. “Further Considerations on the MPLA and Angola.” ROAPE, #19 (September-December, 1980), pp. 69-76.


Davidson, Basil, 1979. “Comments on Southall and Gabriel.” ROAPE #15-16 [May-December, 1979], pp. 152-3.


Fauvet, Paul, 1978. “Angola: The Rise and Fall of Nito Alves.” ROAPE #9 (May-August, 1978), pp. 88-104.


Fauvet, Paul, 1979. “In Defence of the MPLA and the Angolan Revolution.” ROAPE #15/16 (May-December, 1979), pp. 149-52.


Fugueiredo, Leonar, 2010. Sita Valles: Revolucionaria, Communista até a Morte. Lisboa: Alethea Editores.


Gabriel, Claude, 1978. Angola: le tournant Africain? Paris: Editions la Breche.


Gabriel, Claude, 1980. “In Defence of the Angolan Masses.” ROAPE, #19 (September-December, 1980), pp. 69-76.


Piero Gleijeses, 2002. Conflicting Missions: Havana, Washington and Africa, 1959-1976. Chapel Hill and London: The University of North Carolina Press.


Gleijeses, Piero, 2013. Visions of Freedom: Havana, Washington, Pretoria, and the Struggle for Southern Africa, 1976-1991. Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press).


Hodges, Tony, 2001. Angola from Afro-Stalinism to Petro-Diamond Capitalism. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.


Hodges, Tony, 2004. Angola: Anatomy of an Oil State (Bloomington: Indiana University Press.


Mateus, Dalila Cabrita and Mateus, Alvaro, 2009. Purga em Angola: O 27 de Maio de 1977. Alfragide, Portugal: Texto Editores.


Milhazes, José, 2011. “Golpe Nito Alves” e Outros Momenta da Historia de Angola Vistos do Kremlin. Lisboa: Altheia Editores.


Moorman, Marissa, 2013. “The battle over the 27th of May in Angola” on line at Africa is a Country, June 13, 2013


Pacheco, Carlos, 2000. Repensar Angola. Lisboa: Vega.


Pawson, Lara, 2011. “Angola is stirred by the spirit of revolution,” The Guardian, March 8.


Pawson, Lara, 2013, “Nito Alves: the teenage reincarnation of resistance in Angola: The imprisoned 17-year-old activist shares a name with a rebellious political figure from the 1970s, and the authorities are unnerved,” The Guardian, October 3.


Pawson, Lara, In the Name of the People: Angola's Forgotten Massacre. London, I. B. Tauris, forthcoming [April, 2014].


Redvers, Louise, 2013. “Dos Santos feels heat over 'murder': The disappearance of two activists is a serious challenge to Angola's leader before he retires”. The Mail and Guardian, 22 November, 2013.


Southall, Tony, 1979. Review of Claude Gabriel’s Angola: le tournant Africain?. ROAPE, #14, 107-110.


Tali, Jean-Michel Mabeko, 2001. O MPLA Perante Si Proprio (1962-1993), in two volumes. Luanda: Colleçao Ensaio and especially ch. 14, “A crise ‘nitista’(1976-1977): suas origins, desenface e repercussoes na gestao do estado, da sociedade e do MPLA” and, in this connection, section 5 of that chapter, “O malagro do golpe de estado and a viragem repressiva do regime angolano.”