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Books and dreams: an autocrat’s nightmare

If seventeen activists can destabilize a regime that has been violently repressing and harassing those fighting for democracy and freedom for nearly four decades, what can 22 million Angolans achieve? Português

Detained activists at the court, in the middle (behind) you can see Luaty Beirão. Coque Mukuta/Voice of America. All rights reserved

Fear destroys people. It corrupts more than money. Fear is not a choice. There is no way to avoid being afraid. However, we can choose not to surrender to it.

- José Eduardo Agualusa, “The Society of Involuntary Dreamers”

When Luaty Beirão and his fellow activists were arrested for reading a book, there was a huge outcry for justice and democracy. How can people be jailed for reading a book? Where does a thing like this happen? Well, it happens in Angola.

Angola is one of the most resource-rich countries in Africa – its capital city, Luanda, is the most expensive city in the world –, and it is also one of the most impoverished and corrupt. Billions which were due to be spent on rebuilding the country after the civil war – which ended in 2002 – mysteriously disappeared: approximately 28 billion dollars from the period 2002-2015 remain unaccounted for. On the other hand, the President´s daughter is now Africa´s first female billionaire and his son has been appointed chairman of the country´s sovereign wealth fund. Meanwhile, 94% rural households are in a deprived condition, two-thirds of the population lives on less than two dollars a day, the country suffers from high infant mortality rates, and citizens lack proper access to clean water and sanitation facilities.

How can people be jailed for reading a book? Where does a thing like this happen? Well, it happens in Angola.

The Revus as dreamers.

It is hard to understand how Angolans can put up with the ransacking of their country by the President and his entourage. They cannot possibly ignore what has been happening for the last 38 years - since José Eduardo dos Santos first became President. They cannot be turning a blind eye on decades of corruption, violence, electoral fraud and censorship.

It is difficult to say where fear ends and apathy begins. But when the Revus –  short name for “revolutionaries” in Angola – were arrested for reading Gene Sharp´s From Dictatorship to Democracy, A Conceptual Framework for Liberation and charged with conspiracy to organize a coup d’état to overthrow Mr. dos Santos, something unexpected happened. Civil society fought back. And Luaty Beirão and 16 other activists, taking full advantage of international interest and media support, shook the pillars of the regime - until then, apparently quite solid.  

It is difficult to say where fear ends and apathy begins. 

The trial was stained with irregularities. The so-called 15+2 case ended up with the activists being convicted for different offenses, but the coup d´état charges were dropped. Angola´s government, however, made an important mistake, for the trial showed the world that Luanda´s regime was afraid of 17 human rights activists who had gathered to debate on a peaceful and democratic future for their country. It showed that the regime was afraid of books.  

As these events unfolded, many people genuinely thought that things were going to change. But they have failed to do so. Today, activists and human rights advocates are as isolated as ever and the regime keeps on hiding behind a democratic mask. The momentum created by Luaty´s hunger strike, international pressure and media attention was lost.  All the excitement around the Revus did not contribute to advance the struggle for democracy in Angola. After their release from prison, interest in the issue subsided and things got back to “normal”.  Politicians - even those in the opposition - refused to severe their ties with the regime and showed that they were actually willing to go on participating in unfair elections. They refused to let go of their benefits in exchange for true democracy in their country. The Revus were alone again. Things did not change.

The afternoon sun reflects off a shanty town outside Luanda, Angola. Jeff Widener/Zuma Press/PA Images. All rights reserved.

“They are crazy, they show no fear”

But as Angolan writer José Eduardo Agualusa says in his last book, The Society of Involuntary Dreamers, we must believe in the revolutionary, transformative power of dreams. The imprisoned activists dreamed of a democratic Angola. They dreamed of freedom, of human rights, of a common future. The problem was that their society did not dream of it too. But now, perhaps the time has come.  

The trial showed the world that Luanda´s regime was afraid of 17 human rights activists who had gathered to debate on a peaceful and democratic future for their country.

José Eduardo dos Santos is stepping down. He may retain control over the ruling party, choose its candidates at parliamentary elections and appoint key officials, but he will be no more Africa´s second-longest serving leader. Joao Lourenço, a former military man, a technocrat and currently deputy president of the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), will succeed him. Many doubt that he will be able to keep the party – and the country – together.

Angola may be on the verge of a transition. But this transition will not do away with the regime if civil society and the opposition do not do something about it. The country´s economic crisis and its oil dependence, together with the worsening social and economic conditions that have resulted in an impoverished urban middle class, could lead to political and social unrest. An exercise in responsibility is needed if this is to be avoided. And this, in turn, requires that Angolans be willing to take action in pursuing an expanded democracy and a peaceful future.

They should get, however, some help from their friends. José Eduardo dos Santos’s departure is an opportunity for the international community, and particularly for the United Nations, the European Union and African countries to pressure the Angolan regime into opening to democracy – into becoming a truly democratic country. Some would say that imposing conditions on trade and diplomatic relations is a neocolonialist attack on the country’s sovereignty. I disagree: it is a move to force a regime that does not show any respect for human rights and freedom to uphold them. And I suspect that those against this kind of measures are the ones who have looked the other way for the past four decades, and have showed how much they care about Angola and the future of its people. Independent and responsible media also have an important role to play, explaining how life is like in Luanda, how is life in the slums, how children die from preventable diseases, how public funds and resources have ended up in private hands, and who qualifies as a political prisoner in Angola.  

Angola may be on the verge of a transition. But this transition will not do away with the regime if civil society and the opposition do not do something about it.

Mr. Dos Santos is finally leaving. A transition will take place. It remains to be seen what kind of transition and towards what end that will be. But the Revus should not be alone anymore. What they whey want are free elections, respect for human rights, and democracy - and they are willing to fight for it. “They are crazy, they show no fear, and that is a contagious disease”, recognizes Angola´s President in Agualusas´s new book. Of course they are afraid. But they have decided to resist their fear and they feel empowered by this reasoning: if seventeen activists can destabilize a regime that has been violently repressing and harassing those fighting for democracy and freedom for nearly four decades, what can 22 million Angolans achieve?

Change - political change - can arise from different sources, one of which is dreams, as José Eduardo Agualusa argues in his truly inspiring book. Luaty´s and all the Revus in Angola have a dream. Will their country be willing to dream it with them?

About the author

Manuel Serrano holds a Bachelor’s degree in Law from ESADE Business and Law School and a Master´s degree in International Relations from the Barcelona Institute for International Studies (IBEI). He is an international affairs analyst, journalist and editor. He worked as Junior Editor at openDemocracy (2015-2017) and currently is freelance correspondent in Lisbon.

Manuel Serrano es licenciado en Derecho por la ESADE Business and Law School y Máster en Relaciones Internacionales por el Instituto Barcelona de Estudios Internacionales (IBEI). Es analista político, periodista e editor. Trabajó como Editor Asistente en openDemocracy (2015-2017) y actualmente es corresponsal freelance en Lisboa.

Manuel Serrano é licenciado em Direito pela ESADE Business and Law School e completou o Mestrado em Relações Internacionais no Instituto Barcelona de Estudos Internacionais (IBEI). É analista político, jornalista e editor. Trabalhou como Editor Júnior na openDemocracy (2015-2017) e actualmente é correspondente freelance em Lisboa.


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