Time for Truth and Reconciliation in Angola

This week marks the 45th anniversary of the terrifying events of May 27th, 1977, in which at least 10,000 former allies in the ruling MPLA were killed.  Amnesty International estimates the toll at treble that number.  Angolans who were alive then refer only obliquely to the massacre as “o vintissete de maio”, the day and month standing for events that cannot be named. The official version released by the ruling MPLA stated that it had been forced to defend itself against an attempted coup by a faction in the party.  Inconvenient facts were buried along with the victims or locked away in the minds of survivors.  The reign of terror unleashed on the dissident faction (and anyone connected with them) silenced internal dissent for decades.   So many have suffered from “not knowing”, so many died over these 45 years still tortured by the inexplicable disappearance of sons and daughters. [...]

Time for Truth and Reconciliation in Angola

This week marks the 45th anniversary of the terrifying events of May 27th, 1977, in which at least 10,000 former allies in the ruling MPLA were killed.  Amnesty International estimates the toll at treble that number.  Angolans who were alive then refer only obliquely to the massacre as “o vintissete de maio”, the day and month standing for events that cannot be named.

The official version released by the ruling MPLA stated that it had been forced to defend itself against an attempted coup by a faction in the party.  Inconvenient facts were buried along with the victims or locked away in the minds of survivors.  The reign of terror unleashed on the dissident faction (and anyone connected with them) silenced internal dissent for decades.  

So many have suffered from “not knowing”, so many died over these 45 years still tortured by the inexplicable disappearance of sons and daughters. In President Lourenço, they found a man who understood their pain.  His own wife, Ana, was one of tens of thousands of MPLA comrades who were detained and tortured, lucky to survive a purge that became a massacre touching almost every family.

Relatives of the dead, particularly those living outside Angola, had formed various groups to demand the truth.  The Associação 27 de maio was formed in Lisbon in 2005.  The orphaned children of executed Nitistas formed their own Movement, Associação M27.  Nothing changed until midway through President João Lourenço’s first term of office when he took the major step of admitting there had been “excesses” and promised an inquiry.  Campaigners have demanded death certificates be issued (or re-issued and corrected to state the actual cause of death), and that the remains of their loved ones be located and exhumed for reburial. 

So far, the much-vaunted inquiry has failed to deliver.  It may even have spread misinformation, whether by intent or accident.  The governing MPLA has the information and the power to authorise the release of any material or information, there are members of government, the security services and the armed forces still alive who can bear witness.  Hasn’t enough time elapsed for them to disinter the buried truth in its entirety?  Many insist that only then can there be true pardons for both sides involved.  Only then can the freedom to speak lead to understanding, forgiveness, and reconciliation.  Without these, it is argued that Angolans remain silenced and trapped by the culture of fear imposed since that terrible day.

NINETEEN SEVENTY-SEVEN

The newly independent Republic of Angola was born fighting. Agostinho Neto’s MPLA, at that time the best-positioned and strongest of the three liberation movements that had fought to achieve independence from Portugal, found itself ruling by default upon Independence in 1975. The other two movements, the FNLA led by Holden Roberto and UNITA led by Jonas Savimbi (who broke away from the FNLA), backed out of a power-sharing agreement, abandoned the capital and went back to war.  By default, only the MPLA controlled the seat of government and power, the capital Luanda.  The ensuing civil war, unleashed and fuelled by the great powers, dominated all activity for the next three decades.

Luanda in 1977 was a place in which disillusion and doubt had chipped away at the euphoria of independence.  Hopes of the promised better life as free Angolans were dwindling.  The MPLA’s victory had been underwritten by the Soviet Union which offered not just ideological support but material backing in hard currency, political and military training, and weapons with which to fight first the Portuguese and thereafter their FNLA and UNITA rivals.

The MPLA was at the same time a military organisation and a political one, a multi-racial Marxist-Leninist movement guided by intellectuals, many of whom inevitably were either of White Portuguese or Mestiço (mixed) descent or who belonged to the assimilado class (Angolans incorporated by the colonial administration into an élite status as part of their divide-and-rule strategy) as these were the only strata of society able to achieve a university education. 

Diverging views began to emerge, that ‘true socialism’ had been abandoned thanks to a pragmatic decision by Agostinho Neto’s cabinet to sign contracts for oil exploration and extraction with American companies at a time when the US government was working to destroy them.   Behind the scenes the United States was fighting a cold war, aiming to remove allegiance to the USSR by financing and strengthening UNITA (whose political allegiances flexed according to financial benefit) while persuading South Africa to deploy its defence forces as a surrogate.  The near success of this cynical policy was foiled only by the deployment of tens of thousands of Cuban soldiers, the first wave of internacionalistas who came to Angola’s aid.  Many Black Cubans feel a particular affinity for Angola, likely descended from the millions of Angolans enslaved and trafficked to North America. 

Dissatisfaction was further stoked by diverging ideological views and even pan-Africanist arguments.  Many Angolans struggled to understand why life was worse than under the Portuguese, still suffering the deprivations and destruction of war.  Dissenters began to associate and debate alternative options for changing the course adopted by the MPLA leaders.  Some may indeed have contemplated a coup, whether bloodless or not.  Others simply wanted Agostinho Neto to pay more attention to the masses (poder popular) and less to the so-called “moderates”.   Internal party paranoia led inexorably to catastrophe.

Assailed by enemies without and dissenters within, the ruling faction descended into a hotbed of paranoia.  The cohesive links – forged by a shared commitment to independence – began to dissolve, and the growing numbers of dissenters began to be perceived as a rival faction who presented a clear danger to the existing leadership. President Agostinho Neto’s closest cohort of allies, linked by more than a decade of shared struggle, and ideological fraternity bonded in exile, had agreed on a strategy which opponents blamed on Lúcio Lara.  Matters came to a head in October 1976 at the Third Plenary of the Central Committee of the MPLA, when Interior Minister Nito Alves and his ally José Van-Dúnem were openly accused by President Agostinho Neto of fomenting factionalism (fraccionismo) and were suspended for six months. They demanded – and got – an inquiry, headed by José Eduardo dos Santos.  When towards the end of that inquiry Nito Alves called for a “grand assembly of members” to march and show their support, it finally snapped Agostinho Neto’s patience and he announced that the two men were “dangerous ultra-leftists” who had been expelled from the party altogether.

Nearly all the information in the public domain about o vintissete de maio has emerged either from the MPLA’s version of events or from outsiders. Partial accounts have been written by foreign journalists and academics, whose nationality or place of residence gave them no cause to fear personal reprisal or the sudden disappearance of loved ones in retribution. A contemporaneous account was written by the English Marxist journalist and MPLA sympathiser Michael Wolfers, who went to Luanda for the Independence celebrations and stayed to help train journalists for Rádio Nacional de Angola (RNA).  He was present at the RNA complex on that day as an attempt was made to take over the station. From academics like Gerald Bender, David Birmingham or John Saul came additional information, gleaned from their research.  Much of this parroted the MPLA official version of events for lack of alternative voices. Death or the fear of death had silenced many of those who knew what had really happened.

Recently the most comprehensive addition to this body of work came from my former colleague, Lara Pawson, who after a stint herself as the BBC’s correspondent in Luanda was intrigued by the mystery and dogged enough to continue seeking answers.  What she learned formed the basis of her book ‘In the Name of the People, Angola’s Forgotten Massacre’.  And yet she too found it impossible to get to the best-informed sources, the surviving participants from one side or the other. 

The fraccionist leaders, all killed.

It’s clear that much of the story is still deeply buried. The version of events published in a 60-page document by the Political Bureau of the MPLA in July 1977 acknowledged the existence of what it called fraccionismo (factionalism) and described the group as “pretend revolutionaries whose real intent was to divide the MPLA and consequently divert the people from their true objectives at that stage of the struggle: to defend the territorial integrity of the country against imperialism and National Reconstruction”.  The politburo report identifies the leaders by their full names, Alves Bernardo Baptista (better known as ‘Nito’ Alves) and José Jacinto da Silva Vieira Dias Van-Dúnem (i.e., José Van-Dúnem).  It said the two men had been expelled from the MPLA Central Committee on May 21st

It accused them of planning a coup in three stages:  the first stage was entryism:  to infiltrate the governing MPLA party and its army, the FAPLA, to push their more extreme-left ideological strategy, while recruiting soldiers for an eventual military take-over.  The MPLA accused Zé Van-Dúnem of using his personal military connections to recruit 200 soldiers and to sway the ‘infamous 9th Brigade’ to his cause.

Stage Two was to undermine the existing political structure by spreading misinformation to discredit President Neto and the MPLA Central Committee, accusing them of being anti-Communist and failing to follow the ‘true path of Socialism’.  It alleged they infiltrated the peoples’ committees, unions, and the MPLA youth and women’s movements to spread this message. 

The third and final stage would be to effect a golpe de estado (a coup). Defense Minister Iko Carreira, Politburo Secretary Lúcio Lara, Head of DISA (Dept. of Information and Security Services – the secret police), Ludy Kissassunda and his deputy Henriques Santos ‘Onambwe’ were allegedly targets for assassination. Other leading members of the MPLA would be captured unharmed and held prisoner.  They’d free political prisoners from São Paulo prison and take over the national radio station and the newspaper.   

Survivors interviewed by Lara Pawson, inter alia, admit that Nito Alves began to organize dissenters in Sambizanga.  The youth wing of the MPLA had established an excellent soccer team, Progresso, which due to growing popularity would hold club meetings every evening at the Salão Faria.  Nito Alves was the club president and would often speak out and hold court.  He was a ‘man of the people’.

Surviving Nitistas admit that all options were discussed in the lead-up to May 27th, including deploying their military allies to force Lúcio Lara and others to step aside. Some, including his brother João, said Zé Van-Dúnem had argued persuasively that there should be no bloodshed and it was agreed they would summon their supporters onto the streets for a mass demonstration to show Agostinho Neto the weight of support for changing course. In the event, some factionalists undoubtedly went far beyond that.

At 0400 hours on the 27th, a detachment from the 9th Brigade led by two female commanders (Elvira da Conceição “Virinha” and Fernanda Delfine “Nandy”) in an armoured vehicle stormed the São Paulo prison to release Nitista political prisoners (amongst them the FAPLA political commissars who presented the popular Armed Forces’ radio programmes, Povo em Armas and Kudibanguela).  In the firefight that ensued, the prison chief Helder Neto died from a gunshot wound (President Neto said he was murdered by the fraccionistas; others said he committed suicide so he would not be captured.)

Two hours later, other elements from the 9th Brigade helped secure the radio station, replacing the expected program with Kudibanguela.  The presenter announced the radio had been taken over by “revolutionary comrades unjustly accused of treason and factionalism” saying “a new Marxist-Leninist revolutionary process was underway”.  It’s said this was the moment Agostinho Neto called Fidel Castro to ask for Cuban military support to secure control.  

By 0930, the radio announcer was telling listeners that in the face of Cuban tanks surrounding the presidential palace, the mass demonstration would now proceed to the Radio station instead.   Cuban armoured vehicles, commanded by Colonel Rafael Moracén Limonta, accompanied by Onambwé and Delfim Castro from the DISA, the Angolan secret police, rolled up at 1130. As heavy machine gun fire raked through the crowd of demonstrators and the building was retaken, the station was still broadcasting until the Cuban Colonel took to the microphone in Spanish to tell the Angolan people and their President Agostinho Neto that the station was now in his hands and that there were some ‘confused people’ there.  [“Que se encuentre aqui pueblo confundido.”]

By 1400 hours, the 9th Brigade had surrendered.  An hour later, the President appeared live on television to explain the protest as “members of the political and military leadership having tried to express their discontent over disciplinary measures”.   By 1800 hours his tone had changed.   

Some Nitistas had taken hostages.  Apologists for the Nitistas say the hostage-taking was a short-term tactic aimed to guarantee no reprisals for the organizers of the demonstration.  They were taken to a location in Sambizanga (the home of a footballer named Kiferro) to keep them out of the way.  Local men, linked to the football club, had been given weapons the night before by soldiers and were placed on guard. 

This is one version of events:  there was no order to kill the hostages.  At the sound of nearby gunfire, the men guarding the hostages panicked and turned their weapons on the hostages before setting fire to their remains as a cover-up.  An alternative version pins the murders on an undercover DISA agent named as ‘Tony Laton’. The murdered men included much-loved heroes of the liberation war, Comandantes Dangereux, Nzaji, Bula and Eurico as well as Major Saidy Mingas, the Minister of Finance. Their grisly end was the catalyst for the brutal repression that ensued.  

President Agostinho Neto was incensed at the challenge to his leadership by these young, charismatic men.  Some of his close allies had been murdered. The deaths in Sambizanga, along with the storming of the prison and the attempted takeover of RNA were his justification for the bloodbath that followed, described as “swift judgement in tune with the national mood”.  It was too late to argue that a coup wasn’t the intent that day.  Neto had already spoken: “We are not going to waste time with trials, there will be no more pardons.”

Hundreds of soldiers, including Cubans, were sent into Sambizanga.  There was indiscriminate shooting over the days that followed as the Cubans sought out everyone connected with the Progresso football club. Cuban tanks flattened scores of houses.  The ringleaders were soon rounded up or surrendered, unwilling to hide while so many of their supporters were being slaughtered. Nito Alves had been sheltering in the neighbouring province of Bengo.  A local woman named Domingas who brought him food told him that the MPLA had threatened to execute his parents unless he surrendered. Through Domingas he passed word to Comandante Margoso to come and get him. He was executed but the whereabouts of his remains are a mystery. Anyone suspected of links to the faction was seized, regardless of innocence.  A kangaroo court, dubbed “the Court of Tears”, went through the motions:  guilty as charged, sentenced.  Tens of thousands of people disappeared, some to prisons, some to re-education camps, some to exile.  MPLA membership, recorded as 110,000 in 1976 was down to 32,000 a year later. It ushered in an era of fear and silence that has not yet lifted.

President Lourenço is standing for re-election in August this year, a second five-year term would see him still in office when the 50th anniversary of 27 de maio comes around.  Children orphaned by the 27 de maio purge, amongst them the son of Zé Van-Dúnem and Sita Valles, are pleading with President Lourenço to accept that the current inquiry under Justice Minister Francisco Queiroz is too flawed. They say it’s time to name names: “You cannot issue pardons, if you can’t identify who they are for.”  They argue that the best chance of closing the chapter on nearly half a century of pain, would be to set up Angola’s own Truth and Reconciliation Commission – a tried and tested process that can help a traumatized nation to heal, and which would leave a legacy of honesty and justice for generations to come.           

* Former BBC World Service Luanda Correspondent, 1990-92

Sources: