Angolans laugh a little louder as iron grip loosens

LUANDA (Reuters) - A front page complains that the city traffic lights do not work, audiences laugh a little louder at risky political gags, and a policeman admits mistakes were made. After decades of iron rule in Angola, there are signs of a softer touch.

Protesters demonstrate against corruption in Luanda, Angola, April 7, 2018. REUTERS/Stephen Eisenhammer

For sure, institutions from public media to the courts remain weak and the state almost all-powerful, but President João Lourenço appears to be easing the grip held by his predecessor Jose Eduardo dos Santos, who governed for 38 years including nearly three decades of civil war.

Since taking over last September, Lourenço has promised to revive an economy battered by lower oil prices and tackle corruption. He also said he would nurture civil liberties.

Greater transparency in what was one of Africa’s most secretive states could help restore investor confidence in the continent’s second largest crude producer.

Lourenço is already being tested.

On a recent Saturday in a poor and polluted corner of Luanda, around 70 men took to the streets, waving placards and chanting for the removal of a local government chief. Just 8 months ago, this would have been unthinkable.

“Now with the new government there is a certain margin, a certain liberty and we are using that to make ourselves heard,” said Denilson Alexandre, a 26-year-old accountancy student.

State news organizations covered the demonstration without labeling protesters dangerous delinquents.

National papers increasingly write about the lack of medication in hospitals or functioning traffic lights in Luanda.

State television and radio invite guests from opposition parties to discuss policy.

In a recent radio debate, callers lambasted a police commander as he repeatedly apologized for the heavy-handed tactics of the past and guaranteed the force was working to correct errors.

“We want our public media to actually serve the public, and not the government,” Social Communications Minister João Melo told Reuters.

For Melo the opening is not just right, it is also vital for the ruling MPLA party to regain relevance and reverse hemorrhaging support.

The party may have governed Angola uninterruptedly since independence from Portugal in 1975, but since regular elections were introduced in 2008 its share of the vote has tumbled from 82 percent to 61 percent – though the opposition contests those results.


So far, Lourenço’s popularity has soared.

Isabel dos Santos, the daughter of the former president, has been sacked as chair of the state oil company Sonangol and her half-brother Jose Filomeno dos Santos has been charged for attempted fraud.

But critics wonder if openness will continue if anti-government criticism mounts or once Lourenço secures the party presidency, a position still held by dos Santos.

“The press is freer, but there’s no guarantee it will stay this way,” said Teixeira Candido, head of Angola’s journalist union, explaining the president still appoints the board of state media organizations.

The president also remains seemingly beyond criticism.

When his convoy hit a 13-year-old girl in the province of Cabinda in November, far from causing a scandal, local media applauded Lourenço for organizing her transfer to a private clinic in Luanda.

“Adolescent crashes into government caravan,” read the headline on state news agency Angop.

Minister Melo accepts there is still much work to do. He hopes to see state media entirely independent and said the government would seek to change laws, such as against insulting public officials, used to prosecute journalists and activists.

“It’s all just window dressing,” said Rafael Marques, an activist and journalist currently on trial for allegedly insulting the former prosecutor general with a story about an illegal land grab.

“Why don’t the stories dig into who’s to blame for the traffic lights not working, or for the hospitals having no medication? Why aren’t people being sacked?” he asked.

“It’s not because the journalists aren’t intelligent enough, I know them… It’s manipulation - period.”

Angolans do, however, seem to view their government and president with less fear, making Tiago Costa’s work as a stand-up that little bit easier.

“I’m still making the same political jokes, but people are happier to laugh than they were before,” he said. “They’ve stopped being afraid.”

At the protest in Luanda, receding fear is palpable.

“We will keep pushing for more,” Alexandre said. “We’ll be back every month until we see change.”