CIVICUS interview with Jose Mavungo

Jose Mavungo is a human rights activist from the Cabinda region. He is the co-founder of the Mpalabanda Association, which has been denied permission to operate by the Angolan government. Presently, Jose Mavungo is coordinating activities of the members of the Mpalabanda Association. He speaks to CIVICUS about the challenges faced by civil society in Angola.

We understand that your organisation, “Proclamation of Mpalabanda” continues to suffer from a 2006 ban. Can you tell us a little about the circumstances of the ban and the present situation?

The issue of banning Mpalabanda is deeply linked to historical and subjective elements influenced by the conflict in Cabinda. We receive almost on a daily basis, tragic stories of military and civilian victims. The authorities want to emerge victorious in the Cabinda conflict at any cost even at the expense of legal and universal human rights standards. Besides the problem of armed conflict, we have the failed governance of Cabinda (an outrageously rich territory), which leaves the people of Cabinda in extreme poverty.They lack everything from water, electricity and bread. Even because of a toothache the people of Cabinda have to reach out to both Congos (the only countries bordering Cabinda).

In 2003, while the conflict raged in the Cabinda region amid multiple human rights violations, many political prisoners and people considered undesirable by the Angolan Armed Forces (FAA) - including women - were taken to three concentration camps where they were tortured and raped.

In this context, we created Mpalabanda in September 2003 as a sound of alarm. In the days before the Proclamation of Mpalabanda, the people of Cabinda had been subjected to an ideological trap for the oppressed. The Proclamation of Mpalabanda sought to advance dignity for the people of Cabinda in an atmosphere of violence and fascism; humiliation and fear; the anarchy of ideas and prohibition; cronyism and other forms of collusion; kleptocracy and corruption; arbitratry arrests and republican persecutions; assassinations and violations; and misery and crime.

The denunciation of human rights violations through by Mpalabanda alarmed the authorities which resulted in the organisation being declared illegal in 2006. 

How would you describe the situation for human rights defenders and civil society activists in Angola? What difficulties do independent human rights groups have to face?

Human rights activists are victims of excessive restrictions arising out of fierce feudal despotism. Fundamental freedoms are denied and censorship is used to clampdown on free speech. State media controls the "truth" to manipulate what is broadcast to the people. Due process rights violations are a constant. There is no freedom of association. Groups defending human rights are vulnerable to attacks by the dominant political class which continues to crush human rights and fundamental freedoms.

In sum, there exists a stifling environment for democracy and the rule of law in Angola which has created chaos. Attempts are made to discredit civil society and opposition political leaders limiting access to public spaces, free expression and assembly.  Demonstrations carry the risk of beatings, arrests, and unfair trials.  It was recently noted that there was a presence of death squads in the country to suppress any forms of dissent, ban manifestations of protest and repress demonstrators.

In the case of Cabinda, activists are impeded from getting formal recognition for their associations due to the Angolan government’s policies to limit the work of human rights defenders. Acts of intimidation have increased since 2006, after Mpalabanda was shut down. Arrests of seven human rights defenders in 2010 resulted in many activists going underground in Cabinda to protect themselves. Some human rights activists, who are under detention are suffering from poor health. We have for example, Andre Zeferino Puanti, an activist who suffered from poor eyesight and severe pain in the right shoulder as a result of the actions of police officers in 2011 and of ill-treatment in prison in 2010.

How has civil society in Angola dealt with the disenabling environment in the country? Have there been any positive developments?

In the current situation in which we live in Angola, the legacy of structural violence determined by the long conflict that ravaged the country from 1975 to 2002 still lingers on in Cabinda. Today, every Angolan citizen recognizes the need to integrate and maintain a citizenship base and extend the arena of freedoms through progressive transformation of society.

Thus, Angolan civil society has tried to be a sounding board not only on account of the issues raised but also actions taken with regards to complaints, demonstrations and the promotion of the social dialogue- as a way to effect the desired change. 

In the case of Cabinda, our strategy has gravitated towards getting people to stop passively supporting the present system of governance by mobilizing to exercise their rights as citizens.
This strategy translates into a certain statement of maturity, contrary to the conception of those that rule who view the governed as irresponsible children to be protected from strange influences for their own interests. 

However, it is nevertheless worth noting as a step forward, at least formally, the fact that, since the 90’s, the law on paper defends the principles of human rights, fundamental freedoms and dignity in accordance with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights.  Yet, the current democratization process is unable to break with the authoritarian practices of the repressive military regime. It is particularly distressing that the judiciary displays insensitivity to legal reasoning and dignity of an entire people.

The current political discourse is at odds with a democratic and law-abiding society, which respects the rule of law and accomodates opposing views. Politicians act within their narrow economic and political interests.

The lack of a frank and open discussion has prevented sustainable development in the country. Today Angola is ranked amongst the worst in world rankings in corruption and human development index. 76% of its population lives on 7% of the territory, more than 90% of its national wealth is concentrated in less than 0.1% of the population and most of this wealth is subtracted from the public purse. The illiteracy rate is 8%, while the African average is 38%. About a third of children between 5 and 11 years of age have no education.

In this context, the MPLA ruling party continues to impose itself on the daily life of the people. As the right to resistance is gradually taking shape in the minds of citizens, it is becoming apparent that collective action is the bulwark against oppression.

How can international and regional civil society groups offer support and solidarity to colleagues in Angola?

Given the current situation in Angola, it should be established in the historical conditions of today, that the pressing need is for a political order founded on justice and the dignity of the people.

Given this requirement, international and regional civil society must express their solidarity with the Angolan people, particularly with the people of Cabinda. In this sense, they should pressure the Angolan government into bringing about the changes that are imposed by groups at present. This requirement of solidarity will also pressure the international community to look at Angola with humanity and not interests. At this level, international and regional civil society can help to assume its responsibility so that political crimes committed in Angola are punished and that perpetrators are held accountable in the International Criminal Court (ICC).

On the other hand, the solidarity of  international and regional civil society should in particular manifest itself with the people of Cabinda, not only in making sure Angolan officials respect rights and fundamental freedoms, but also to establish a lasting peace in that territory. Their joint action should also go in bringing the international community to become involved in resolving the question of Cabinda in terms of justice and dignity of peoples.