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Why Angola’s Star Reporter Won’t Stay Down

Angola's corrupt leaders keep trying to silence Rafael Marques. So far, without success.

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The defamation trial of Angolan journalist Rafael Marques on March 23 did not go well. As crowds of his supporters shrieked “Criminals, murderers!” and “Free Rafael,” the 200-odd police officers attached to the courthouse struggled to impose authority. When Marques emerged coolly from the building, even some of the officers couldn’t resist asking for an autograph. Unsurprisingly, when the court reconvened a month later, it was behind closed doors.

At issue were allegations in Marques’ book, Diamantes de Sangue: Corrupção e Tortura em Angola (Blood Diamonds: Corruption and Torture in Angola), published in Lisbon in 2011. It details a litany of human rights abuses and killings perpetrated in diamond mines owned by seven high-ranking generals, including General Manuel Hélder Vieira Dias Júnior, head of the military wing of the presidency and, by popular reckoning, the second-most-powerful figure in the country. Now these generals, embarrassed by Marques’ painstaking documentation of their crimes, were demanding damages — to the tune of $1.2 million.

Rafael Marques de Morais is the single most important voice in Angolan independent journalism, and his latest sensational trial was a test case for how far the regime was willing to go to defend its prestige. Conscious of the world’s gaze, the government has lately borne his tireless attacks with gritted teeth. A previous jail sentence in 1999 for criticizing the president had turned Marques into a household name. Within a few more years he had become a popular hero.

Underlying all of Marques’ work is a brutal honesty about what’s happening in Angola, especially the corruption and crony capitalism that continues to dog this country. The articles on his crusading website, Maka Angola, (in Kimbundu, Maka means a “delicate problem”) have found a wide local and international following. They have not only tarnished the reputations of the Angolan elite, but have also changed what the public expects of its democratically elected leaders. Marques has made meals of the military top brass, the political establishment, unscrupulous foreign investors, the business oligarchy and the presidential family, leaving whole swathes of the upper sets in anxious expectation of the next set of revelations. But Marques is no haranguer. His investigations stand out for their meticulous research and his tight grasp of Angola’s statute books, to which many members of Angola’s elite appear to be absolutely indifferent.

After publishing his book in 2011, Marques went further and launched criminal complaints against the seven generals and two affiliated companies for crimes against humanity in the Lunda region. The generals reciprocated in 2012 with defamation lawsuits against both him and his Lisbon publisher, Tinta-da-China.

I interviewed Marques in a flat in south London on the same day he was announced joint winner of the prestigious Index on Censorship award. It was less than a week before his first court appearance. Dressed in a baggy top and trainers, and apparently unruffled by either the award or the trial of his life, Marques sipped tea and spoke about his career with precise and moderated diction. Occasionally he would let out a winning laugh as he recalled the exploits of his early career, but he restored his poise with a quiet intensity.

Marques was born into poverty in 1971 in Malanje and grew up in Angola’s much larger capital, Luanda. Brought up by his mother, a market vendor, he learned about journalism by poring over the daily newspaper she brought home from work. With the end of communism in 1991, the state newspaper Jornal de Angola opened its doors to new recruits. It was a narrow window of opportunity, not repeated since, and Marques was taken on as a journalist on the political affairs desk.

As Marques explained, his headstrong independence would soon get him into trouble. In the first of many demotions, Marques was transferred to the Luanda city desk. He concentrated on aspects of the city that the press purposefully ignored, such as the gathering piles of garbage and the infamous potholes. Demoted again, Marques was assigned the mundane task of comparing food prices in the city’s shops. He visited Roque Santeiro, a vast, sprawling market that was then the biggest in Africa, and wrote of the dazzling array of weaponry on offer and the illicit trade in donated food enjoyed by government officials. This was the final straw. His supervisors banned him from writing altogether and, out of nowhere, he received an order to report to a military unit to train for battle. Powerful figures linked to the newspaper were clearly trying to get him out of the way.

The unit he joined turned out to be a high-risk commando unit that trained with live grenades, routinely resulting in a 30 percent mortality rate. The beleaguered trainees often had to make do with half-rations, or no rations at all. The reason soon became clear: “There was a scam going on,” said Marques. “Food trucks arrived, and were then depleted — sold on by the commander and then his deputy and so on down the food chain, until there was hardly any food for the soldiers.” The half-starved conscripts were on the verge of mutiny. The skittish officers, by now fully aware of the young journalist’s articles and his penchant for causing trouble, suspected that Marques was responsible. Preferring to rid themselves of the journalist than risk turning him into a commando, they ordered him home. ”Not without my demobilization papers,” insisted Marques, to which they reluctantly assented, and he made it to Luanda unscathed.

Marques’ spell with the commando recruits was a brief episode in one of Africa’s longest wars. Its roots lay in an earlier guerrilla conflict against Portuguese colonial rule that began in 1961 and ended abruptly with the fall of Portugal’s Salazar dictatorship in 1974. Angola gained its independence, which was soon contested among three factions. The Marxist MPLA took power in the capital, Luanda, in 1975, with the heavy backing of its Eastern Bloc advisors and Cuban troops. Once its smaller rival, the FNLA, was out of the way, the Marxist government was soon was fighting a full-scale war with its main challenger, the anti-communist UNITA, lavishly funded and equipped by the United States and South Africa, and led by its charismatic though eventually unhinged leader, Jonas Savimbi.

The war went through many phases: the MPLA transitioned from communism to democracy, UNITA descended into tyranny, and the country rumbled through several shaky United Nations brokered cease-fires. While the MPLA had near limitless oil waiting to be tapped offshore, UNITA ruthlessly exploited the diamond fields in the Lunda provinces, putting garimpeiros (diamond panners) to work in abhorrent conditions. As the 1990s wore on, and international opprobrium gained traction, UNITA found it harder to smuggle diamonds onto the international market. The stalemate was broken for good when government troops re-launched the war in 1998 and within a couple of years had overrun the main diamond areas, depriving UNITA of its main source of funding.

The senseless grind of the war motivated Marques to write an article for the private newspaper Folha 8 called “Cannon Fodder,” a passionate piece about how Angolan mothers were treated as breeding machines for the war effort. “What to me was most incredible was that the government never cared to set up a system to inform these mothers of these families when their beloved sons died. It wasn’t lack of capacity, it was neglect — sheer disregard for life.” He was interrogated and put on a black list: his articles were gaining notoriety, and not just within Angola. On a trip to South Africa in 1998, the magnate and philanthropist George Soros asked Marques to set up the Open Society Initiative in Luanda, a privately-funded NGO tasked with championing democratic ideals, as a part of the Soros Foundation. This way Marques was able to reenter the public discourse without relying on state-sponsored media. It proved an unlikely success: the debates the organization aired on the Catholic station Rádio Ecclésia provided a forum where legislators, religious leaders and administration officials could talk things out in a way that was impossible in parliament.

At the turn of the new century, the narrow window of freer debate was closing and the government stepped up the use of its oil wealth to dominate the media, bribing the country’s best journalists with money and houses. To this day this — the creation of a “hub of mediocrity,” as Marques puts it — has been the most effective means to destroy freedom of expression Angola. “Anyone who stands out as being morally strong, intellectually strong, that has a voice, is co-opted or destroyed,” he said. “This is creating a vacuum in society where you don’t have singers who are inspiring, you don’t have artists who are inspiring, you don’t have academics who are inspiring. You never hear an Angolan doctor talking about the need to improve the health sector because that would be the end of him.”

The state finally tired of Marques’ writings. In 1999, after he published an article called “The Lipstick of Dictatorship,” in which he described president José Eduardo dos Santos as a dictator, Marques was charged with defamation and served 43 days in prison, 11 of them in solitary confinement.

He was held in a small cell which had been built by the Stasi, the East German secret police, and designed so that he could neither lean nor stand upright. The concrete bed swarmed with cockroaches. Nevertheless, Marques was able to carry on his work. The “leading” prisoner recognized him from his broadcasts on Rádio Ecclésia, and allowed a stream of prisoners into his cell. Provided with pen and paper, Marques wrote their testimonies and smuggled the notes out again.

With the killing of Savimbi in 2002 and the subsequent surrender of UNITA, the government finally secured victory (leaving aside a smoldering rebellion in the northern exclave of Cabinda). The country was in ruins, a million were dead, and the land was sown with perhaps ten million landmines. The government’s immediate task was to rebuild a country that had ceased to function. Fortunately, it had oil, sales of which accounted for over 90 percent of exports. As a result, in the mid-2000s, Angola enjoyed staggering economic growth averaging 16 percent a year. Luanda thronged with oil and infrastructure companies jockeying for lucrative contracts. New developments, office blocks, port facilities and hotels transformed the skyline, and Chinese-built roads began to crisscross the country. But there was little trickle-down. The post-war windfall has been confined to a tiny percentage of the population, leaving the vast majority to perform the miracle of living on about $2 a day. Despite some improvements, thirteen years after the war’s end, the country is still built on patronage and clientelism, there are shockingly high levels of child mortality, and the quality of education and public health is pitiful.

As the conflict ended, senior army officers joined the other members of the ruling party, gliding comfortably from the barrack room to the boardroom, their positions affording them easy access to lucrative shares in telecommunication, construction, and diamond mining companies, whose operations they generally ignored: management was always left to others. They migrated seasonally to beach houses in Cascais, Miami and Rio de Janeiro, employed discreet English nannies, and generally tried to keep out of the public eye.

Marques’ 2015 trial changed all that. For the first time, images appeared of the well-fed generals sitting in court alongside the witnesses: thin, wizened Lunda tribespeople, in traditional outfits and beaded headdresses, the manifest victims of a rotten system who had been harassed throughout the whole legal process. One witness, Alida Moises da Rosa, was interrogated by police about why she insisted on going to court. “You killed my two sons,” she replied. “Now you can kill me too.”

Had Marques been an average blogger or troublemaker, the authorities would likely have threatened him into silence, or bought him up, as they have with countless other radio journalists, poets, musicians and commentators. But Marques would not be bribed and he was not afraid of jail. Years ago they had tried to isolate him by steering international organizations to other “critics” of the regime (naturally, of their choice). But by the 2010s he was such a renowned figure that no boilerplate process could possibly deal with him. Put him in jail and the world would cry for his release. Dispose of him, and the government would sink in the eyes of the world — a prospect that, at a time of scant respectability, it cannot abide. Keeping him at large risked further embarrassment.

These are difficult times for the MPLA. President dos Santos, now in his 37th year of rule, must finally account for the last decade. Blaming slow progress on war damage is now wearing thin. There is acute pressure to deliver for the 2017 elections, and unexpectedly low oil prices have massively curtailed his ability to do so without a painful restructuring of the patronage and corruption that underlies the system.

And pressure is building. In 2011 the unthinkable started to happen: Angolans, long silenced by decades of war and an unchallengeable state power, went onto the streets to voice their anger: youths too young to have participated in war and veterans tired of waiting for late pension payments. The demonstrators were quickly quashed by state security, but they would soon appear again, sometimes only very few at a time. Led by musicians, activists, lawyers and an increasingly vocal political opposition, these crowds have since reappeared persistently, fearlessly flaunting their disapproval of a government that is unsure what to do with them.

But Rafael Marques is their biggest irritant of all. Operating out of his house in Luanda, he has grown used to heavy surveillance, threats, and periodic house arrests. As a precaution against poisoning, he must take his own food with him if he goes out of the house.

“They bug my house,” he said. “They once recruited my cleaner. But I enjoy being in isolation because I have more time to write and more time to investigate them because I’m not socializing. So actually they create the conditions for me to do my work well. I can go for two weeks without going to my gate.”

Marques should count himself lucky — the regime isn’t always so lenient to its challengers. One need only think of the tragic fate of two young protesters, António Alves Kamulingue and Isaías Sebastião Cassule, who disappeared without a trace in 2012. It later emerged that the men had been abducted, tortured, and murdered by the security services. Cassule was thrown to the crocodiles in the Bengo river.

Marques’ defamation trial was concluded on May 28 following a series of legal irregularities — not least that the allegations in Diamantes do Sangue were never even addressed by the court. Though the judge declared that Marques had fabricated the material in the book, all charges were dropped. In what Marques subsequently described as a “trap,” the judge made an about-turn: the court proceeded with a different charge of slanderous denunciation, condemning Marques first to a month, and then to a six-month jail sentence, suspended for two years. These unexpected turns carried a note of revenge, while offering the illusion of leniency compared to the sentence Marques could have received. In reality, the sentence is nothing more than an attempt to keep him quiet, at least for a while. Marques is making efforts to appeal, so far without success.

“[The sentence] was designed to stop him writing,” said one columnist for a Luanda weekly. “But if the trial was meant to make the generals look good, they have failed. Every Angolan who has access to the internet has downloaded the book. Everyone can see that MPLA is supporting the interests of these generals against the people.”

The state’s “victory” may have left Marques temporarily defanged. But the irregularities of the trial, the craven behavior of the prosecution, and public outrage on behalf of the victims leave nobody in any doubt as to the real victor. Marques has spent over twenty years confronting the state, so it would be premature to assume that he has given up. The question now is who will make the next move.

Daniel Metcalfe is the author of Blue Dahlia, Black Gold: A Journey Into Angola.

Photo credit: REUTERS/Herculano Coroado

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