JOHANNESBURG — Opposition appears to be growing in the oil-rich African nation of Angola to the rule of President José Eduardo dos Santos. The Angolan Revolutionary Movement has long accused the president of 34 years of mismanaging Angola's oil revenues and suppressing human rights - a charge supported by a top human rights watchdog.
New York-based Human Rights Watch says Angola has seen a new crackdown on those who have peacefully protested against the longtime regime of President Jose Eduardo dos Santos.
Just last week, the organization said Angolan police arrested 22 protesters who were attempting to demonstrate in the capital, Luanda. The rights group says two of the people arrested gave accounts of being beaten and mistreated in custody.
Leslie Lefkow, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Africa division, says the government is stifling dissent.
“What we’ve seen is really an increasingly authoritarian government in Angola that allows no margin for independent voices, or criticism," Lefkow said. "And those individuals who do put their heads above the parapet and voice criticism are really clamped down on very, very harshly. And one of the reasons why I think they have reacted so strongly to these protests in the last couple of years is because there is probably a recognition that their political position is precarious."
Protests have been simmering in Angola since 2011, in part inspired by the pro-democratic uprisings of the Arab Spring.
One of the prominent groups protesting is the Angolan Revolutionary Movement, which accuses dos Santos of mismanaging oil revenues. Human Rights Watch says some of the dissenters are former combatants who fought in the nation’s 27-year civil war and who say they have not been taken care of since fighting ended in 2002.
Angolan officials did not answer calls seeking comment.
The government’s official news portal did not appear to cover the protests or the arrests. But the day before last week’s protest, the nation’s police spokesman said on state television that the government would “vehemently repress all acts that go against order and public security, and we will use force if it is necessary."
Despite the nation’s vast wealth in natural resources, many Angolans remain desperately poor. The average life expectancy is just 51 years, according to the World Bank, below the average for sub-Saharan Africa. UNICEF says more than half the population lives below the poverty level - set at $1.25 per day.
Lefkow says no one wants to see a return to violence - and urged Angola’s government to open itself up for criticism.
“I think that the problem beyond the fact that Angola is violating its own constitution, that it’s abrogating the rights of its people with these kinds of actions," she said. "Beyond that kind of legal concern is the issue that not allowing people to peacefully protest, to peacefully exercise their views, to express their opinions and to call for accountability and transparency is a real recipe for future problems."
On Monday, the government released seven of the remaining people who were taken into custody at the protests. Their lawyer said there was not sufficient evidence against them to hold them any longer.