Has Angola’s Jose Eduardo Santos bitten more than he can chew this time?

A court in Angola sentenced 17 political activists to jail on Monday, with the longest sentence being eight-and-a-half-years long, while some were as short as two years. Fifteen of these activists were arrested at a book reading session, last year, to discuss governance and democracy. Charges levied against them in the court ranged from acts of rebellion, planning mass action of civil disobedience in Angola and producing fake passports, amongst others. Perhaps, the highest profile name among the list of activists is Angolan rapper, Luaty Beirao, who went on a hunger strike while in detention.

In what appears to be a government crackdown on rebellion, Angola’s president, Jose Eduardo Santos, seems to be employing every power within his reach to tamp down growing dissent to his nearly 37-year-long dictatorship. Despite his recent promise to step down next year, this latest move may suggest otherwise.

Angola’s biggest headache

The Angolan president is currently the second longest serving African President, and also arguably the richest, after diverting much of the oil profits of the nation into his own pockets at the expense of the development of his country. Angola is the second largest oil producing country in sub-Saharan Africa, after Nigeria, but the average visitor to Angola wouldn’t see this.

In 2014, it was estimated that about 68 percent of the nation’s population lived below the poverty line, while 15 percent of the households lived in extreme poverty. However, this has not deterred Santos. He also seems to have transferred the wealth to his daughter, Isobel Dos Santos, who, according to a 2013 Forbes report, has the origin of most of her wealth in illegal contracts awarded her by her father and is the richest woman in Africa. The kleptocracy in the nation is very mature and, as expected, has bred dissent within the population.

Where most of the oil wealth of Nigeria, has been squandered by many of its leaders in its short history, Angola has only one man to blame for its woes, its president. Angola’s civil war in the 90’s was still the biggest threat to Santos’ dictatorship, until recently that is.

Growing dissent in Angola

Early last year, a massacre in Angola, and then the later arrests of these activists show that Santos is aware and scared of the growing resistance amongst the populace, especially within Angola’s youth. Last year’s book reading event was for a book titled “From Dictatorship to Democracy: a conceptual framework to liberation” and the book is described as “a blueprint for nonviolent resistance to repressive regimes.” The crackdown on these young activists shows Santos is getting increasingly nervous of the discord among the populace and rightly so. “These boys who were debating their rights are the ones they want to condemn, but President José Eduardo who steals everything is getting protected,” said the mother of one of the activists on Monday, echoing the resentment in the minds of many Angolans.

The movement which started in 2011 aims at bringing down the dictatorship regime of Santos by non-violent means. However, now that these activists have been sentenced to jail, Angola could be looking at the onset of widespread violent protests around the country, the kind Santos thought he was avoiding by breaking up the book reading session. The case is expected to move to the appeal court, with the same ruling expected. Like in the Arab spring, Burkina Faso, and Ivory Coast in the last 10 years, a government crackdown sometimes causes the opposite of what it’s supposed to yield.

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