The deteriorating health of a popular Angolan rapper and activist who has been on hunger strike for more than three weeks is piling pressure on president José Eduardo dos Santos at a time of rising economic instability for the oil-rich southern African nation.
Human rights groups have called for urgent release of Luaty Beirão, also known by his stage name Ikonoklasta, who has become increasingly weak having spent 24 days on hunger strike. Vigils have been held in Luanda, the capital, and elsewhere for Mr Beirao, who has been accused of allegedly plotting to overthrow president Dos Santos, Africa’s second longest serving leader who rules the oil-rich nation with an iron grip.
Elias Isaac, Angola country director of the Open Society Initiative of Southern Africa, said the hunger strike has attracted unprecedented levels of attention among Angolans and is sparking renewed scrutiny of Mr dos Santos’s regime, which has garnered a reputation for human rights abuses, cracking down on dissenters and limiting press freedom. The unwanted attention comes as the government grapples with an oil-dependent economy that is being battered by the collapse in crude prices.
“It’s creating a lot of solidarity among ordinary Angolans who really didn’t understand what is going on. Now there are more Angolans showing solidarity for Luaty’s cause — not just the hunger strike but even to the cause he represents,” Mr Isaac said. “Even within the ruling (MPLA) party people are expressing their views and solidarity towards Luaty.”
Amnesty International said Mr Beirao’s detention was “a shocking example of the lengths to which Angolan authorities will go to suppress dissent. The imprisoned musician is believed to be in critical condition in São Paulo hospital prison and Amnesty International is calling for his immediate and unconditional release.” said Deprose Muchena, Amnesty’s regional director for southern Africa.
Police arrested Mr Beirão, 34, who has previously protested against corruption and rights abuses, and 12 other youth activists in June as they attended a meeting during which they discussed a local translation of the book From Dictatorship to Democracy, by Gene Sharp, according to Pedro Beirao, his brother. Two others allegedly connected to the group were detained separately, and all were held in pre-trial detention without charge for longer than the 90 days permitted by law. As soon as the 90 day period was up, Mr Beirao and several others began a hunger strike in protest. The others gave up after some days, but Mr Beirao has continued and he was admitted to a prison hospital on Friday.
“He’s very weak,” said Pedro Beirao, his brother. “What he said is, ‘my motivation hasn’t changed because nothing has changed’.”
He says his brother wants the rule of law applied and for the detainees to have their right to be released on bail before any trial. Mr Beirao has been arrested several times for his involvement in protests, but was always released after a short time, his brother said.
Angola, which suffered a multi-decade civil war that ended in 2002, is Africa’s second-largest producer of oil and boasts the continent’s third-largest economy. The collapse in crude prices is having a severe impact on the economy. Jobs are being shed, wages are going unpaid and the currency has plummeted against the dollar, driving up inflation while companies face foreign exchange shortages.
“The whole situation is making the government very tense, very nervous because for the past 10 years it was used to having a lot of cash and made lots of promises and built enormous infrastructure and so on,” said Mr Isaac. “Now the government has no money to sustain all of this and elections are coming in 2017 and what they are trying to do is repress discontentment.”