LUANDA - A decade after the end of Angola’s brutal civil war, veterans are threatening to block general elections in seven weeks if authorities fail to pay them their promised pensions.
“We are frustrated and tired of waiting,” warned Afonso Henriques Fula, 52, one of the thousands of veterans currently gathering in the capital Luanda. “If the government does not act before the elections, we will prevent them from taking place,” the ex-fighter for the ruling MPLA said.
It is a threat Luanda cannot afford to ignore, given the strength of former combatants scattered across the vast African nation. Official figures put the number of war veterans drawn from the three liberation movements MPLA, UNITA and FNLA at 40 000. But the total number in the country of 18 million inhabitants is thought to be much higher.
“The veterans are asking the government to recognise the sacrifices they made for the country, by providing them with a means of living,” said Silva Mateus, a retired general who has written to President Jose Eduardo dos Santos to back the former soldiers’ grievances, Mateus said. Angola’s veterans fought for independence from Portugal from 1961 to 1975, then battled each other in a civil war that lasted until 2002.
Public shows of dissent are rare in the tightly controlled country, where Dos Santos has governed for more than three decades. But displeasure sparked youth rallies over a year ago demanding he step down, and now other sectors of society are taking to the streets. In June, soldiers and riot police unleashed water cannons and dogs to disperse the war veterans when they staged protest marches on the presidential palace and the defence ministry.
Veterans of the region’s liberation wars have long wielded considerable political clout across southern Africa, not least in Zimbabwe where they have been at the vanguard of the seizures of white-owned farms. Many former fighters in Angola, like Fula, are in limbo because they have yet to be formally demobilised, so remain without their discharge bonuses and monthly pensions.
They say that Angola, which is bursting with reconstruction projects and oil wealth, can afford to pay them. The country’s economy is ranked among the world’s fastest growing and Angola is Africa’s second-largest oil producer. The protests unnerve authorities, who fear they could easily feed into other frustrations dogging a nation buckling under high levels of unemployment, insecurity and the high cost of living.
“These protests are also evidence of the beginning of citizens’ awareness of their rights and how they can exercise them, a right guaranteed by the constitution,” Serra Bango of the Association of Justice, Peace and Democracy said.