Pictures: Ampe Rogério, Rede Angola

In mid-April 2015, news emerged about the killing of nine police-men in Angola's Huambo province. The incident involved the police and members of Juliano Kalupeteca's "Light of the World" religious sect. In the following days, grizzling reports emerged of a massacre of perhaps hundreds of sect members. We do not yet know the truth. Angola's government appears to do its utmost to prevent knowledge of it to transpire. Will the international community remain passive?

On April 20, President José Eduardo dos Santos said in a televised speech that Kalupeteca’s sect was a threat against national security and peace, led by dangerous individuals. He then stated, in his characteristic factual and unemotional style, that the forces from “defence, security and internal order” would continue its work to “completely dismantle the sect”. What did he mean by “completely dismantle”?

Such bellicose language is usually reserved for armed foes and networks of organised crime. Only four days after a yet-unknown number of civilians and police officers perished in a violent clash the president is in “dismantling”, not peace and reconciliation, mode. Not a word uttered about investigation or inquiries. Dos Santos, whose official moniker is as Angola’s “architect of peace”, just appeared to condone a manhunt not seen in Angola since the civil war that ended in 2002.

Unknown facts

Whatever the truth is, something gruesome happened on Mount Sumi on April 16 and during the following days. The backdrop was the gathering of a few thousand followers of José Juliano Kalupeteca at a semi-permanent camp at Mount Sumi, 40 km from Huambo city on Angola’s central highlands. The sect seems to be a millenarian breakaway from the 7th day Adventist Church, with Kalupeteca preaching partial seclusion as a life-style for followers. Apparently, the police tried to arrest the sect leader. Something went wrong. Then the killing started.

The government claims that nine police officers were killed and in addition 13 civilians who, according to the local police commander, were “snipers”. In and of itself, such a casualty figure should call for a serious investigation.

See pictures of the destruction of the sanctuary of the Light of the World church

Other sources give a different account of the events, and set the tragedy at an entirely different order of magnitude. UNITA, the MPLA government’s former enemy during the civil war and now Angola’s largest opposition party, reacted to initial accounts of systematic atrocities. It sent its parliamentarians to Huambo to look into the matter, but was unable to access the site as the army and police had it cordoned off. Nevertheless, the UNITA spokesperson claimed a death toll of 1080 people, in a killing spree said to have lasted for hours. He said that the killings continued in the following days, victims being hurled into mass graves. To my knowledge, only two non-government missions have visited the site to date. While declining to give numbers to the death toll, the missions of the CASA-CE opposition leader Abel Chivukuvuku and journalist Luisa Rogério reported that “mass killings” and “extremely grave things” had taken place. Rogério’s gripping report brings a wealth of photos from the camp. She describes an eerie putrid smell in the afternoon air. Both missions visited the site nearly two weeks after the initial incident and found the camp abandoned, half-destroyed and empty. Chilling as these reports were, they came to a scene that someone clearly had tampered with.

Skirmish, then abuse – or crimes against humanity?

This stomach-turning video is quite something else. It is indicative evidence from the site on the first or one of the following days (the first couple of minutes are clips from happier days during a baptism of Kalupeteca’s followers). Presumably, a police officer filmed clandestinely. The video shows a dozen dead bodies, a man in a police uniform clubbing away at a defenceless victim who is still alive and a number of burning huts. We see plenty of men in the uniforms of the Rapid Intervention Police (PIR) rummaging through all the personal paraphernalia left at the campsite, apparently looking for things of value. Taken together with anonymous reports (here is one such account ) circulating on social media and in emails from purported eyewitnesses scared to death by the continuing manhunt of sect members, it is hard to understand the government indignation with those who demand more answers.  

Depending on which version one believes in, what has taken place is anything from a police operation “gone wrong” with an unfortunate casualty figure of a few dozen, or something worse verging on a crime against humanity. The scale of the tragedy on Mount Sumi is horrendous in any case. An experienced observer of African politics pointed out that even if only a tenth of the highest claims were correct the real death toll would still be the highest in political violence in Southern Africa during the last decade. Still, it has received next to no attention in international media.

Who were the victims?

Not only is the dimension of this violence outstanding, so is the identity of the victims. Those who were not police officers were not protestors or militants of opposition parties and movements. They were women, children and men of a religious sect. Not even the Government of Angola has made concerted attempts at claiming the sect members were anything but ordinary civilians. The authorities now seem to have dropped initial talk about “snipers”. A fanatic perhaps, but Kalupeteca does not stand out as particularly original among Africa’s many charismatic leaders of Christian sects. Indeed, he seems to have built much of his charisma around a special gift for music and song. Otherwise, he was not in any way running a clandestine organisation, despite the mountain retreat. Rumours have it that even MPLA politicians tried to buy into his coveted popularity by courting him with gifts – which he appears to have refused. He was a public figure in Huambo, where he is now in prison. Whatever it was, the Kalupeteca sect has absolutely no resemblance to movements such as Boko Haram or the Lord’s Resistance Army. Nevertheless, the Angolan authorities has now elevated the sect to something like a Falun Gong-style fixation – for unexplained reasons it is labelled a “threat against national security”.

Questions that cry out for credible answers

President José Eduardo dos Santos’ statements on April 20 may have cemented the “authorised version” of events. In order not to contradict him, government officials appear to prefer muteness. Those who do talk stubbornly stick to a version that does not stand up to logical questioning. The inconsistencies are legion. Could it be a sign of things to come, when the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR) issued a call for an “independent, thorough investigation with a view to ensuring accountability”? Unfortunately, no other countries or international bodies have to date put diplomatic pressure behind it. Perhaps they feel intimidated by the Angolan government, which in its familiar belligerent fashion repudiated the High Commissioner and demanded proof – or an apology.

The government’s angry rebuttal merely brought out more questions. “We find it hard to believe that more than a thousand people were killed and buried during one night, without leaving traces, by an operational force of less than fifty men.” It goes on: “Measures have been taken for the relocation and reintegration of the families afflicted by this phenomenon”.[1]

Thus, we learn that there were nearly fifty armed men involved on the state side. To do what? To arrest one preacher-man? If the state knows there was no massacre we would expect it to say exactly that. Instead, it offers rhetoric like “we find it hard to believe”. Furthermore, are the sect members being “reintegrated” against their will or voluntarily? If voluntarily, why has not a single sect member come forward to corroborate that version? The statement implicitly suggests there are “no traces”, apparently ignoring hundreds of pictures showing evidence of extensive damage to the camp. How are we to know about traces otherwise, as the government does not allow for an independent investigation at the site?

Other questions beg answers: Why would so many respected actors in Angolan society risk their credibility by inventing and insisting on a massacre – as potentially hundreds or thousands of sect members could testify to the contrary? Where are all the repatriated people? If thirteen civilians were killed during a long shoot-out, also claiming the lives of nine police officers, one would expect a number of wounded to have shown up in Huambo’s hospitals for treatment, so why was there none? Why are no police officers coming forward with their stories or photos? Why are there pervasive rumours about an on-going manhunt for sect members and of a climate of fear in Huambo for those associated with Kalupeteca? Why does the President say that the military – the national defence forces – is involved in the “dismantling” of the sect?

On a wholly different order comes the question about Kalupeteca himself. He is now in prison. What will he say during trial? Will there be a public trial? It is clear that these inquiries will haunt the Angolan government for years, as ever more details will inevitably emerge. Too many people were in the caldron at Sumi, on both sides, for the government to keep the lid on forever. The more it tries, the worse the pressure is likely to build.

Repression of opposition and religion

Let us merely sketch how this case connects to the big politics of Angola. Firstly, the MPLA government struggles to control opposition against it, in particular as it is constantly taking new forms. Referring to the Kalupeteca incident one astute political commentator in Luanda put it on the edge to make a point: “This is the end of the MPLA in Huambo”. The highlands of Huambo are historically the heartland of the Ovimbundu ethnic group, from which MPLA’s historical foes, UNITA, drew its leadership. The highlands was also UNITA’s stronghold during the war. UNITA claims that exclusion and outright political repression still makes it very difficult to organise in the Ovimbundu area. Yet opposition finds its ways to the surface. One of the most vociferous groups have been the motorbike taxi drivers locally known as “kupapatas”. The kupapatas have been in several violent clashes with the police during recent years. One observer argued that “the kupapatas are all with Kalupeteca now”. If you look at the video again, you will see kupapatas in their hundreds going to the religious gathering. In brief, the MPLA has always had a problem with movements who do not submit to the Party organisation, political, religious, ethnic or otherwise. If it also involves a gathering of angry, organised young men with motorbikes, all the more so.

The second drama is the authoritarianism of the government in its dealing with what seems to be an unending flourishing of new churches and sects. As mentioned above, wanting to submit the whole of society to its political direction and control seems to be part of the ruling party ambition, almost as a reflex, or default position. Indeed, the MPLA has even rigged society to prevent civil society organisations from growing outside of its control. Be it culture, sports or merely communitarian or charitable activity – the MPLA is ubiquitous. Save the MPLA itself, religious organisations are the single greatest organiser of Angolans – and new ones keep popping up. Although the government has recognised and authorised the functioning of close to a hundred churches, many hundreds of religious denominations have not yet been authorised – including Islam. They all carry out their activities in semi-legality, although the constitution guarantees religious freedom. The government recently proposed a new draconian law bill that will restrict the possibility of organising churches unless authorised by the MPLA-ruled state. Like other heavy-handed measures against religion, one should not be surprised to find it resulting in more clandestine religious sects and movements.

Who will speak out for justice?

Angola has been through terrible decades of war, including episodes of non-combat atrocities, but not since the end of the war. However, we know from similar post-conflict societies that it takes time to change violent habits that the armed forces and the police forge during a bloody war. “We must pacify our minds”, says one Luanda-based academic, Cesaltina Abreu. Yet, followers of Angolan politics know that while there is a barrage of stories about everyday human rights abuses, big and small, carried out by state officials, there is seldom punishment for such behaviour. On the contrary, the government tends to treat human rights activists as an unwanted nuisance. Foreigners have been expelled and Angolan citizens are currently in prison in the Cabinda enclave province, accused of “conspiring with foreigners against the state”. Rafael Marques, the country’s most well-known HR activist is yet again threatened with prison.

For these reasons, the Angolan government is under unceasing criticism by national and foreign human rights organisations. Nonetheless, as Ricardo Soares de Oliveira has argued in his recent book on post-war Angola, this criticism had little consequence for the Angolan government. As it turned to China for support and finance, “realpolitik” and the interests of the oil and reconstruction businesses has overtaken the niceties of human rights concerns. As long as things were, overall, “on the right track”, western democracies’ remained practically silent on human rights issues. This time around, with the exception of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, the official international community is again inaudible.

Norway has since 2013 been engaged in an official “human rights bilateral consultation” with the Angolan government. Its overall aim is to contribute to a “culture of human rights”. In this regard, ILPI in Oslo contributes with human rights training for selected Angolans. The Kalupeteca affair has put the Angolan government’s dedication to a culture of human rights to test. So far, it has shown all the signs of failing that test. Big time.

We do not yet know exactly what happened on Mount Sumi, but we know that something cruel, and on a major scale, took place. Without an independent and serious investigation, how can we know? While Angolan social media spills over with questions and indignation, the international community is silent, despite the local intelligence available to them. Without foreign embassies and politicians throwing their weight behind the UNHCHR call for investigation and accountability, nothing is likely to come from it. Many power holders in Luanda, Angolan and otherwise, must surely be asking themselves: What if there was a massacre? Whom will history hold responsible for being complicit in covering it up?

Aslak Orre, Senior Researcher at CMI, was in Angola from April 26 to May 12, 2015.

[1]Author’s translations.