Africa, Headlines

POLITICS-ANGOLA: President Dos Santos Cuts Personality Cult

Mercedes Sayagues

LUANDA, Oct 1 1999 (IPS) - Seldom one day passes without a mention of the Eduardo dos Santos Foundation (FESA) in the evening newscast at the government-owned and sole TV station, Televisao Popular de Angola.

The foundation set up by the Angolan president hands out food, clothes and toys to poor people; restores a colonial church, a sports stadium, markets and health clinics; gives vehicles to police, wheelchairs to amputees and generators to hospitals.

It sponsors landmine, environmental and AIDS awareness programmes. It has nominated president dos Santos for the Nobel Peace prize.

For Luanda’s youth, Fesa promotes traditional dancing, step aerobics, and karate. At Christmas, a Santa Claus landed by helicopter at Fesa’s soccer school near the presidential palace of Futungo and gave toys to 300 children. A partnership with a foreign soccer club is sought, “to build our prestige and dimension overseas”.

Many Angolans wonder if there is anything Fesa will not do. And how is it possible, that, while public services in health, education, sports and culture collapse, while hospitals and schools crumble for lack of funds, Fesa steps in where the state withdraws?

A French sociologist and expert on Angola, Christine Messiant, has recently published an analysis of Fesa. She describes the foundation as “the culmination of the privatization process of the Angolan state”; a mechanism to exalt the personality cult of dos Santos and reinforce his presidential powers; to boost his clientele approach to government; and to coopt civil society and marginalise non-governmental organisations who refuse to be sucked in by the Fesa whirlwind.

The foundation has a two-pronged approach to lure the rich and powerful and to content the poor and powerless.

Luanda’s squalid suburbs, teeming with poor, unemployed, war- displaced people, are a cauldron of discontent with the economic crisis, runaway inflation, piles of rubbish, open sewage, police abuse and forced recruitment for the army.

Fesa’s programme of “recreation and distraction” in the suburbs is a way to stem popular discontent and channel energy elsewhere.

Two years ago, when the President sacked prime minister Marcolino Moco, crowds from Fesa’s favorite suburbs, Cazenga and Sambizanga, took to the streets in support of the president. Wearing Fesa T-shirts, they shouted anti-Ovimbundu slogans.

The Ovimbundu are the power base of rebel group Unita, the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola. Moco is Ovimbundu.

This “panem et circenses” approach to keep the masses occupied was successfully used by the Brazilian military regime in the 1970s.

Angolan social scientists point to Brazil as Fesa’s ideological cradle. Fesa has opened a regional bureau in Rio. Brazilian corporate giant Odebrecht, which mines diamonds and builds infrastructure in Angola, is a member of Fesa.

A Brazilian ad agency designs Dos Santos’ media campaigns. He has reportedly bought a house in Salvador de Bahia. And unconfirmed reports say his wife has had a tummy tuck, facelift and liposuction with a famous Brazilian plastic surgeon.

Additional bureaux will be opened wherever “there are friends and potential collaborators,” says the Fesa magazine.

“Does that mean where Angola buys weapons?” asks wryly an Angolan social scientist who requested anonymity.

Some academics, young professionals, high society ladies, industry captains and their wives are seduced with cocktails, seminars, study trips and funding for their pet projects. At least one foreign NGO, Danish Aid People to People (DAPP), works with Fesa.

The first lady, Ana Paula dos Santos, often appears on TV in DAPP projects. Set up quietly in 1996, Fesa began its triumphal build up in 1997. No better symbol than its headquarters in the posh Miramar neighborhood, a colonial mansion assigned to rebel Unita leader Jonas Savimbi during the elections in 1992. Riddled with bullets during the battle of Luanda after Savimbi rejected elections results, it was lavishly restored.

At its inauguration in August, the Who is Who of Luanda’s business elite sipped champagne and shook the president’s hand against a background of donated cars and computers.

Fesa’s general assembly reads like a roll call of big business: South African diamond giant De Beers, Portuguese construction companies, banks, oil companies, and parastatals like oil company Sonangol, diamond concern Endiama, Angola telecoms and the national airline.

Messiant sees Fesa as an offshoot of the growing concentration of power and wealth since 1992. Such concentration is boosted by the alliance of foreign economic groups, anxious to guarantee their investments, with a new nomenclature of Angolan rulers, namely, the presidential clique, top police officials, army supremos, legislators and ministers, and far lower, the party hierarchy.

According to the magazine, in 1998 the general assembly contributed 1.5 million US Dollars, yet Fesa carried out projects worth 6 million US Dollars.

How was this accomplished? Partnerships, says Fesa. Messiant points to a special partner — the Angolan state. Many Fesa projects featured on prime TV are done through ministries (rehabilitation of infrastructure, vaccination campaigns, etc). It is never said how much the state invests and how much Fesa does, but Fesa takes credit.

Hushed-up critics in Luanda argue that Fesa is usurping roles and functions of the state.

As Fesa grows and its omnivorous programme takes over more areas of public life, from soccer to science, its generous funding weaves a web of vested interests and dependency.

Sectors of civil society that presented a challenge, a “dissident” view to dos Santos (NGOs, churches, human rights and free press monitors) are effectively marginalised – if not coopted.

Even some MPLA members suspect Fesa is a scheme to marginalise the ruling party, which is embedded in the state machinery. By presiding over the demise of the state while promoting Fesa, dos Santos neutralises the POpular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) sphere of influence and any challenges to his powers that could emerge within.

In the days of one-party state, there was no life outside the MPLA. Today, can there be anything outside Fesa? Where are the limits between Fesa and the state, between the private and public status of dos Santos? Except for the independent press, critics are muted. Many find Fesa a scandal but its events are generously endowed and well attended.

Says Mario Paiva, a journalist with the independent weekly newspaper Agora: “It is an absolute scandal that Fesa grows and rises using public money.”

There are few job opportunities in Angola’s ruined economy: who is going to turn one down?

So Fesa balloons, in a disorganised, unplanned way, doing everything from charity to technical seminars. A recent one focused on social communication and marketing as tools to promote tourism. Given that Angola has zero tourism – war zones, filthy cities and collapsed infrastructure seldom pull in visitors – its usefulness is at best doubtful.

Worse, while one million Angolan starve and shelling kills many, Fesa indulged in its peak annual extravaganza, the FESA week, built around the President’s 57th birthday on Aug 28.

A Brazilian TV star, Tais Duarte, was flown in for the week. She plays Xica da Silva in a soap Angolans love to watch. Dos Santos danced with Xica, toasted with champagne and blew the candles on a lovely cake, 2 metres long by 1 metre wide, decorated as three soccer fields with tiny sugar players.

At the Karl Marx theater, a symposium attended by 1,700 people discussed “How to overcome hunger and misery in Angola.”

On Aug 28, while dos Santos danced and toasted, Unita shelled the Angolan city of Huambo. Arriving at the party, dos Santos was asked how he felt, having one more year of age, one more year of war.

“I feel good; I feel strong, and I feel confident we will find the road to peace,” he replied.

Along that bumpy road, dos Santos, in office since 1979, has become a master manipulator in the attempt to control the party, the army, the state and civil society. Fesa is his tool.

 
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