Book Review - In the Name of the People

In 1961 Peter Benenson, a London lawyer, launched a worldwide campaign calling for the release of six political prisoners. One of them was Agostinho Neto, an Angolan poet and doctor held without charge or trial by the Portuguese authorities. This action led to Neto’s release and the founding of Amnesty International. Neto went on to become Angola’s first president after independence in 1975. His then-Marxist party, the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), had the support of the Soviet Union and Cuba, while the United States and South Africa backed its rival, the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA).

Neto swiftly established a one-party state and the MPLA continued to have close links with Cuba. On 27 May, 1977, Neto’s government brutally suppressed a demonstration, claiming that it was an attempted a coup by ‘factionalists’ led by the former interior minister, Nito Alves. Thousands of Angolans were executed in the aftermath – estimates range from 2000 to 90,000 – leading to a culture of silence and a fear of protesting that persists today.

Lara Pawson, a former BBC correspondent, seeks to unpack and understand this ‘climate of terror’ which helped to shape modern Angola. She discovers that Cuban forces participated in the crackdown, killing dissident members of the MPLA, and argues that respected British journalists have remained silent on the subject because of their socialist sympathies.

Part of what makes Pawson’s account so compelling is her continual questioning of her own motivation for wanting to write about events little known outside Angola, that happened long ago and which have, in large part, escaped substantial, objective scrutiny. She meets various witnesses, from those who lost relatives in the purges to those who survived. She also interviews fellow journalists, including Ndunduma Wé Lépi, former director of Jornal de Angola, who fanned the flames of violence in a series of inflammatory articles exhorting readers to ‘strike while the iron is hot’. Writing about a massacre is always a difficult undertaking but Lara Pawson’s conversational tone, her musings and lively descriptions, make In the Name of the People as engaging as it is informative.

Originally published in the TLS