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  • In the Name of the People: Angola's Forgotten Massacre by Lara Pawson
  • Fernando Arenas
Pawson, Lara. In the Name of the People: Angola's Forgotten Massacre. London: I.B. Tauris, 2014. xii + 271 pp. Glossary. Maps. Notes. Bibliography. Index.

Lara Pawson's In the Name of the People offers a riveting investigative account of the massacre of thousands of people that took place in Angola on May 27, 1977, in the aftermath of a major demonstration and coup d'état led by Nito Alves, former guerrilla and senior member of the governing MPLA Central Committee shortly after independence. Of all the events in the nation's tumultuous history, ranging from the first contacts with Europeans in the fifteenth century, the trans-Atlantic slave trade, the wars of European conquest in the late nineteenth/early twentieth centuries, colonization, the liberation war and the internationalized multi-front civil war, to the oligarchic and nepotistic kleptocracy, in which most of the population lives on $2 a day, the one that remains the greatest taboo is the massacre that took place after the Nito Alves revolt. This major event in the history of early post-independence Angola has been largely suppressed from official memory. Yet, there are a few exceptions to this purposeful amnesia. The classic novel by Boaventura Cardoso, Maio, mês de Maria (May, Month of Mary) (1997) alludes elliptically to the massacre while expressing profound disillusionment with the MPLA project. Historian David Birmingham, in his chapter on Angola, featured in the volume A History of Postcolonial Lusophone Africa (2002), refers to the "bloodstained crisis of 1977" as the moment in which the MPLA "turned to becoming a self-selected elite party mendaciously calling itself 'the workers' vanguard'" (153). More recently, historian Ricardo Soares de Oliveira in Magnificent and Beggar Land: Angola Since the Civil War (2015) identifies the recurrent South African attacks and the ongoing civil war as well as Nito Alves's attempted coup as the root cause of the party-state's "suffocating national security culture that is one of its perennial traits" (96). Among these and a few other scarce allusions or inquiries into the events of 1977, Lara Pawson's In the Name of the People stands out as the most ambitious and detailed attempt to shed light on one of the most sinister chapters of Angola's history from a journalistic point of view.

Pawson's work is based on extensive archival research and interviews with presumed witnesses, friends, and relatives of victims, as well as presumed victimizers. It is an extraordinarily suspenseful journey that is at times heart-wrenching. There is a detective quality to the investigative experience that takes place in Portugal, the United Kingdom, and Angola, as each chapter is structured around a different encounter. In the Name of the People registers the various stages in the process of (re-)constructing an elusive truth from myriad fragments, perspectives, and experiences, as well as gaps, contradictions, possible falsehoods, distortions, and illuminating moments. The prose is highly vivid; journalistic and literary in equal measure with pointillistic descriptions of interior and exterior spaces, urban scenes, as well as human interactions, thus adding considerable texture and nuance to each situation the book narrates. Adding a meta-journalistic dimension, the author comments on her own possible limitations and fears, but also on her strength of knowledge and experience. At the [End Page E4] same time, she expresses a great deal of empathy towards the subjects she interviews, even if they seem potentially or de facto inimical to her agenda.

In the Name of the People offers major insights regarding the history of May 1977, including the key role played by Cuban military forces, who defended Agostinho Neto and the ruling MPLA against the attempted coup, in defiance of the Soviet Union, while committing atrocities against Nito Alves's supporters. It also highlights the centrality of racial politics in Nito's movement against the perceived political dominance of mixed race and white Angolans in the MPLA to the exclusion of the majority poor black population, emphasizing the movement's rejection of endemic corruption within the MPLA and its betrayal of the socialist revolution. While Pawson's...