Is Angola ready for step three?
The ruling MPLA party, led by President João Lourenço, standing for his second term, won the August election by a narrower margin than before, and with voter turnout at only 45%. Is this indicative of people demonstrating their dissatisfaction with the scenario of an entrenched power monopoly? Could it pave the way for a genuine democratic dispensation in the future? Neil Ford discusses.
Angola could be following a familiar African narrative: a prolonged period of independence and civil wars; followed by years of autocratic rule by the party that led the fight for independence; and now, hopefully a transition to democratic rule.
The first stage is obviously well-worked history but whether we have left the second phase to embark on the third depends on your reading of the recent election. Did the ruling Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola (MPLA) party win a hard-fought, free and fair election, or did it achieve success by controlling the process?
The MPLA won the 24 August general election with 51% of the popular vote to 44% for União Nacional para a Independência Total de Angola (UNITA), in comparison with figures of 61% for the MPLA and 27% for UNITA at the last election in 2017.
The MPLA’s share of the vote may have held up in 2017 on the back of a wave of optimism that the replacement of José Eduardo dos Santos by João Lourenço could herald a radically different political and economic approach. However, this too was a fall in support for the ruling party, which won 72% of the vote in 2012, a big lead on UNITA’s 19%.
The 2022 election gives Lourenço a second term of office, the maximum now allowed under the Constitution. Angolan general elections employ the double simultaneous vote, where electors cast only one vote – for their chosen party.
Of the 220 members of the National Assembly, 90 are elected by constituency, with the remaining 130 by proportional representation. The party that receives the most votes also has its Presidential candidate elected as Head of State.
It is therefore impossible to vote for a Presidential candidate and National Assembly member from different parties. Under most outcomes, this means that the President and government would come from the same party.
A lack of progress on living standards seems to have driven up support for UNITA, with the party’s relative success partly borne out of the former rebel movement joining with civil society groups to boost its appeal among poorer people and to move into the political mainstream.
During the years of bumper oil production under Dos Santos, a wealthy middle class emerged in parts of Luanda, while thousands of Europeans were attracted to live and work in the city, but most of the population failed to share in the benefits.
Poverty and unemployment levels have remained high ever since and about half of the population lives on less than $2 a day. According to official figures, 30% of the population is unemployed, rising to 60% among the youth. However, there no longer seems much fear that the country could revert to civil war. Young people cannot even remember it, while the average age of Angolans is just 16.
Some have claimed that the election results were interfered with but Angola’s Constitutional Court rejected a petition by UNITA to annul the results on the grounds that there was insufficient evidence to support the allegations.
Lourenço told a press conference: “The international community perceives this election as being free, fair and transparent”, although observers from the Southern African Development Community said that there were too few local observers and Jorge Carlos Fonseca, the head of the Community of Portuguese Language Countries (CPLP) Observers’ Mission and a former President of Cape Verde, said that the CPLP mission’s initial assessment did not say that the vote was fair and free. He listed their main concerns as the inclusion of 2.7m deceased people on the electoral roll and the lack of media air-time given to some candidates.
The MPLA has managed to rule the country ever since independence in 1975, partly because of its twin successes in helping to win the independence war against Portugal and in eventually winning the long bloody civil war against UNITA forces in 2002.
However, it has also retained power through intolerance of political opposition and media control during the 38 years Dos Santos spent in power. The party celebrated its relatively narrow victory but there would be more for the country to celebrate if power was able to pass back and forth between rival parties in the style of Ghana.
The big question is whether Angolan political life has opened up since Lourenço came to power. The relatively narrow nature of his lead could suggest that he won a significant victory in a free and fair election that also highlighted profound dissatisfaction with the pace of change. It is difficult from the outside to ascertain whether there was any interference with the results.
However, Angolan human rights NGOs had already complained about curtailed freedom of expression, arbitrary detentions and unlawful killings before the election. Moreover, several observers complained that the President’s promised good governance and greater transparency evaporated into authoritarian government even during his first term of office. There were also reports of the unlawful detention of political activists following the election.
Dos Santos singled out Lourenço to replace him, apparently convinced that his successor would remain a loyal ally. This was not borne out by the events that followed. It was widely accepted that political and economic power in Angola was concentrated in the hands of a tiny elite with little transparency over the deals struck, so Lourenço’s pledge to tackle corruption was widely praised.
However, there were accusations that his anti-corruption campaign specifically targeted the Dos Santos family and the former President’s other key supporters. Dos Santos’ son was sentenced to five years in prison after he was convicted of fraud when $500m was moved from the National Bank of Angola to an account in the UK.
Dos Santos’ daughter Isabel was widely reputed to have been the richest woman in Africa as a result of telecoms, oil and diamond deals while her father was in power. However, in 2020, the BBC and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists secured access to documents they said appeared to show entrenched corruption in how she secured these contracts, including in relation to her short time in charge of state oil company Sonangol. She was subsequently banned from entering the US, although she denied the accusations, claiming that the new Angolan government was conducting a witch-hunt.
A divided MPLA
At his inauguration ceremony on 15 September, Lourenço promised to pursue economic reforms and job creation but it was reported that he did not mention his anti-corruption campaign. However, this may not indicate that he is less enthusiastic about tackling graft but rather, could be to distract attention from the reported feud with Dos Santos supporters.
It is difficult to decipher whether the dispute between different parts of the MPLA will hasten the erosion of the party’s dominant place in power, heralding a period of genuine multiparty politics where it is no longer guaranteed success, or whether it will encourage Lourenço’s supporters to take a harder line on power, both within the party and in the country as a whole.
Isabel’s influence in the country seems to be waning alongside that of the rest of the family, particularly following the death of her father in Spain in July and his funeral, which took place in Luanda the day before the election. Isabel had opposed the funeral taking place in Angola rather than Spain but the Spanish authorities granted the funereal wishes of his widow.
Lourenço has already pledged to “promote dialogue and consultation” and the erosion of MPLA power suggests that this would be a sensible course of action. Firstly, a two-thirds majority is needed in the National Assembly to pass some forms of legislation and for the first time, the MPLA will no longer meet that threshold.
It will therefore need to win the support of some opposition MPs. Secondly, UNITA won the popular vote in Luanda, in the northern enclave of Cabinda, where there has been an intermittent secessionist campaign over several decades, and in other key oil-producing areas.
Perhaps the most worrying aspect of the Angolan election in terms of democratic rule is one that has received very little coverage. The turnout was just under 45%, a very low figure given how tight most people expected the election to be and the fact that every vote counted because of proportional representation. It is concerning that so few people felt they had a stake in the outcome.
This compares with turnouts of 65% at the recent Kenyan polls and 66% in the 2019 South African election but is indicative of weak democracies. The turnout in the 2019 Nigerian elections was just 35%. It is vital that elections are not only free and fair but that they are perceived to be so by voters. The government must ensure that the leading parties are given equal media access and that the police do not seek to oppress opposition campaigners. Angola deserves nothing less if it is to achieve a transition to genuine democratic rule and open civil society.