On 23 August, Angolans went to the polls to vote in a parliamentary election from which President José Eduardo dos Santos was absent from the list of candidates. While it is not unusual for an incumbent to eschew reelection, President dos Santos of the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola party (MPLA) has been Angola’s leader for 38 years, making him Africa’s second-longest serving head of state after Equatorial Guinea’s Teodoro Obiang.
With dos Santos’ ailing health leading him to relinquish the presidency, a turbulent chapter in Angola’s political history was never likely to draw to a close quietly. Fierce armed conflict has been coupled with a dramatic shift from Marxism to a neoliberal embrace of capital markets and foreign investment – all underwritten by the burgeoning wealth of an oil boom. Therefore it is perhaps unsurprising that a week after the election was held, the result is still unresolved.
Amid confusion, the MPLA have claimed victory and Portugal’s Prime Minister, Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, has even congratulated the party’s candidate, Defence Minister João Lourenço, on his win. However, Isaias Samakuva, leader of the country’s main opposition party, the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA), has rejected the result outright. “The country doesn’t yet have valid electoral results”, he told a press conference in Viana, outside the capital Luanda. “[Angola] still doesn’t have a president elect”.
Provisional counts released by the National Electoral Commission after the initial vote had the MPLA at 64 percent and UNITA had 24 percent. A smaller opposition group, the Broad Convergence for the Salvation of Angola–Electoral Coalition party (CASA-CE), had 8 percent. Poor weather conditions and a helicopter crash prevented electoral materials reaching the East of the country, according to National Electoral Commission spokeswoman Julia Ferreira, meaning that voting in some areas was delayed significantly. However, the head of the commission, Andre da Silva Neto, claimed that the vote was otherwise carried out smoothly.
Historical tensions resurface
To turn up the heat on an already simmering cauldron, the two parties were once opposing factions in Angola’s civil war. In 1975, a fractious independence from Portugal saw the colonial power withdraw from the country without transferring the reigns to any particular successor. In the ensuing struggle to fill the vacuum of legitimacy, the MPLA took control of Luanda and declared full independence, and UNITA and the National Front for the Liberation of Angola (FNLA) set up a rival government in Huambo.
Caught in a treacherous Cold War dichotomy in the 1980s, MPLA troops, backed by Cuba and the Soviet Union, fought UNITA’s forces, supported by South Africa and the US – until the civil war ended with the killing of UNITA leader Jonas Savimbi in battle in 2002. The two parties made the outright transition to mainstream politics, with the MPLA emerging victorious in elections ever since.
The MPLA remains popular among many older voters, and has been in power since independence. Its sympathisers credit dos Santos with fostering the country’s recovery from the 27-year civil war and transforming Angola’s economy. Others accuse him of ruling the country as an authoritarian, allowing politics in Angola to stagnate, and failing to effectively distribute the proceeds of the oil bonanza.
Cronyism and corruption
63-year-old Lourenço, who fought in both the war against Portuguese colonial rule and for the MPLA during the long civil war before studying in the Soviet Union, campaigned on a platform of fighting Angola’s endemic corruption problem. UNITA, on the other hand, promised a broad spectrum of changes; from increased education and health spending to a battle against corruption and more foreign investment for the economy.
However, many believe that the issue that formed the cornerstone of both campaigns is irreversibly woven into the fabric of Angolan politics. The country ranked 164th out of 176 on the 2016 Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index, and in a recent poll, nearly 90 percent of respondents said the MPLA leadership acts in its own interests, and not those of the Angolan people. Highlighting the corruption epidemic that has proliferated on his watch, José Eduardo dos Santos has been accused of building a dynasty ahead of his inevitable departure, and allegations of cronyism and nepotism have long threatened to tarnish his legacy.
His daughter Isabel dos Santos is regarded as the richest woman in Africa – and the continent’s first female billionaire – a fortune accrued from the oil industry, having been appointed chief executive of the state-run oil firm Sonangol in 2016. Earlier this year, she also acquired a controlling stake in the country’s largest bank, Banco de Fomento Angola (BFA). Meanwhile the ex-president’s son, José Filomeno, is in charge of a US$5bn state investment fund.
Corruption is far from the only problem that besets the country. Despite the prodigious oil wealth, some estimates say that 68% of the 29 million people in Angola live in poverty. Angola is also one of the world’s most unequal countries. According to the Chr. Michelsen Institute, a Norwegian think tank, 20% of the Angolan population receive 59% of all income and the poorest 20% receive only 3%. Despite some improvement, Angola’s child mortality rate, remains one of the worst in the world, and Angola was hit by a yellow fever epidemic in 2016, putting yet more strain on an inadequate healthcare system.
A deep economic crisis has hit the MPLA’s popularity in recent years. The Angolan economy, sub-Saharan Africa’s third-largest, depends on oil for more than 90 percent of its export earnings – much of which is extracted in Cabinda province, where a long separatist conflict continues to smoulder. Angola has been brought to its knees by oil prices that have halved since mid-2014, leading to zero growth for 2016. Inflation rates also peaked at 42% last year.
Half-finished tower blocks stand empty along Luanda’s U-shaped shoreline, and gated communities, built for foreign workers and a middle class that never emerged, are largely empty. Chinese and Portuguese labourers emigrated to Angola in their droves as government-ordained construction projects were approved at an alarming rate, fuelled by the oil boom.
In many ways, Angola has become a monument to the dangers of ‘boom economy’, and Lourenço’s incoming administration will need to work swiftly and exhaustively to transform an oil-addicted economy with few prospects for diversification.
An incomplete transition
Along with dos Santos’ enduring family ties to key institutions, he will remain leader of the MPLA until 2018, and thus continue to be a dominant force in Angolan politics. Speaking to the Guardian, Julia Westbury, Africa analyst at UK-based consultancy West Sands Advisory, said: “Even if he wanted to, Lourenço may find it difficult to free himself from dos Santos. Large-scale political change is unlikely and long-awaited democratic reforms needed to turn around Angola’s struggling economy unlikely to materialise”.
Nor will dos Santos’ departure ease the economic crisis, according to Manuel Alves da Rocha, chief economist at the Catholic University of Angola in Luanda. “Changing the president may have seemed unthinkable a few years ago,” Alves da Rocha said in an interview. “The hard part after the vote is to fix an economy that continues to run on oil.”
Marissa J. Moorman of Indiana University agrees, telling Jericho: “Reform is required in nearly all areas of the economy and the bureaucracy. Lourenço is constrained by the placement of Isabel dos Santos… and José Filomeno dos Santos. The key figures of the regime will be difficult to dislodge. In fact, dos Santos passed a law making it impossible for Lourenço to remove the heads of the military and security, which are key in the dos Santos political and economic world.”
While she sees no reason to doubt the MPLA’s long-term political future, a new dawn of intra- and inter-party competition could be upon Angola, perhaps changing the political landscape for the better. Once the election has been resolved, the post-dos Santos era can begin in earnest – with the possibility of real change for the first time in decades.