Since independence from Portugal in 1975, the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) has led the country. Parliamentary elections have consistently delivered large majorities, to the ruling party.
After 38 years in power, President Jose Eduardo dos Santos is finally leaving office. Yet, the change the country so desperately needs, will remain unlikely.
President Santos is the world’s second-longest serving president, behind Teodor Obiang Nguema of Equatorial Guinea. He announced in February, he would not be standing for election in 2017 and that Defense Minister Joao Lourenco, would be the candidate for the MPLA.
A large segment of the electorate credit the MPLA, with bringing peace to Angola after nearly three decades of civil war. When hostilities finally ended in 2002, the country was totally devastated.
With the absence of war, the party under the leadership of President Santos, was able to concentrate their efforts on the economic development of the country.
The Angolan government was then fortunate, to preside over an subsequent economic boom. Brought on by higher prices for the sale of oil, the country was able to realize substantial foreign exchange earnings.
Despite the rapid growth of the economy, poverty remains widespread.
It also permitted a system of political and economic patronage, for the family and associates of President dos Santos.
The election on the 23rd of August, will be a political struggle between the two main parties of MPLA and UNITA (National Union for the Total Independence of Angola).
No longer fighting for control of the country through the force of arms, they instead are trying to gain the support of 9 million voters.
The intractable political grip the MPLA has long held over Angola, is finally beginning to loosen. Two thirds of the country’s 28 million people are under 25. Many of these young people, will be voting for the first time. They have no living memory, of the bitter civil war that had engulfed the country, for more than 25 years after independence.
During the endless years of internal fighting, the MPLA was backed by Cuba and the now defunct Soviet Union. They were opposed by the forces of UNITA, which was receiving aid from both South Africa and the United States.
The relaxation of international tensions between the successor state of the Soviet Union, namely Russia and the United States in the 1990’s, made the political rivalry in Angola seem far less important.
The end of the Cold War, also allowed a softening of the hardline Marxist stance of the MPLA.
Over time, cronyism capitalism was allowed to develop. It has been plagued with both corruption and nepotism emanating from the MPLA. This is especially the case, with the close associates and family of President dos Santos.
Illness, is finally forcing dos Santos from the presidency of Angola. He has traveled to Spain twice recently, for medical reasons. However, he will remain the leader of the MPLA. He is therefore, unlikely to totally relinquish, his extensive political influence throughout the country.
In a further move, President dos Santos has secured from the legislature, a seat on the Council of the Republic, which will give him immunity from any form of prosecution.
Dos Santos has also somewhat hamstrung, his successor. Last month Angola’s parliament passed a law that will prohibit the new president, from dismissing the heads of the army, police and intelligence services for up to eight years.
Nor is he likely to dismantle, his vast family business connections and holdings.
Dos Santos’ daughter Isabel for example, runs the enormous state oil company. She is believed to be Africa’s richest woman. Of course, the billionaire denies her immense wealth, is in any way derived from state sources.
Jose Filomeno a son of the President, was chosen to head a sovereign wealth fund, set up to invest a portion of the Angolan oil revenues.
Another son is in charge of entertainment. Jose Paulino is both a singer and a television opera producer.
The government is simply unable to account for, billions of dollars of public funds, just in the past decade alone.
The IMF (International Monetary Fund) has itself, documented the poor book keeping practices at Sonangol, the national oil company.
Even China has come up against the rampant corruption. Investigators there, have made a number of arrests. Infrastructure projects based on the trade in oil, are often murky with details. This is especially the case, the closer one associates with the inner band of President dos Santos.
Angola is ranked 12th in a worldwide corruption index. Transparency International rates the nations corruption 164th out of 176.
The near collapse of international crude prices beginning in 2014, has hammered the economy of Angola. Oil revenues have come down from $60 billion USD three years ago, to just $27 billion USD in 2016.
In addition, foreign firms are being forced to leave Angola, as the supply of hard currency becomes ever scarcer. On the black market, an American dollar is now worth more than twice the official rate.
The country has been in recession for a number of quarters. In April of this year, the government reported that GDP had contracted by 4% in 2016. This information has since been removed, from the official website.
Unemployment is at least 20% and most likely higher, in various parts of the country.
Prices have risen dramatically. Last year inflation surged 42%, putting rent and basic necessities almost out of reach for many Angolans.
Even the rising middle class, has been seriously impacted. It includes civil servants, who have seen their standard of living decline, since wages have remained stagnant, in the face of rapidly rising price levels.
The capital city of Luanda, has been deemed the world’s most expensive city for foreigners.
Yet, within view of the luxury apartments, offices and hotels, are the shanty towns, where people live in abject poverty.
The mismanagement of the economy and the inefficiency of the bureaucracy, is quite evident.
An example of this, was a recent outbreak of yellow fever. It was the worst in decades, not only in Angola, but globally. Despite years of investment in the prevention of disease, results were dismal. A single inoculation of every citizen, would of prevented the whole crisis.
The MLPA remains confident of electoral success, despite the economic downturn. Although the margin of victory is expected to be lower this go around, the political control the party has over Angola, will be hard to overcome.
In the parliamentary election of 2008, MPLA was able to garner a whopping 82% of the total. In the 2012 legislative vote, the party was still able to capture a majority of 72%, near three quarters of the total. In that election, UNITA only received 18% by comparison.
As in past elections, there is a question, will the MPLA ever really hold a fair vote? The government has already distributed state resources on a massive scale. Critics are regularly repressed, but action against them always increases, ahead of elections.
The Angolan government earlier this month, moved to ban any demonstrations or protests by groups, not running in the polls. There have also been accusations of the bribing of local officials and in some cases, actual physical attacks on opponents.
Furthermore, there is a new law giving regulatory control of the entire media, to a body that is largely controlled by the MPLA and the government. So one can expect restrictions,censorship and repression of alternative viewpoints.
There is of course, the usual restrictive practices, over the number of polling stations, where they are located in relations to voters and issues with voter registration.
UNITA is promising major change. There is a commitment to increase spending on both health and education. Where these additional funds will come from, is still largely unclear. The party has also pledged to fight corruption and further open the economy to foreign investment.
Although MPLA is expected to lose in the urban areas, this is likely to be made up elsewhere. UNITA and another opposition party CASA-CE, are forecasting electoral gains in 2017. The CACA-CE push for economic and political reforms, is making headway for more youthful voters.
There are three additional smaller parties, that make up part of the opposition.
It will in the end, be insufficient to overcome the support, the MPLA can still count on.
For his part Mr. Lourenco, was not the first choice of President dos Santos. The latter would of preferred, someone selected from his inner circle. Vocal opposition within his own party, forced him to acquiesce to their resistance.
Although Lourenco has strong ties with the military, many wonder if he will have any real capability, to bring about the needed economic and political changes. Any drive against corruption, will meet stiff resistance, from those who have benefited from the current system.
A new president must take almost immediate steps, to deal with the rapidly rising debt, partly the result of a surge in government spending, ahead of the election. A devaluation of the local currency, is already being called for, by many analysts.
If action is not taken quickly, an IMF bailout of the Angolan financial system, becomes inevitable.
The shadow government that will continue to exist, composed from the elites of the MPLA and the close associates of President dos Santos, may well impede any real reforms. The family of dos Santos itself, including the soon to be former President, are likely to be one of the major hindrances to the reform effort.