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Angola: the politics of exhaustion

Lara Pawson
2 March 2007

Large dragonflies dip and dart through the air outside the Luanda office of Frei João Domingos, an elderly Portuguese Roman Catholic monk who has lived in Angola since 1981 and now heads the Instituto de Ciências Religiosas de Angola (Angola Institute of Religious Sciences / Icra). In a gently firm voice, he is carefully explaining how the country functions. "Everything here is about image", he says. "They will hold the African football championships here in 2010, they will hold the African basketball championships here, they will also build a brand new international airport here - these developments are all very visible and obvious - but the reality of the people remains the same."

For the last hour, we have been fanning flies and discussing the legislative and presidential elections which are supposed to take place in 2008 and 2009 respectively. Frei Domingos is frank in his appraisal of the country's politicians: "They are self-interested and the opposition parties have no project." Of the electorate, he is pessimistic: "People here don't believe in themselves. They feel inferior because of their history of slavery and colonialism." He describes a population which is exhausted from war and fearful of those who claim to represent it. "All of the main parties have been murderous", he says, and then runs through a list of the atrocities carried out by the ruling Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola (MPLA), the former rebel group and now main opposition party, União Nacional para a Independência Total de Angola (Unita), and what is still just about thought to be the third most popular party, the Frente Nacional de Libertação de Angola (FNLA).

Lara Pawson is a journalist living between London and Luanda. Her blog is here

People have good reason to fear the democratic process. The last - and only - time any multiparty elections were held was in September 1992, and they proved disastrous. The legislatives were completed with the MPLA taking just over half of all votes, and Unita scooping up more than a third. However, the presidentials came unstuck: neither José Eduardo dos Santos, Angolan president since 1979, nor the then Unita leader Jonas Malheiro Savimbi, won a majority. A second round should have taken place but instead, a very brutal conflict - in effect the resumption of the long civil war that had consumed Angola since the end of Portuguese colonial rule in 1974 - erupted.

There are other reasons, too, why many Angolans doubt the rewards that are widely thought to be reaped from democracy. Currently the national defesa civile (civil defence), a paramilitary organisation established, as its name suggests, to protect the people, is alleged to have carried out killings and attacks on civilians who are not supporters of the ruling party. A local journalist, asking not to be named, believes the actions of the defesa civile shows that "a very brutal election campaign has already begun". Asked to respond to these allegations, the vice-minister for territorial administration, Luís de Assunção Pedro da Mota Liz, said: ‘This is not true. It is simply not true. Our institutions work extremely well and all citizens have access to justice. This [allegation] is just not true." But a member of civil society insists that the civil defence forces are "not quite the Gestapo, but they get inside your head".

The MPLA has always been expert at crushing opposition. In 1977, the last time a coup was attempted here, a purge swept across the entire country and led to the deaths of many technocrats, intellectuals and youth, most of whom were members of the party. Estimates of the number of people killed range from a few hundred to tens of thousands. That episode remains in the public conscience and, some say, explains why most Angolans are still too afraid to express their true political will in public. Those who are brave enough to oppose rarely get very far: in February 2007, eight members of a small political party, Partido de Apoio Democrático e Progresso de Angola (Padepa), were arrested for handing out leaflets in Luanda encouraging people to refuse to pay a car tax because of the poor condition of the city's roads, often compared with Swiss cheese because of the huge and myriad potholes.

Between the lines

It would be wrong though to suggest that this is not a multiparty system. In fact there are 126 registered political parties. The vast majority of these are tiny and unknown and ineffective. They are widely believed to have been established to make one or two people a quick buck. The real contest of power is between the two traditional rivals, the MPLA and Unita. But in any legislative elections, few believe Unita can win. "The best we can hope for", Frei Domingos says, "is that Unita win enough votes to stop the MPLA from taking an absolute (parliamentary) majority. This is my wish. If there are no changes within the opposition between now and 2008, this may not happen - and that would be as bad for the MPLA as it will for the whole country."

Also on the politics and governance of modern Africa in openDemocracy:

Richard Dowden, "In search of Ugandan democracy"
(6 December 2005)

Achille Mbembe, "South Africa's second coming: the Nongqawuse syndrome"
(15 June 2006)

Edward Denison, "Eritrea: a cheap holiday in other people’s misery" (20 December 2006)

Wilf Mbanga, "Happy Birthday, Robert Mugabe"
(21 February 2007)

Gilles Yabi, "Guinea: a state of suspension"
(28 February 2007)

Currently, Unita is battling with its own internal opposition. The party has struggled to remain united since the death of Savimbi 0n 22 February 2002. Old inter-ethnic rivalries have flared up between those who come from Bié and those from Huambo, two neighbouring central-highland provinces. Isaias Samakuva (from Bié) is currently president. Softly spoken, diplomatic and philosophical, he is nevertheless seen as a weak leader who lacks charisma. In June he will stand in Unita's own presidential elections against the younger, better-looking and far more charismatic Abel Chivukuvuku (from Huambo). It might seem trivial to be squabbling within the party when the business of winning national and presidential elections looms, but Chivukuvuku and his supporters believe he is the only man who can give Dos Santos a run for his money at the presidentials. Even then, few believe the incumbent can be beaten.

The rationale behind some potential voters' thinking is confusing. One man, an officer worker in his early 30s who did not want to be named, explains why he will vote for Dos Santos: "He's stolen so much from us that he is probably becoming tired of stealing. He can't take any more. But if someone new comes in, he will feel obliged to fill his pockets with as much as his predecessor, which means we will lose out." Another motivation to vote in the ruling party seems to be the sense that you might as well back the winning horse. "Why vote for someone who hasn't got the same funds as the ruling party and the ruling president? They won't stand a chance", said the same young man, who added: "And anyway, we all know that the opposition is basically funded with the money of the MPLA. If you vote for another party, you are really voting for the MPLA."

One man who firmly disagrees is Filomeno Vieira Lopes, an economist at the state-owned oil company, Sonangol, and a leading figure in the small but active opposition party, Frente para a Democracia (FpD). "I have big doubts that the MPLA has the capacity to win the elections. Why else would they keep delaying them?" Lopes predicts that the legislative elections will be fraudulent, but says the key question is one of scale. "The MPLA is making an evaluation which will allow them to carry out fraud without it being too obvious."

He points to the control of the media as one of the main ways the ruling party is trying to change the perception of the people - "There is much greater control of the media today" - and points to the fact that opposition voices are rarely printed in the state-owned newspaper or broadcast on television or radio. Within the private press the range of voices is much wider, but all independent media is restricted to Luanda only. Access to information beyond the capital's borders is tightly controlled. "In terms of human rights, freedom of expression and electoral freedom, the situation here is getting worse", insists Lopes.

The MPLA, not surprisingly, disagrees. In Luanda, representatives of church groups from across the country recently met to discuss democracy, and were joined by the vice-minister, Mota Liz, who spoke at length about the government's emphasis on liberty, freedom and electoral transparency. "Transparency", he told a room of fifty-five men, "has concerned the government from the beginning." A little later he launched into a lengthy exploration of the concept of liberty, insisting that the government seeks liberty for all citizens, but controlled liberty: "We must have liberty, but liberty which respects others. Otherwise", he warned, "in the name of liberty, flames can be fanned."

And this is what the majority of Angolans fear most: elections that are contested and, as before, erupt into violence. From this perspective, elections are not the central concern of most of the population - their main concern is maintaining peace. As Frei Domingos concludes: "War has exhausted everyone. Now they are resting, just resting. This is the reality."

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