The President, the General and their country

The transition in Angola is already on its way. Fortunately for Angolans– except for Mr. Dos Santos and his entourage – it is not heading to where the former President wants. Español Português

Manuel Nunes Ramires Serrano
21 September 2017

CC0. Public Domain.

“General, your tank is a powerful vehicle. It smashes down forests and crushes a hundred men. But it has one defect: It needs a driver. General, your bomber is powerful. It flies faster than a storm and carries more than an elephant. But it has one defect: It needs a mechanic. General, man is very useful. He can fly and he can kill. But he has one defect: He can think.”

- Bertolt Brecht

Angola is not a democracy. Any serious and impartial analysis should start from the assertion that, in a democracy, journalists are free to do their work without being targeted and presidents do not stay in power for 38 years and unilaterally delay elections according to their own agenda. The nature of a regime does not depend on whether its leader is better or worse than, say, Equatorial Guinea’s Teodoro Obiang or Zimbawe’s Robert Mugabe. Neither does it depend on the interests of some politicians who capitalize on the richness of 1% of the population while the majority endures poverty and sickness in a resource-rich country. It does depend on political rights and civil liberties, the state of which in Angola is such, according to Freedom House, that the country can in no way be said to be a free country.

Respect for democratic norms and human dignity is not something that can be stopped at borders, regardless of what certain people say. Defenders of human rights, freedom of expression and freedom of the press do not brainwash people. They struggle with the people to ensure that every citizen, may it be Portuguese or Angolan, is entitled to live his or her life fully. It is a matter of fact that Angola is an autocracy, where millions live in poverty because a few enjoy billions, and that Mr. Dos Santos is – or rather was, while in power - an archetypal autocrat. And facts are facts, no matter how hard you try to spin them. Sadly, electoral dynamics can turn them upside down. In Angola, some politicians have been accusing human rights defenders of being imperialist agents, thus missing an opportunity to choose their words  wisely or, to say the least, trying to conceal how uninterested they are in what may happen to those living outside Luanda’s luxurious gated communities.

Parting ways?

Since Angola´s independence from Portugal in 1975, the country has been ruled by a single party: the People's Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA). The country has known only two Presidents: Agostinho Neto, the party´s founder - until his death in 1979 – and, since then, José Eduardo dos Santos. After almost forty years in office, today Mr. Dos Santos is no longer President. João Lourenço, the former defence minister, an artillery general and a long-time member of the MPLA, is now the country´s new President. But make no mistake: Mr. Dos Santos will retain control of his party and those close to him will be protected: laws have been passed to prevent the new President from firing the heads of the military and the security services for the next eight years. As for his family, it is safe and well off: his daughter – the richest woman in Africa – will remain in charge of Sonangol, the state oil company, and his son, José Filomeno, will keep on controlling the country´s multibillion dollar wealth fund. As Mr. Dos Santos family and circle grip on Angola continues, so will corruption and nepotism.  It is hard to believe that Joao Lourenço will be willing or capable to fulfil his electoral promise to tackle corruption if that means going against his party´s interests.

Change will come sooner or later and it will come from the bottom.

As long as Mr. Dos Santos remains behind the scenes and a small elite of exceedingly wealthy families controls the country´s economy, nothing is expected to change at the top. But change will come sooner or later and it will come from the bottom. Angola is a repressive and corrupt country where the now former President managed to keep the poor almost invisible, but where one in five children die before they are five, a third of the population lives under the poverty line, and thousands live with no running water, no schools, no hospitals and no roads. However, as the economic crisis unfolded, inflation skyrocketed, the price of oil crashed and unemployment soared, the invisible has become visible, once friendly international politicians are becoming less friendly, and more and more young Angolans – two thirds of the population is under thirty-five – are developing a political consciousness. Increasingly, few believe that a democratic transition will come about without decisive action from the people.

Electoral fraud?

On September 6, the Angolan Electoral Commission (CNE) confirmed João Lourenço as Angola´s new President. The MPLA won the elections, which took place on August 23, with 61.07% of the votes and 150 seats out of 220.  The National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) came second with 26,67% of the votes, and the Broad Convergence for the Salvation of Angola (CASA-CE) third, with 9,44% of the votes. These elections, however, have been under suspicion well before they took place.

The European Union was invited as an observer, barely a month before the elections. The EU, as standards procedure, required the Angolan government to sign a memorandum guaranteeing access to the entire territory, impartiality and independence. The Angolan government, through its Foreign Minister George Chikoti, refused to sign it, claiming that while it was inviting the EU, Angola was “not willing to be taught lessons about elections”. The invitation was obviously a smokescreen. The invitation was made under pressure from the opposition and civil society, but the government immediately limited the scope and the implications of the process. As a result, the EU finally sent a small team of experts – less than ten-member strong - who were unable to provide a comprehensive account of the electoral process.

But transparency and legitimacy of an electoral process cannot be upheld

Suspicion continued after the elections. On August 24, an MPLA official announced that five million out of nine million ballots had already been counted, and that the incumbents had received 66% of them. The following day, a spokesperson for the Angolan Electoral Commission (CNE) announced, without a final count in any of the 18 Angolan provinces, that the MPLA had obtained 64.57% of the votes. According to the opposition parties, only in Cabinda, Uíge and Zaire were votes duly counted according to the Electoral Law and the Constitution. In other provinces there were reports of ballot boxes disappearing and individuals alien to the electoral process taking part in the counting procedure, trying to match the definitive and the provisional results illegally declared days before. Unsurprisingly, both the Electoral Commission and the Constitutional Court rejected the claims of alleged irregularities, accusing the opposition of bad faith and upholding the early disclosure of the provisional results. But transparency and legitimacy of an electoral process cannot be upheld

A smaller autocrat

Regardless of the accusations of electoral fraud, the MPLA results were far worse than in 2012, when Mr. Dos Santos obtained 72% of the votes, showing that slowly, but steadily, the MPLA is losing support, especially among the urban youth. Since two thirds of Angolans are under 35, it is only a matter of time before they decide to put an end to what has been going on in Angola in the last decades. Mr. Lourenço may say that he will not be a Gorbachev, but he will be no Deng Xiaoping either. Angola’s problems go well beyond the corruption which Mr. Lourenço claims he is going to tackle. Corruption is a very serious issue in Angola, but to find the culprit you just have to look up: to Mr. Dos Santos, his family, and his generals. And to assume that Mr. Lourenço will be capable or willing to go against his party and his leader is just a fantasy. From extreme poverty to extremely poor healthcare, Angola is now feeling the effects of decades of autocracy, kleptocracy and nepotism. Getting Angola back in economic shape, taking millions out of poverty and opening the door for true democracy is a huge task, way above Mr. Lourenço’s capabilities.

Some may call it imperialism, but for most people, this is just democracy. 

Probably José Eduardo Agualusa, the internationally acclaimed Angolan writer, has got it right in his most recent book The Society of Involuntary Dreamers. In a dream, a protester named Hossi enters the Presidential Palace in Luanda and faces the President, who asks him what he wants. The protester answers: everything! And with a simple gesture he splits the President in two, and a smaller President emerges from within. The protester then asks him: Why did you arrest young activists? And the smaller President shrinks. Why did you keep for yourself what belongs to every Angolan? And the President shrinks further. Why are you afraid of them? And the now tiny President keeps on shrinking…

The transition in Angola is already in motion. Fortunately for Angolans – except for Mr. Dos Santos and his entourage – it is not heading to where the former President wants. For democracy to blossom in Angola, faith must not be placed in Mr. Lourenço and his party: change will come from the revus, the young people in the streets who want to lead their life in dignity, with proper healthcare services, proper education, a free press and free elections. Some may call it imperialism, but for most people, this is just democracy. 

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