Angola’s new leader must tread carefully

2017-09-10 06:00


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MPLA presidential candidate João Lourenço has promised to tackle corruption, but he will struggle with his predecessor’s grip on power, writes Justin Pearce.

By the end of the month, Angola will have a new president for the first time since 1979.

Think about it: when José Eduardo dos Santos came to power, PW Botha had recently become prime minister of South Africa and Ronald Reagan had not yet been elected to the White House.

If you’re younger than 40, you won’t remember those events. Similarly, most Angolans have not witnessed a transfer of power in their lifetimes.

Yet, there’s no sense of epoch-making change in Angola at the moment. João Lourenço may have won the election on August 23, but it’s not like he was swept to power on a wave of popular support.

Even the official results – disputed by the opposition after some obvious breaches of procedure in how the votes were processed – represent a consistent downward trend for the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA). It has ruled since independence from Portugal in 1975, and, until 2002, fought a war against the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (Unita) rebel movement.

The MPLA’s share of the vote shrunk from 81% in 2008 to 72% in 2012. It’s now 61%. More spectacularly, even the official result could not disguise the fact that the MPLA has lost its majority in Luanda.

To understand the significance of this, think of the DA taking Nelson Mandela Bay from the ANC in last year’s local elections. Angola’s coastal capital is home to the elite who founded the MPLA. As the party lost control of much of the country during the war, its grip on Luanda was the surest symbol of its sovereignty.

These days, Luanda is not only home to about one quarter of voters, it is also where the country’s chasm between wealth and poverty is most obvious, and where widespread smartphone use and a couple of independent radio stations have created a culture in which young people, in particular, feel free to voice their contempt for those in power.

In fact, the youth factor is crucial to explaining the ebb of MPLA support. In the aftermath of the war, the ruling party spread the message that any challenge to its authority would mean a return to violence. This resonated with people whose adult lives had been shaped by the war, but became more irrelevant with each successive election. This year’s youngest voters were barely out of nappies when the war ended.

The dynamism of the opposition campaigns had much to do with 20-something voters who campaigned in their neighbourhoods and swelled the numbers at rallies. ‘Change’ was the word on their lips and one that echoed through the speeches of the two main opposition leaders: Isaias Samakuva of Unita, and Abel Chivukuvuku of Casa-CE.

The MPLA’s mouthful of a slogan – “improve what’s good and correct what’s bad” – didn’t wash with voters, who felt the ruling party had spent years failing to do both.

Casa-CE was founded in 2012 when Chivukuvuku split from Unita. He teamed up with a former army officer from a prominent MPLA family, André Mendes de Carvalho, aiming to present a politics that moved beyond the logic of war. The party has done particularly well among Luanda middle-class voters who are disillusioned with the MPLA but have reservations about Unita.

Yet Unita, the one-time rebel movement whose historic heartland is in central Angola, proved it had shaken off the wartime legacy by sweeping up votes in Luanda’s vast slum neighbourhoods, which saw no benefit from the oil boom that transformed Angola’s economy between 2003 and 2014.

Lourenço’s dilemma

Lourenço can take some comfort from the thought that the party might have done even worse had Dos Santos once again been its candidate. The fact that he is not part of the Dos Santos inner circle should, in theory, count in his favour. But he hasn’t been able to shake off the reality that Dos Santos stage-managed his succession.

Lourenço, with his background as an anti-colonial fighter, army general and former MPLA secretary-general, was chosen because he ticks the boxes that make him acceptable to the military and party hierarchies. Under Dos Santos’ patronage, he could become a reliable caretaker of the outgoing president’s interests. Charismatic he is not.

One of the reasons Dos Santos has survived as long as he has is he’s punished the slightest sign of ambition among party underlings. The MPLA has not been a place to parade one’s fitness for leadership or, even worse, cultivate a personal following. Lourenço learnt that lesson the hard way. In 2001, Dos Santos spoke of retiring. Lourenço, the MPLA secretary-general at the time, revealed an interest in being the next president. Dos Santos later changed his mind about retiring and Lourenço was demoted and spent a decade on the margins of power. He made a slow comeback only by keeping his head down in good MPLA fashion, until he was appointed defence minister in 2014, as a prelude to his elevation as a presidential candidate.

This history in the shadows makes it difficult to predict what Lourenço will do once he takes office. His promises to tackle corruption have drawn a few former defectors back to the MPLA, but are more often met with cynical sneers by people who see him as a placeholder for Dos Santos.

Lourenço has been marginal to the wholesale state capture practised by the presidential inner circle, but his benefits from state largesse include a share in the national breweries and vast tracts of farmland that supply food to the military. His wife, the former minister Ana Dias Lourenço, has shares in a media company that receives contracts from state television. How clean an operation Lourenço runs once in government remains to be seen.

Even if Lourenço wants to change how Angola is run, it’s far from clear to what extent he can as long as Dos Santos is MPLA chair. In 38 years, Dos Santos has been able to structure government, particularly the security services, on his own whims and fill posts with people loyal to him. Most visibly, Dos Santos’ eldest daughter, Isabel dos Santos, is the chief executive of Sonangol, the state oil company through which most of Angola’s revenues flow. His son José Filomeno de Sousa dos Santos heads the sovereign wealth fund of Angola. It was set up supposedly to bank the oil surplus for the benefit of future generations, but its investment choices are difficult to distinguish from José’s private business dealings. Weeks before the election, Dos Santos pushed a law through Parliament preventing his successor from appointing new chiefs of the military, police and intelligence services for eight years.

Hence Lourenço’s dilemma. It will be difficult to stamp his own authority while working in a system that supports his predecessor’s personal ambitions. As long as Dos Santos leads the party, the newcomer president dare not shake things up too much.

As in South Africa, the president of the republic serves at the pleasure of the party. Lourenço knows that incoming vice-president Bornito de Sousa has an excellent relationship with Dos Santos and will be breathing down the new president’s neck should Lourenço interfere with his predecessor’s interests.

It is an open secret that Dos Santos has been undergoing cancer treatment for two years and the prognosis is uncertain. The show-of-hands voting system at MPLA party congresses has ensured that his leadership of the party has gone unchallenged. A lot will depend on whether Dos Santos chooses to remain head of the party after next year’s congress.

Equally uncertain is whether Lourenço can reverse the decline in the MPLA’s vote share before the next election in 2022.

Pearce is lecturer in African politics at the University of Cambridge


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