Dim hope for free and fair elections under dos Santos in oil-boom Angola


Angola is booming these days — and its capital Luanda, in particular (pictured, above), is booming, flush from the diamonds-and-oil wealth of a country that’s entering just its second decade of peace following independence in 1975 and a civil war that divided the lusophone southern African country of 18.5 million for the ensuing three decades.

For most Angolans, however, around 40% of whom still live in poverty, the benefits of one of the world’s best performing economies of the past decade have still not trickled down.  And that’s what should be the top issue when Angolans head to the polls on August 31 to elect members to the Assembleia Nacional.

Nonetheless, there’s no real indication that the elections will be any more than a show elections for the current regime:

The Angolan government is responsible for numerous incidents of political violence, intimidation of protesters, and crackdowns on peaceful demonstrations that might have a negative impact on the August 31, 2012 parliamentary elections, Human Rights said in a report released today. The government should end its crackdown on peaceful protests and the media with the start of the election campaign on August 1.

The 13-page report, “Angola’s Upcoming Elections: Attacks on the Media, Expression, and Assembly,” describes increasing incidents of political violence and intimidation. Human Rights Watch called on the government of Angola to promptly address these concerns, and urged the Southern African Development Community and the capital’s foreign diplomats to raise these issues with the government.

“The human rights environment in Angola is not conducive for free, fair, and peaceful elections,” said Leslie Lefkow, deputy Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The Angolan government needs to stop trying to stifle peaceful protests, gag the independent press, or use the state media for partisan purposes if these elections are to be meaningful.”

 The president of Angola, at least nominally, since 1979, has been José Eduardo dos Santos, who is Africa’s second-longest serving leader.  Functionally, from 1979 until the end of Angola’s civil war in 2002, he was merely the leader of one side in a grueling civil war in a country used by both the United States and the Soviet Union as a deadly hot proxy for the Cold War through much of independent Angola’s early history — the civil war reached a less lethal phase only in 1991, with the end of the Cold War and the cessation of arms shipments to the combatants from the United States and from the Soviet Union.

Luanda, now one of the boomtowns of sub-Saharan Africa, is a city transformed.  As Felix Salmon noted last year, only 156 Angolan visas were issues to southbound Portuguese, but by 2010, that number was 23,787.  That may tell you something about the state of Portugal’s economy, but it also says something about Angola’s.  Despite significant slowdown (2010’s GDP growth rate was only 3.4%), Angola managed GDP growth of over 20% for each of 2005, 2006 and 2007, and hit nearly 14% in 2008 as well.  Angola’s oil production has increased so rapidly that it is thought to be China’s top oil supplier.

Angola’s Assembleia Nacional has 220 seats. In the last election, dos Santos’s Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola – Partido do Trabalho (MPLA or the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola – Labour Party; yes, quite a mouthful) won fully 191 of those seats.  Since then, dos Santos has survived an assassination attempt and increasingly vocal protests against his rule.  Despite this unrest, and despite the passage of an anti-fraud electoral law in late 2011, no one believes dos Santos and the MPLA will wake up out of power after the August 31 election.

The country’s politics are still divided on lines that go back to its civil war — the main opposition is the União Nacional para a Independência Total de Angola (UNITA or the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola).  The one-time Soviet-backed MLPA is still dominated by the more northern Ambundu ethnic group (which represents around 25% of Angolans), while the US-backed UNITA is still dominated by the more southern Ovimbundu (37% of Angolans).  Even today, though, oil-rich Cabinda province, a sliver of Angola separated from the rest of the country by the Democratic Republic of the Congo, remains separatist-minded, despite the end of the civil war 10 years ago — it is dominated by Angola’s third-largest ethnic group, the Bakongo (about 13% of all Angolans — this group, too, had its own political entity in the Angolan civil war).

UNITA launched its campaign Wednesday, promising a more equal distribution of the gains from Angola’s economic boom, especially in the form of renewed investment in health, education, housing and employment.

While, it’s a platform that sounds fairly pedestrian and reasonable, but it’s still risible to think that UNITA would even have the opportunity to carry through with that agenda.

Angola may have mercifully put its civil war behind it, and a brighter economic future may well beckon, but it looks like the evolution of true democratic institutions will wait for a day beyond 2012.

Photo credit to Veziana Armandi via Flickr.