Angola’s regime is scared
With opposition and discontent growing ahead of the August elections, the security state may be more active and dangerous than ever.
As Russia’s war in Ukraine rages on, another securitised state is using similar language of threats and veiled authoritarianism to pursue a narrow political agenda. Angola learnt much of this from Russia. Its almost absolute dependence on the Soviet Union for arms, military training, and ideological guidance in the 1970s and ‘80s made the ruling People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) a disciple of the former superpower. The country’s transition to illiberal democracy in a post-Cold War era revealed pragmatism, but the underlying sense of threats and grievances remained a defining characteristic of how power was structured.
Half a century later, the MPLA remains in power but is facing what look set to be difficult elections in August 2022. Once again, however, Russia may come to its rescue – albeit in a very different way this time. Its war in Europe will likely still be dominating the world’s attention, giving the Angolan regime greater scope to violently steal the elections with few repercussions.
Since the introduction of multi-party elections 30 years ago, Angola’s governing party has seen these votes as an existential threat and treated them as a matter of national security. Since the first elections in 1992, the MPLA has taken extraordinary measures to clamp down on opposition politics and popular mobilisation. By doing so, it has won every election comfortably and still secured over 60% in 2017 despite a significant drop in support.
This year’s vote, however, may be different. The MPLA appears genuinely nervous and fearful of defeat. There is popular discontent with the government amid a permanent recession, a social crisis, and high levels of poverty and hunger. Meanwhile, three opposition parties – led by the main opposition United Front for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) – have formed an alliance under the banner of the United Patriotic Front.
All this has put Angola’s securitised state on high alert. This fact has been epitomised by some recent MPLA statements that reveal a government with a faltering belief in the strength of its policies to win over voters and in its strategies of clientelism to sustain its power.
Since late-2021, President João Lourenço and other senior officials have responded to public protests and opposition calls for electoral transparency by warning of the dangers of terror and instability. Last October, for instance, General Francisco Furtado, head of the Presidential Security Bureau, accused the opposition of using fears of electoral fraud to create “a climate of insecurity, intimidation and terror in the population ahead of the elections”. Similarly, after a protest by taxi drivers escalated into acts of vandalism against a bus and an MPLA building this January, the president described the episode in terms of “acts of terror” and “a macabre plan to make the country ungovernable”. Activists say the violence was orchestrated by the government itself so it could justify greater securitisation.
In these statements, the government’s message is clear: any action that threatens its rule will result in widespread unrest. This emphasises the MPLA’s historic self-image as the only political force capable of governing Angola. Since coming to power at independence in 1975, the former liberation movement has positioned itself as the guardian of the country and guarantor of stability. By extension, any threat to its dominance such the opposition or public dissent is a source of instability and fear for the future.
Building Angola’s security state
Angola’s security state was built up over almost 40 years under President Eduardo dos Santos. Emerging out of war, the MPLA under his rule was unable to transition effectively to peacetime politics.
Through this era, the security forces and intelligence services – along with surveillance, paranoia, and violence – were deployed not just in extraordinary circumstances but became part of day-to-day politics. Control was centralised in the presidency, which was supported by a wide array of security forces. The presidential guard developed into the best trained, armed, and resourced security force. Meanwhile, the three main intelligence services – external, domestic, and military – were put in service of the MPLA and used to target dissenters. Like the police, they became increasingly violent and used as a force to maintain political – rather than public – order. While inequality, poverty and impunity grew in the country, the president and his allies remained well-protected.
Combined with neo-patrimonialism and massification of party structures, this political order defended the interests of ruling elites and relentlessly undermined any actions deemed subversive or reformist. In this environment, the mere questioning of official narratives or the expression of popular opposition was seen as an existential threat to the MPLA and, therefore, the nation.
When Dos Santos stepped down and handed over to Lourenço in 2017, the new president retrained this structure. Weeks into his term, he caused widespread surprise when he began dismantling the Dos Santos family’s grip on the economy. He sacked his predecessor’s children and allies from influential roles and initiated an anti-corruption campaign that targeted members of the MPLA. In some respects, his actions marked a clean break from the past. However, Lourenço crucially retained many of his former boss’ governing strategies.
To protect himself and his reform agenda, the new president fell back on the security state. In fact, Lourenço arguably expanded its reach by enhancing the role of the intelligence services, placing former army officials in key positions, and attempting to politicise the only institution in Angola that had remained truly national and apolitical: the Angolan Armed Forces. Like his predecessor, Lourenço used the systems he inherited to protect himself against external and popular threats, but he also used them as a tool to defend his power base against factionalism within the MPLA.
Backed into a corner
Since 2019, opposition to Lourenço and the government has been accelerating. The Covid-19 pandemic and the economic disaster it unleashed have increased popular frustrations and discontent. Anger at a political and economic system that has kept most citizens in poverty – while a handful of elites enjoy access to capital, opportunities, and resources – has steadily grown. Citizens have become acutely aware of the long-term inability of the MPLA to ameliorate their suffering.
In this context, the months leading up to the 2022 general elections have the potential to see a surge in both dissent and a further ramping up of the MPLA’s security state. As he comes to the end of his first term, Lourenço is facing an emboldened opposition and a combative population that has reached its limits.
The MPLA’s strategy will be to paint expressions of discontent as a threat to everyone’s stability. The irony is that it is the government’s securitised response that is the real danger. Like in Russia, where a dictator has cornered himself into a situation in which greater aggression is the only plausible option, the Angolan regime is similarly afraid of democracy and, therefore, dangerous.
The need for free, fair, and credible elections has never been more crucial to political stability in Angola as it is today.