Angola’s regime pushes back against a growing and united opposition
Ahead of August elections, the MPLA is turning to old tricks in the face of rising discontentment and a popular opposition leader.
The election of Angolan President João Lourenço in 2017 raised hopes of a shift from the authoritarian and corrupt era of his predecessor. This was thanks to the new, more open and approachable style of governance he instituted in his first months in office. This included opening up the public media as well as symbolic gestures such as ending the practice of blocking off road traffic for the president’s motorcade to pass.
Yet ahead of the August 2022 elections, in which Lourenço is running for a second term, these hopes have largely been dashed. His moves to “open up” the Angolan economy have had little effect. Instead, an economic crisis that has endured since late-2014 has led to popular dissatisfaction and anger.
This discontentment is behind the formation of a new broad opposition alliance. The United Patriotic Front brings together key opposition leaders with civil society organisations and offers a credible alternative for those disaffected with Lourenço. This grouping could be the best hope for those hoping to prevent another victory for the ruling People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), which has been in power since 1975.
In recent elections, the ruling party’s vote share has been steadily declining. Nonetheless, the MPLA is likely to win over 50% once again due to electoral fraud and obstruction. The party has been using all instruments at its disposal to hobble the opposition and quell potential threats to its continued dominance.
A little good, a lot bad
In Angola’s previous elections in 2017, former president José Eduardo dos Santos decided not to run after 38 years in power. His replacement, Lourenço, was widely panned as an uninspiring party soldier and dos Santos loyalist. Campaigning under the slogan “improve what is good, correct what is bad”, he promised more of the same, just perhaps slightly better.
Yet in the early days of his presidency, Lourenço surprised many by unleashing a flurry of dismissals of high-ranking government officials and civil servants. The fight against corruption was his first major policy plank and was selectively successful. For example, he instituted high-profile corruption inquiries, including several investigations into the dealings of the dos Santos family itself.
This earned Lourenço the praise of critics and citizens. And it was a crucial element towards his other main priority, which was to reposition Angola as a trustworthy partner on the global stage. The negotiation of an agreement with the IMF for a multibillion credit line to stabilise the ailing economy in 2018 was trumpeted as evidence of Angola’s openness to reform.
These subsequent changes paved the way for new oil investments and some debt rescheduling. However, they were largely geared towards external audiences. For Angolans, self-inflicted austerity measures have hit the poorest the hardest. Debt servicing stands at 60% of government expenditure. Health and education are languishing at levels of spending that are among the continent’s lowest. And service standards are just as low. The cost of living has skyrocketed, with the price of basic foodstuffs exploding.
With rising popular dissatisfaction, which has resulted in frequent strikes and protests across the country, Angola’s opposition has never been in a better position. While the public was willing to trust Lourenço’s willingness to reform in his initial years in power, the socio-economic situation has only got worse. Many citizens, including some within the MPLA, are also dissatisfied with the selective fight against corruption that targets Dos Santos’ allies while promoting oligopolies associated with Lourenço.
Since November 2019, the main opposition, the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA), has also had a new leader in Adalberto Costa Júnior. The former head of the party’s parliamentary bench is a fierce critic of the MPLA and its anti-corruption policies. The 60-year-old has quickly gained in popularity, articulating clear positions and cutting a much more presidential figure than his predecessor Isaías Samakuva.
Costa Júnior’s ascendance also paved the way for the creation of the United Patriotic Front. Among others, this alliance has brought UNITA, the Bloco Democrático of Filomeno Vieira Lopes, and the political project Pra-Já servir Angola of Abel Chivukuvuku.
Rattled by the opposition threat, Lourenço has mobilised the Constitutional Court. In October 2021, its judges – most of whom are associated with the MPLA – annulled UNITA’s 2019 congress in which Costa Júnior had been elected. The ruling was made on spurious grounds and was a political rather than a legal decision. It triggered angry protests across the country.
Following the verdict, UNITA held an extraordinary party congress in which Costa Júnior was re-elected with an overwhelming majority. But a further six-month delay by the court in validating the congress (as well as those of five other parties) tied UNITA up in exhausting legal challenges. This prolonged insecurity impeded Costa Júnior from pre-election campaigning or signing any agreements in the name of the party.
Three months ahead of elections in August, Angola presents a paradoxical picture. While foreign investors hail Lourenço as a “courageous” great reformer, hunger, poverty, and popular dissatisfaction are increasing.
The MPLA is reverting to old authoritarian reflexes – legal-administrative obstacles, harassment and intimidation, physical violence, arbitrary detention, extra-legal killings, media manipulation, judicial bias and electoral fraud – to thwart threats to its dominance. The United Patriotic Front faces likely legal challenges. Voter registration is marred by obstacles. Human rights violations and the repression of protests are on the rise again. And state-controlled media continue to give overwhelming airtime to the MPLA while censoring opposition voices.
As a result, the elections are likely to be marred by fraud, intimidation and violence, with a subservient judiciary again quashing any legal challenges to the MPLA.