Will Angolan Voters Ditch the Party of Liberation?
President João Lourenço’s MPLA faces an unusually strong challenge from a united opposition.
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Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Africa Brief.
The highlights this week: Raila Odinga challenges Kenya’s election results, Mali’s military leaders appoint a new prime minister, and Chinese aid brings internet to the upper reaches of Mount Kilimanjaro.
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Can Angola’s Elections Usher In a Democratic Era?
Angolans cast their ballots today in what is expected to be the strongest challenge ever from the opposition, bolstered by frustrated young voters who are eager for political change.
The People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) has been in power since the country’s independence from Portugal in 1975. The MPLA is led by incumbent President João Lourenço, 68, who was handpicked by the late kleptocratic ruler José Eduardo dos Santos when he stepped down in 2017 after 38 years at the helm.
The MPLA’s biggest rival is the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA), led by 60-year-old popular politician Adalberto Costa Júnior. He has built a powerful following among young Angolans through his speeches at campaign rallies promising to bring democracy back to Angola.
Adding to this, opposition parties have formed a united front against the MPLA, said Laura Seara Cabeça, a political analyst for the Risk Advisory Group. Presidential candidate Costa Júnior has strong allies in former UNITA member Abel Chivukuvuku, his running mate, and Justino Pinto de Andrade from the Democratic Bloc party, who was a political prisoner during the country’s struggle for independence.
Wednesday’s vote, during which voters elect a new parliament and president simultaneously, is likely to be the tightest race since Angola became a multiparty state in 1992. But in Angola’s system, voters do not pick presidential candidates; instead, parties compete for single-chamber parliamentary seats. The first candidate on the list from the party that wins the most seats in the national assembly becomes president.
Analysts told Foreign Policy that while the electoral results could be close, these ballots cannot be compared to those in democracies like Kenya, where William Ruto won by 2 percentage points earlier this month. Most Angolan media is state-controlled, and power is highly concentrated in the presidency. Lourenço’s administration passed a law last September to centralize final vote-counting instead of using tallies from each municipality and province, a move that critics say is meant to undermine the opposition’s odds.
“Our elections cannot be considered free and fair,” said Cláudio Silva, a businessman and political analyst based in the capital, Luanda. He noted that Costa Júnior has pledged to overhaul the constitution to enable direct presidential elections.
The MPLA won 61 percent of the vote in the last national election in 2017, and UNITA only 27 percent. This year, according to an Afrobarometer survey published in May, the MPLA had only a 7-point lead with 29 percent support, just ahead of UNITA at 22 percent, with nearly half of voters not selecting a particular party.
Lourenço’s popularity was initially high among youth. In response to reports of state looting under dos Santos, he investigated corruption allegations and sacked some of those in office during dos Santos’s tenure, earning the nickname “The Terminator.”
Lourenço fired dos Santos’s billionaire daughter Isabel dos Santos as chair of state oil company Sonangol, and his son Jose Filomeno dos Santos as head of Angola’s sovereign wealth fund. He has tried to bring in people with the right credentials and qualifications for the job, Cabeça said. But enthusiasm “quickly fizzled out when we realized that there were people credibly accused of corruption in his own government and he did nothing to curb it,” Silva said.
The MPLA’s popularity has also weakened due to five years of recession between 2015 and 2020 coupled with economic shocks from the COVID-19 pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In seeking to balance the nation’s fiscal outlook, Lourenço signed a three-year program with the International Monetary Fund that ended with an overall surplus in 2021 after securing a repayment deferral of $20 billion owned to China. Lourenço privatized nearly 200 state-owned assets in his attempts to stabilize the economy. The jump in oil prices has boosted state finances, according to the World Bank, reducing public debt to a predicted 56.5 percent of GDP this year from 123.8 percent in 2020.
Angola’s biggest exports are crude oil, gas, and diamonds. Today, both parties are proposing similar economic policies aimed at diversification and increasing Angola’s renewable energy mix, which already consists of 68 percent hydropower, said Fernandes Wanda, an economics professor at University Agostinho Neto in Luanda.
Wanda believes there needs to be a greater investment in the manufacturing sector. “[Lourenço] completely failed to kickstart agriculture and the manufacturing sector and as a consequence the youth unemployment rate is over 50 percent,” Wanda said, referring to the unemployment rate among Angolans ages 15-24, which stands at nearly 60 percent.
Hoping to secure his party’s main voter base and appeal to any nostalgia in the fight for Angolan independence, Lourenço in his campaign speeches has urged Angolans to vote for the MPLA to honor dos Santos’s legacy in bringing peace to the region. Lourenço noted the election comes at a time when Angolans “still feel the pain of the physical disappearance of comrade President José Eduardo dos Santos.”
As one of Africa’s longest-serving leaders, dos Santos, who was a Soviet-trained fighter against Portuguese colonial rule, ended a 27-year civil war between the MPLA and UNITA in 2002. Back then, UNITA—backed by the United States and apartheid South Africa—was on the losing side. Dos Santos sought and received support from the Soviet Union and Fidel Castro’s Cuba, which sent over 300,000 troops over the course of the Cold War phase of the conflict between 1975 and 1991.
However, Silva said Angolans today had little memory of the war and worried primarily about their living conditions. More than 60 percent are under 24. “All they’ve seen is corruption and state mismanagement, but the state continues to talk to us about war,” he said. “We want jobs, we want education, we want proper health systems.”
Angolan youth “do not identify themselves with the MPLA rhetoric which has always been that we are the founding fathers of an independent Angola,” Cabeça said. “UNITA has always been portrayed as this terrorist organization and destabilizers.” That dichotomy no longer resonates as the opposition seeks to capitalize on public discontent.
There is a perception that officials still misappropriate the nation’s oil wealth. “The country has a lot of money, but the people are poor,” Costa Júnior told the Angolan publication Novo Jornal. The potential for electoral violence is high if a landslide MPLA win is perceived as fraudulent, according to all observers FP spoke with.
“Western governments look at money first. If money is flowing then we will allow Museveni, we will allow Mobutu, we will allow despots to stay in power,” said Silva, referring to Western-backed dictators in Uganda and the former Zaire. Young Angolans want more, he told FP. “We cannot continue to be a pawn in world affairs. … We need to have credible elections. We demand change.”
Meanwhile, the body of dos Santos, who died in exile in Barcelona, Spain, last month, was repatriated to the capital on Saturday, ending a dispute between the government and dos Santos’s family over his burial site. His death looms over the elections, in which voters will ultimately decide which of his two MPLA legacies to honor—that of a successful peace negotiator or a leader who failed to improve Angolans’ livelihoods.
The Week Ahead
Wednesday, Aug. 24: Angola holds presidential and legislative elections.
Wednesday, Aug. 24, to Friday, Aug. 26: Health ministers attend the World Health Organization Africa regional committee meeting in Lomé, Togo.
Thursday, Aug 25: French President Emmanuel Macron visits Algeria.
Saturday, Aug. 27, to Sunday, Aug. 28: Tokyo International Conference on African Development held in Tunis, Tunisia.
What We’re Watching
Kenya court challenge. Opposition leader Raila Odinga filed a Supreme Court challenge on Monday regarding last week’s election results, citing “criminal subversion” of the electoral process. Twenty-seven constituencies allegedly left out would have affected the outcome, says the 72-page petition filed by Odinga’s team. This was Odinga’s fifth time running for presidency and third time challenging the outcome through the Supreme Court. Odinga has asked the court to nullify the results and order a fresh vote. (In the 2017 elections, the court ordered a rerun because of “widespread discrepancies,” and incumbent President Uhuru Kenyatta won by a landslide in fresh elections.)
Congo regional force. Soldiers from Burundi have been deployed to eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo as part of the proposed regional force by the East African Community. The bloc agreed in June to provide troops to help repel renewed attacks by the M23 rebel group.
But there are concerns from regional rights groups that the soldiers may seek the opportunity to pursue the Burundian opposition rebel group RED-Tabara. Burundi secretly sent hundreds of troops late last year into eastern Congo to fight RED-Tabara, according to a report by the Burundi Human Rights Initiative.
New Mali PM. Mali’s military junta has appointed a new interim prime minister, amid speculation that civilian politician Choguel Maiga, who previously held the role, is currently unwell. The new prime minister, Col. Abdoulaye Maiga (no relation) is a critic of Mali’s unpopular former president, Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, who was toppled in 2020.
Col. Maiga’s appointment, announced in a decree that was read out on state television, means both of Mali’s top government jobs are now held by the military, although the junta has promised to organize democratic elections in 2024 through ECOWAS-led talks.
This Week in Tech
Selfies atop Kilimanjaro. Climbers to the top of Africa’s highest mountain, Mount Kilimanjaro, can now livestream their ascents. “I am hoisting high-speed internet communications (broadband) on the roof of Africa,” Nape Nnauye, Tanzania’s information minister, tweeted last week. State-owned Tanzania Telecommunications Corporation set up the network at an altitude of over 10,000 feet. Nnauye said the mountain’s highest point—Uhuru Peak, which is more than 19,000 feet above sea level—will have internet by October. Previously, climbers were limited to calls at the base camp, which is at approximately 6,000 feet.
Tanzanian authorities are working to roll out high-speed broadband across the country through a project that has in part been supported through lending from China. Currently about 86 percent of Tanzanians living in rural areas have no internet access.
China’s ambassador to Tanzania, Chen Mingjian, responded on social media by tweeting, “Hongera sana!”—which means “congratulations” in Swahili. “Hope to visit the ROOF OF AFRICA-Mount Kilimanjaro one day in person,” she wrote.
Chart of the Week
Many young people will be voting for the first time in Angola’s elections. They have vowed to stand watch at polling stations to make sure the elections are transparent. Older Angolans and those living in rural areas are more likely to vote for the MPLA than those in the capital, Luanda.
What We’re Reading
African Super League money. In African Arguments, Chuka Onwumechil examines the economics behind African soccer clubs following the recent announcement by the Confederation for African Football that there will be a continentwide Africa Super League. “North African clubs that currently keep most of their players and even poach from other African countries will be advantaged,” he writes.
Living intersex in northern Nigeria. In HumAngle, Hauwa Shaffii Nuhu shares the experience of a former Boko Haram captive who is intersex and now lives as a man. Before being abducted and held in the Sambisa forest in northern Nigeria, Abubakar Sadiq Adam lived as a girl in neighboring Cameroon. By the time he turned 18, he had been married three times to three men, all members of Boko Haram.
Nosmot Gbadamosi is a multimedia journalist and the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly Africa Brief. She has reported on human rights, the environment, and sustainable development from across the African continent. Twitter: @nosmotg
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