Political change

Leadership change does not lead to political change

By Albano Agostinho Troco

It has been four years since João Lourenço was sworn in as Angola’s third president. He succeeded former President José Eduardo dos Santos, who ruled the southern African country for 38 years.

Lourenço has pledged to initiate a wide range of much needed reforms. These included the fight against corruption and the diversification of Angola’s oil-dependent economy. Many Angolans saw his presidency as the start of a more open and responsible government.

He has taken several steps in this direction. He opened up the political space by meeting with longtime critics of the Dos Santos government, including investigative journalist Rafael Marques de Morais. Lourenço also criticized the violent security responses to peaceful anti-government protests and urged state media to report outside the line of the ruling party, the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA). Other measures it has taken include easing repression and creating a freer environment for the press and civil society.

These have earned him significant support from opposition parties and society in general.

However, four years into his presidency and one year from the end of his first term, the optimism over his election has waned as his election promises did not come true.

Its flagship policies, such as the fight against corruption and the diversification of the Angolan economy away from oil dependence, have stalled. And some of its early liberalization moves are being reversed. These include its openness to civil society, the call for an end to brutal security responses against protesters, and partisan public media reporting. This leaves Angola’s authoritarian political system largely unchanged.

In addition, the economy has not developed under Lourenço and economic diversification has not yet taken place. As Finance Minister Vera Daves de Sousa acknowledged at the end of August:

This is important because, as was the case with Zimbabwe, it shows that change in leadership does not necessarily lead to political and economic change.

What is wrong with the state of Angola?

The power structure in Angola has been shaped over the nearly four decades of Dos Santos’ presidency. It gives wide powers to the president, who is also the leader of the ruling MPLA party. It also ensures party dominance in government and state institutions.

After his inauguration in 2017, Lourenço replaced most of the Dos Santos faithful in the government and in the ruling party with close collaborators. He appointed allies to key positions in the military, police, intelligence services, government, state-owned enterprises and the party.

Recently, he initiated and enacted a constitutional review law that effectively keeps the Angolan judiciary hostage to political power. It also retains the prerogative of the president to appoint the main judicial officers. These include the Attorney General and his deputies as well as the presidents and vice-presidents of the highest courts.

In addition, the oversight institutions remain toothless because the president and the ruling party have the prerogative to nominate candidates to sit on them. They often dominate these institutions and their processes because of their combined number. These include the Constitutional Court, the National Electoral Commission and the body responsible for media regulation.

On top of that, there has been a gradual closure of political space over the past two years. The security services have become more repressive.

This was especially true against young activists who protested against the high cost of living and high unemployment.

The same old authoritarian practices

State media (television, radio and press) have reverted to their old methods of partisan reporting. For example, Adalberto Costa Junior, the leader of Unita, the main Angolan opposition party, has not been interviewed by public media since his election two years ago.

The government has almost absolute control over television since it suspended some private television companies. Other TV stations have been ordered to shut down for allegedly operating illegally.

There is a multi-party system in Angola. But the opposition parties have little to say in Parliament. The ruling party has the numbers to approve or block any legislation or policy that does not advance its interests.

This allowed the MPLA to systematically delay the implementation of elected local government policy. In the current system of centralized governance, the ruling party appoints all state officials at the subnational level (provincial governor, municipal and district administrators).

Preparing for next year’s elections

The popularity of Lourenço, and that of the ruling party, continues to decline. This is due to the cumulative effects of a severe economic crisis that began in 2014, the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change.

The president and the MPLA appear to be developing strategies to ensure their retention in power. These include:

?? the maintenance of a highly contested official at the head of the National Electoral Commission,

?? the creation of new provinces and

?? the approval of a controversial electoral law, which prevents the counting of votes at the district, municipal and provincial levels.

This raises serious concerns about the transparency of the general elections scheduled for next year.

Ultimately, Lourenço sent the controversial electoral law back to parliament for further consideration following growing criticism from opposition parties and civil society.

The main opposition forces have taken advantage of these and other failures to criticize the Lourenço government while proposing strategies to challenge the hegemony of the ruling party. One of these initiatives is the political alliance formed by Unita, the Democratic Bloc and PraJá Servir Angola to stand in the next elections as a United Patriotic Front. This should potentially make next year’s general election more competitive.

Ultimately, Lourenço sent the controversial electoral law back to parliament for further consideration following growing criticism from opposition parties and civil society.

The main opposition forces have taken advantage of these and other failures to criticize the Lourenço government while proposing strategies to challenge the hegemony of the ruling party. One of these initiatives is the political alliance formed by Unita, the Democratic Bloc and PraJá Servir Angola to stand in the next elections as a United Patriotic Front. This should potentially make next year’s general election more competitive.


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