After Failing on Reforms, Angola’s Lourenco Opts for Repression

After Failing on Reforms, Angola’s Lourenco Opts for Repression
Angolan President Joao Lourenco during a news conference at the Belem presidential palace in Lisbon, Nov. 22, 2018 (AP photo by Armando Franca).
In August 2022, Angolans will go to the polls for parliamentary elections that—under the country’s electoral system, in which the leader of the party with most votes becomes president—also serve as a presidential election. The ruling Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola, or MPLA, which has been in power for half a century, has confirmed that its leader and incumbent President Joao Lourenco will stand for reelection. Lourenco’s first term has been characterized by a failure to make good on a number of his initial promises, resulting in protests that have in turn been met with a crackdown on independent media as well as an expansion of executive powers. While he is likely to win reelection, whether he is able to improve on his record remains to be seen. Lourenco came to power in 2017, succeeding former President Jose Eduardo dos Santos, who stepped down after almost four decades in office. He presented himself as a man of change, promising significant reforms to Angola’s system of governance and its economy. More specifically, Lourenco vowed to tackle corruption, strengthen the rule of law and diversify Angola’s oil-dependent economy. These and other proposals resonated with many Angolans who wanted a break with the entrenched authoritarian practices of the past. Lourenco started out with an inclusive style of governance, demonstrated by a succession of symbolic actions. He received long-time critics of dos Santos’ government at the presidential palace, criticized the police for heavy-handed responses to peaceful protesters and called on the state-owned media to stop toeing the ruling party’s line in its reporting. This resulted in greater political openness and civil freedoms, winning Lourenco significant political support from opposition parties, as well as society at large, to deepen his reform initiatives. Principal among them was the fight against corruption, which Lourenco put at the center of the political agenda in Angola. In retrospect, however, that process has resembled a personal or political vendetta more than genuine reform, as it mainly targeted dos Santos’ family members—including his daughter, Isabel—and close associates in government, the army and the MPLA. Moreover, Lourenco opened himself up to accusations of promoting corruption and sponsoring the emergence of new economic interest groups under his patronage through the direct awarding of major, no-bid, public contracts, a practice that has become the norm rather than the exception during his presidency. Lourenco has also yet to follow through on his promise of revitalizing Angola’s economy, which continued to contract throughout his five-year term. That resulted in high levels of inflation and unemployment, and increases in the cost of living, thus worsening the social and economic situation of many Angolan families and businesses. The situation was further aggravated by the COVID-19 pandemic and the drop in the price of oil—a major source of government revenues—in international markets, as well as the government’s adoption of austerity measures, such as an International Monetary Fund-sponsored macroeconomic stabilization program that introduced new taxes and eliminated several public subsidies. As a result, Angolans—especially urban youth, primarily in Luanda, the capital city—have taken to the streets to call for better living conditions in protests that have been promptly, and violently, suppressed by security forces. In parallel, there has been a crescendo of strikes by state employees, from medical doctors and nurses to university lecturers, demanding better wages and working conditions.

With just months to go until August elections, Lourenco is facing mounting opposition from a frustrated population as well as a combative and increasingly emboldened opposition.

Meanwhile, Lourenco’s government has not carried out the significant reforms necessary to diversify the country’s economy. Oil remains Angola’s economic backbone, representing 90 percent of the country’s exports, making the economy highly dependent on fluctuations in international oil prices. And there are no indications of immediate changes, as the government is diverting the surplus from the recent rise in global oil prices to service the country’s massive external debt, instead of financing other sectors of the economy, such as agriculture and industry. Long-awaited local elections have been delayed indefinitely, despite being constitutionally mandated and one of Lourenco’s electoral promises in 2017. Instead, the government is planning to create five additional provinces, thus increasing the number of chief executive officers at the local level—provincial governors, mayors and district administrators—to be appointed by the president. It is in this context of protest and repression that the media environment is once again being completely muzzled by the state, which owns and controls most media outlets with nationwide reach. The government shut down and confiscated all private television companies and some radio stations during its anti-corruption crusade, with state-owned media outlets essentially serving as propaganda vehicles for the ruling party. And there are no signs of change: Recently, the MPLA majority in parliament approved a new law that maintains regulation of the media and appointment of managers of state-owned media companies in the hands of the government, while also requiring an extremely high level of minimum capital for launching new media companies. This not only discourages balance and independence in the dissemination of information, but also prevents the emergence of community-based radio and television stations. To keep the president’s extensive powers intact, Lourenco enacted a Constitutional Review Law in August 2021 that solidified the executive’s preeminence over the legislative and judicial arms of the state. The president appoints key judicial officers, for instance, including the presiding and deputy presiding judges of all the highest courts in the country. Lourenco took full advantage of these powers to appoint an MPLA politburo member who was also serving as a deputy Cabinet minister to lead the Constitutional Court. The court’s many controversial decisions have prompted accusations that it is an active participant in the country’s political battles, creating bureaucratic obstacles for opposition parties. For example, the court used a technicality to force the leading opposition party, the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola, or UNITA, to repeat its party congress and reelect its popular leader, Adalberto Costa Junior. Similarly, the court did not approve the legal incorporation of Abel Chivukuvuku’s party, PRA-JA Servir Angola, preventing one of the most charismatic politicians in the country to run for the presidency in the upcoming elections. In contrast, the court has notably just approved the incorporation of P-Njango and the Humanist Party of Angola, or PHA, making them the first two parties to be approved in the country since 2012. Both parties were founded by UNITA dissidents, leading critics to view the court’s decisions as part of a strategy to siphon votes away from UNITA in the upcoming elections. With just months to go until the end of his term, Lourenco and the MPLA are facing mounting opposition from a frustrated population as well as a combative and increasingly emboldened opposition. UNITA, in particular, believes a transfer of power is possible, leading it to join forces with the Democratic Bloc and PRA-JA Servir Angola to challenge the MPLA’s political hegemony through an electoral alliance called United Patriotic Form. Nevertheless, Lourenco will in all likelihood get a second term despite the opposition’s optimism. The MPLA has won every election held in the country since the introduction of multiparty rule in 1992. In addition, the party has almost absolute control over the Angolan state, including its resources and institutions. And if all that weren’t enough, in November 2021 the MPLA also passed a controversial electoral law that centralizes vote counting at the national level, which critics fear will provide it with greater opportunities to rig the outcome of the elections. Additionally, the party controls the National Electoral Commission and the Constitutional Court, the entities responsible for organizing and settling electoral disputes. As he comes to the end of his term, Lourenco has clearly failed in his attempts to reform Angola’s political economy. He will almost certainly win another term in office come August, but Angolans are no longer counting on the reforms he promised to usher in back in 2017. That suggests that the country’s economic and political climate will remain tense, with little hope for change.

Albano Agostinho Troco is a research associate under the SA-UK Bilateral Chair in Political Theory at the University of the Witwatersrand.

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