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Angola – Expert Briefing

    • Angola achieved independence from Portugal in November 1975.
    • Despite three movements having fought in the liberation struggle, political competition was promptly restricted to the confines of a single-party, in line with Marxist-Leninist principles
    • Multi-party politics was only introduced with the 1992 constitution, adopted as part of peace accords designed to bring an end to a brutal civil war
    • Disputed parliamentary polls in 1992 triggered a resumption of the conflict, which endured until 2002
    • Competitive multi-party elections have only been held regularly since 2008
    • The adoption of a new constitution in 2010 provided for the indirect election of the president. The incumbent, José Eduardo dos Santos, has pledged not to stand again in 2017

Angola’s struggle for independence was spearheaded by three discrete entities: Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola (MPLA), União Nacional para a Independência Total de Angola (UNITA), and Frente Nacional de Libertação de Angola (FNLA). While the MPLA cultivated relations with the Soviet Union and Cuba, UNITA courted the United States and apartheid South Africa. The MPLA controlled the capital, Luanda, upon the departure of the Portuguese. UNITA maintained its armed resistance, leading to a prolonged civil war. The MPLA moved to establish a Marxist-Leninist state, restricting political competition to the confines of the dominant party. Ideological opposition was brutally repressed. The death of Angola’s founding president, Agostinho Neto, in September 1979 propelled José Eduardo dos Santos to power.

During 1991, the MPLA took steps to dismantle the single-party regime as part of peace accords signed in Portugal. A new constitution permitting multi-party politics provided for parliamentary and presidential elections in September 1992. The MPLA emerged victorious, with dos Santos obtaining 49.57% of votes cast and the party taking 129 of the 220 parliamentary seats. This outcome was disputed by UNITA, which relaunched its armed struggle. Peace returned following the death of UNITA leader Jonas Savimbi in 2002. Elections were, however, repeatedly delayed until September 2008. Whilst opposition parties accepted the results, which were a landslide victory for the MPLA, Human Rights Watch reported irregularities.

In January 2010, the National Assembly adopted a new constitution which enabled the largest parliamentary party to determine the president of the republic, as in South Africa and Botswana. While ostensibly empowering the legislature, the reforms additionally provided the president with greater discretion over the appointment of the executive and judicial branches. Opposition protests were largely ignored. Elections held in August 2012 were characterised by heightened popular protest. UNITA and a new party, Convergência Ampla de Salvação de Angola – Coligação Eleitoral (CASA-CE), provided vocal opposition but had many of their activists arrested. The African Union acknowledged that opposition parties had not benefited from equal access to the media. The MPLA retained a handsome majority, with 72% of the vote and 175 parliamentary seats.

In December 2016, dos Santos announced, not for the first time, that he would not seek re-election as president. The MPLA has anointed a successor: defence minister João Lourenço. A party loyalist and reported favourite of military generals, Lourenço is unlikely to immediately dismantle the system which has maintained the MPLA in power. The new president will also have to cooperate with dos Santos, who intends to remain as party chairman, and members of his family. Son, José Filomeno (known as Zenú), is chairman of Angola’s $5 billion sovereign wealth fund. Daughter, Isabel (reportedly Africa’s richest woman), serves as chief executive of the national oil company, Sonangol, and is a major share-holder in Angolan and Portuguese banks.

Not all sons and daughters of the MPLA elite back the system. The son of a MPLA dignitary close to the dos Santos family, Luaty Beirão became a symbol of protest against the establishment after his hunger strike in September 2015. Three months earlier, Luaty had been arrested along with 16 other young activists for the activities of their book club. His hunger strike rallied international support and exposed cracks in Angola’s democracy. All 17 activists were later found guilty of “preparing acts pursuant to a coup d’état” in March 2016. This was widely condemned by prominent Angolan personalities, foreign governments and human rights organisations.  Protests erupted in Angola and Portugal, pressuring the government to release all 17 activists in July 2016.

How the system evolves under Lourenço, and the degree to which he permits the development of independent institutions and civil liberties, will be a key test for Angola. The electoral process and imminent departure of dos Santos could provide a flashpoint for urban youth disenchanted with the MPLA regime, or those fighting for an independent Cabinda under the banner of Frente para a Libertação do Enclave de Cabinda (FLEC). This northern part of the country is simultaneously a prominent centre of the oil industry and politically marginalised. With government debt estimated at 75% of GDP and the national budget under pressure as the result of low crude prices, the funds available for patronage politics are not what they once were.

Lucia Kula is an Angolan Doctoral Candidate in Law at SOAS, University of London, and a freelance writer and analyst with an interest in southern Africa, Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo, refugee- and international law, gender, and the African diaspora.