Although not without shortcomings, Angola’s recent parliamentary elections are a triumph for the entire nation, and serve notice of the country’s coming of age in the global community.
By Dr Knox Chitiyo, Head, Africa Programme, RUSI
The 5 September elections in Angola are a landmark in the country’s history. Angola’s murderous civil war ended in 2002, following the death in combat of UNITA rebel leader Jonas Savimbi, and the country’s economy has surged during the past decade; but the lack of national parliamentary elections since 1992 has been a recurrent boil which the government has lanced. The election, which resulted in a landslide victory for the ruling MPLA, was an important way station on Angola’s road to committed multiparty democracy. It also heralds Angola’s coming of age, and announces the arrival of a major player in Africa. The MPLA government has been sensitive to long-standing criticism of unbridled authoritarianism, and the elections are a conscious effort to bolster the MPLA’s credentials as a party which is committed to electoral democracy. But just as important was the desire to show that the MPLA really does have popular support, that UNITA is a minority party and that Angola is ready to take its place among the major powers of central Africa
Although the general perception is that Angola is essentially a bi-polar political landscape in which the only two parties are the ruling MPLA and the opposition UNITA, in fact there are 138 political parties registered in Angola, and fourteen parties contested the elections. There has been a significant paradigm shift since the 1991 Bicesse peace accords. Although the accords were soon broken when UNITA rebel leader Jonas Savimbi refused to accept electoral defeat in 1992 and reverted to war, there was an opening of political space in Angola. The 1992 agreement formalised the commitment to multi-party politics, and a plethora of political parties and civil society organisations emerged. The MPLA itself shed the trappings of its Marxist heritage, and embraced economic deregulation in a bid to corral Western investment. This process was accelerated following Savimbi’s death in a gun-battle with MPLA forces in 2002.
The problem for the MPLA has been the perception that the widening of political space in Angola has not been matched by a concomitant deepening of political discourse. The majority of registered political parties have very little support and unclear agendas and very short shelf lives. The MPLA, by contrast, is the dominant political party in Angola. In addition, the party is noted for its highly presidential style of decision-making. The President of Angola is the head of state and the head of government; he is also the commander in Chief of the Army and president of the ruling party. Constitutionally, he can appoint and dismiss ministers and can dissolve parliament. Although Parliament now has increased stature within Angola’s political landscape, civil society activists and the opposition have maintained that the Presidential powers need to be curbed.
There has also been pressure on the government to have national elections. The state gave various reasons for the continual postponement of the poll. These varied from the need to end the war; the necessity of revising the constitution; the lack of security in Angola’s hinterland because of landmines and bandit groups; and the lack of resources to conduct a voter registration. Nevertheless, the pressure from Angolans and the external community to have national elections became overwhelming. Although the reasons enumerated above are certainly valid, it is more likely that the state wanted to delay national elections until it was sure that the ruling party would achieve comprehensive victory. This has been achieved; the MPLA won 82 per cent of the vote, while UNITA won 10 per cent, with other parties sharing the crumbs. This victory is highly significant because it reinforces and increases the MPLA’s control of Angola’s political space. It will also strengthen the MPLA’s ‘presidentialist’ trajectory. The MPLA, having gained a two-thirds majority, will dominate Parliament even more thoroughly than before, and may revise the constitution. This election has thus been paradoxical. Although it has undoubtedly enhanced electoral democracy in Angola, it has also immeasurably strengthened the state, and weakened the opposition, particularly UNITA. The election result also shows that the Angolan people have voted for political certainty rather than political change.
Another interesting facet of the election is that it highlights the strength of single-party government in Africa. There has been a trend towards consociational, unity governments which can clear political logjams caused by disputed national election results. Sierra Leone, Kenya and Zimbabwe all have unity governments; Angola itself fleetingly attempted a government of national unity in 1992. Since then, however, the memories of 1992, the legacy of mistrust and the overwhelming popular support for the MPLA have precluded an inclusive government. The MPLA thus shows the continued potency of single-party government in Africa, and provides an alternative model to unity governments.
Angola is one of the world’s fastest growing economies, with growth surging from 26 per cent in 2005 to 40 per cent in 2007. Angola has now overtaken Nigeria as Africa’s foremost producer of crude oil, and is amongst the continent’s top three diamond producers. The fisheries and agricultural sectors are also significant income generators. There has been massive infrastructural investment since 2002, but poverty is still endemic in both the rural and urban areas, and the MPLA – and the cross-party political sector in general – have long been criticised for enriching the political elite, while the majority of Angolans have to survive on less than a dollar a day. Whilst there is a great deal of truth in this view, it also needs to be borne in mind that systemic underdevelopment is also part of the legacy of Portugal’s colonialism and the protracted civil war which followed Portugal’s exit in 1975. Angola is still a post -conflict economy, and not all the peace dividends have been realised.
There is little doubt that the MPLA’s overwhelming victory will strengthen its already formidable leverage with international investors, particularly the oil companies. The oil majors made little secret of their wish for a comprehensive victory for the MPLA, and in terms of ensuring investor confidence and continuity, a clear-cut victory was the best result. No one could forget the bitterly contested 2002 election, which led to a return to war. In 2008, the circumstances were greatly different; UNITA is no longer a significant military threat to the MPLA, but a closely contested and potentially divisive election result would have rattled investor confidence. UNITA’s public acceptance of the MPLA’s victory (albeit with caveats) rallied a nervous Luanda Stock market.
While a plausible case can be made for the oil companies – MPLA partnership strengthens Angola’s political stability (although not its democracy) – the oil majors have also been under fire for being knowing accomplices in the endemic corruption which has plagued every sector of Angola’s economic and political life. With average annual oil revenues of $10 billion, Angola has enormous hard currency income and cash reserves. Geological surveys have also shown that Angola’s off-shore oil reserves are long-standing, not short-term. While this is good news for Angola’s economy and the ruling party, it also means that the government will have to get to grips with corruption. Although the stereotypical belief is that corruption is standard practice in developing economies, there is a growing global trend towards ethical business practices and investments. The major investors in Angola and elsewhere will themselves come under increasing scrutiny from shareholders and other evaluators, and the knock-on effect will be to examine the morality as well as the business effectiveness of investment partnerships. Angola’s citizens, in return for increasing the MPLA’s political power, will also demand a greater share of the economic largesse; corruption and patronage networks distribute economic wealth in clientilist ways. The election result will encourage Angola’s citizens to demand a national redistribution of wealth, which in turn could lead to the creation of a stronger middle class. The government will also have to address long–standing grievances about development in the oil-rich Cabinda enclave, where violence and threats of secessionism have been long-standing concerns.
Whilst noting various irregularities, the international community has given their stamp of approval to the elections, with SADC, the EU, the Economic Community of African States (ECCAS) and the community of Portuguese and Spanish countries (CPLP) acknowledging the result. There is no doubt that the elections have bolstered Angola’s status as the dominant power in central Africa, and will also reinforce Angola’s credentials as a counterweight to South Africa in southern Africa. With a combat–hardened standing army of 80,000, Angola has the military capability to back its economic might. The country has been a major player behind the scenes in the Zimbabwe negotiations; they were also deeply involved in the conflict and resolution in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Angola will almost certainly be on call for peace-keeping operations. As Gulf and North Sea oil supplies diminish, African energy supplies and military capabilities assume increased global significance. Angola is becoming an increasingly influential actor in Africa’s security architecture, and it will also be crucial in turning economic leverage into geo-strategic clout in organisations such as the UN and OPEC. It is also likely that Angola, together with other ‘lion’ economies of Africa, such as Nigeria, will form a new-generation power grouping to compete with the ‘tiger’ economies of Asia in the global contest for resource wealth.
Angola’s elections have been a signal triumph for the MPLA – and for the Angolan people. Sixteen years ago, Angola’s first multi-party elections ended in disaster, and plunged the nation back into civil war. In 2008, there was little of the violence which had been predicted, and UNITA’s acceptance of the results clears the way for Angola’s leadership to focus on crucially needed developmental initiatives. For the majority of Angola’s people, the sooner this happens, the better.
The views expressed above are the author’s own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.