Millions of Angolans will vote this week in a landmark election described as an “existential moment” for the main oil-rich Central African state and a test for democracy across much of the continent.
Wednesday’s poll pits veteran politicians against a generation of young voters who are just beginning to realize they can bring about radical change and escape the shadow of the Cold War.
Observers say dissatisfaction with the rule of the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), which has been in power since Angola declared independence from Portugal in 1975, has reached a point where the party has only five more years in power can secure power through manipulation and repression.
“It’s an existential choice and it’s going to be a very close race. If there were free and fair elections, the opposition would undoubtedly win, but the government will not let that happen,” said Paula Cristina Roque, an independent analyst and author.
Other parties and leaders who have been in power for decades, ever since they won the continent’s liberation struggles, are likely to take the growing difficulties of their counterparts in Angola as a warning.Tiago Costa, one of Angola’s new wave of comedians, said young voters need to stand up and make the country a better place. Photo: GOZ’AQUI
As everywhere in Africa, the youth of the population is a key factor in Angola. More than 60% are under 24 years old. Tiago Costa, one of the most successful of a new wave of comedians and other creative artists in Angola, said the millions of young people voting for the first time have values and views that differ dramatically from those of their politicians.
“We live the same thing over and over again. Youngsters in Angola are asking, “What’s going on here?” These kids get lost in these speeches and stories they just don’t understand or deserve,” said Costa, 37.
“The young people here have to learn from the mistakes of their elders [and] move forward to make Angola a country for Angolans, not for parties that always divide us and never do their job.”
President João Lourenço, a veteran MPLA official and former defense minister, came to power in 2017 as the handpicked successor to José Eduardo dos Santos, whose authoritarian rule lasted 38 years. The body of the former president, who died in Spain in July, was due to arrive in Luanda on Saturday, adding a new element to the tense election campaign.
Though 68-year-old Lourenço has tried to spur economic growth and pay off huge debts, he has failed to improve the lives of most of the country’s 35 million residents. Critics say a high-profile anti-corruption campaign has only targeted potentially powerful enemies – like Isabel dos Santos, the former president’s extremely wealthy daughter – while Amnesty International described “an unprecedented crackdown on human rights, including unlawful killings and arbitrary arrests,” ahead of the August 24 elections”.
Analysts said that when faced with the choice of saving the MPLA or the nation, Lourenço put the party first. “They didn’t want to reform out of power,” Roque said. “For a long time Angolans said: ‘We are poor, we fight, but we have peace and that’s enough.’ But now they are angry and disappointed and have nothing to lose.”
A boom that followed the end of the brutal 27-year civil war in 2002 largely benefited the elite. Life expectancy in Angola remains one of the lowest in the world, services are patchy and millions live in squalor despite the country’s massive oil export revenues.
“Most of the people I speak to say that Lourenço hasn’t done anything for them in these five years,” said Laura Macedo, an activist working to improve conditions for people in Luanda’s sprawling slums. “Most are planning to vote for the opposition.”
Lourenço’s main rival is Adalberto Costa Júnior of the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (Unita). Although only eight years younger than the incumbent, Costa Júnior has sought to position himself as a representative of young civil society and all those who have lost under years of MPLA rule.Isabel dos Santos, the daughter of former President José Eduardo dos Santos, built a huge fortune but was the target of a high-profile anti-corruption campaign. Photo: Bloomberg/Getty Images
Unita was once the West’s surrogate, funded and armed by the US and its allies, but eventually lost the civil war to the MPLA, which was backed by the Soviet Union and Cuba.
Under Costa Júnior, the party has moved to the center but is still seen as pro-Western and pro-business, in contrast to the MPLA’s socialist ideological background and ongoing ties to Russia.
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Angola, with its huge oil reserves, is now once again a key area in great power competition. Beijing has lost ground in recent years after José Eduardo dos Santos racked up massive debts with China to pay for often poorly built or poorly designed infrastructure projects. Both Russia and the US have made efforts to gain influence in Luanda as well.
The conflict in Ukraine has intensified rivalries across the continent. Angola was among 17 African countries that refused to back a UN General Assembly motion condemning the Russian invasion, leading some to describe a “new Cold War” on the continent.
Both Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, and Antony Blinken, the US secretary of state, have traveled to Africa in recent months to strengthen ties on the continent. Neither stopped in Luanda, although both had Central Africa in mind.
Unita officials say they are willing to wait another five years before taking power, but the MPLA’s difficulties underscore the challenges faced by many other parties or leaders who came to power after conflicts on the continent.
You can rig elections, but that doesn’t quell the anger. The risk is that the frustration will manifest itself in riots… and riots
Nic Cheeseman, Professor of Democracy
In Uganda, 77-year-old Yoweri Museveni has ruled since 1986 and faces a powerful opposition movement led by former musician Bobi Wine, which has garnered support from young people and city dwellers. According to a recent poll, Nelson Chamisa, opposition leader in Zimbabwe, is three points ahead of the Zanu PF party, which came to power in 1980.
The ANC in South Africa was led to government by Nelson Mandela after the overthrow of the racist apartheid regime in 1994, but has also suffered a severe loss of support. Recent polls suggested the party could fall to 38% in the 2024 election, potentially ending its rule or forcing a new era of coalition politics in Africa’s most industrialized country.
Nic Cheeseman, a professor of democracy at Birmingham University who specializes in African politics, said existing problems had combined with the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the continent and recent increases in food and fuel prices around the world to unleash a threatening wave of discontent to destabilize governments everywhere – authoritarian and democratic.
“You can rig elections and stay in power, but that doesn’t eliminate anger. The risk then is that the frustration will be expressed in other ways, with civil unrest, political violence and civil unrest,” Cheeseman said.
This could be a risk that the West, hungry for new energy sources, will be willing to take.
“Angola has oil. The West needs energy security. Even if the MPLA stays in power through fraudulent elections, the West will continue to prioritize stability over democracy,” Roque said.