Angola’s Historic Election Marks End Of Dos Santos 38 Year Rule

President José Eduardo dos Santos ends his 38-year-long rule of Angola. Nearly six million Angolans went to the polls last Wednesday, and official results show that João Lourenco of the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) has secured 150 of 220 parliamentary seats, about 61 percent of the vote. The leading opposition parties, National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA), and Broad Convergence for Angolan Salvation-Electoral Coalition (Casa-CE) received 27 percent and 10 percent of the vote, respectively. Africanews reports that a total of 1,200 election observers from the international community were registered with the National Electoral Commission (CNE), including a 40 member team from the African Union (AU). However, the European Union’s election observation mission was not deployed as they were denied access to polling stations by the Angolan government.

This historic election is marked by controversy as opposition parties have disputed the  election results, including Claudio Silva, a UNITA representative on the CNE, who said to Al Jazeera that “the process violated the law and the principles of democracy.” There have been several allegations of irregularities in voting against MPLA, who has been the ruling party in Angola for nearly four decades. In the 2008 presidential elections, MPLA won 82 percent of the vote, and received 72 percent of the vote in the 2012 elections, according to The New York Times. Nonetheless, the large margins of victory MPLA has received in previous elections do not reflect the true sentiments of all Angolans.

Although this election is a defining moment in Angolan history, many speculate that as the former Defence Minister of the dos Santos’s administration, there will be more continuity than change as Dos Santos “maintains control of the parties political structure,” according to Lynsey Chutel from Quartz Africa. Marcolino Moco, dos Santos’ former prime minister in the 1990’s, stated that “he will continue to represent the same group that shares the same fundamental interests, people who fear an open democracy and won’t let control over the media and the wealth slip away.”

As the second longest serving president in Africa, dos Santos came to power on September 20, 1979, following independence from Portugal in 1975, and has held a tight grip on power ever since. Dos Santos has won every election since then, all of which have been highly contested by opposition parties and members of the international community. The legacy he leaves behind is one of corruption, patronage, and nepotism. Dos Santos’ family has reaped the rewards of his presidency. As the head of the state owned oil company Sonangol, his daughter Isabel dos Santos is Africa’s richest woman and first female billionaire, according to Forbes. The political elite have also profited from the country’s natural resource wealth, and Luanda, the nation’s capital, has been dubbed “the most expensive city for expats,” while poverty rises in underdeveloped areas across the country. Journalists, such as anti-corruption activist Rafael Marques, who was jailed for six months after releasing a book “defaming army generals in a book about violence in the country’s diamond mining industry,” have often been suppressed by the government. Angola is often described as a “crony democracy” and Transparency International ranked it at 164 out 176 on the 2016 Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index, indicating “rampant corruption” in the country.

The transfer of power from dos Santos to Lourenco does not guarantee that there will be reform in key policy areas as dos Santos endorsed president-elect Lourenco. Further, dos Santos is notorious for patronage and Lourenco is considered to be “part of the inner circle,” according to Didier Peclard, an Angola specialist at the University of Geneva. Nonetheless, as a former general in the Angolan Armed Forces, Lourenco is one of the few Angolan politicians who has not been involved in any major scandals. The Angolan civil war between MPLA and UNITA began on August 1, 1975, and lasted 27 years. The Angolan Army received military support from the Soviet Union and Cuba, while UNITA rebels were backed by the South African government, as well as Zambia, Egypt, and Senegal. There were several ceasefires that were unsuccessful in ending the hostilities, including the Peace Accords for Angola, in which Portugal was a mediator and the Soviet Union was an observer, as well as a United Nations (UN) mandated ceasefire in 1991.The protracted civil war finally ended as a result of a peace treaty on April 4, 2002, resulting in 500,000 deaths and 12 million people being displaced. Throughout his tenure as president, dos Santos has faced mounting pressure from the public and opposition leaders to resign, and at 74 years old, this pressure combined with his ailing health may have influenced his decision to step down.

His successor is being handed a struggling economy as Angola has been facing economic turmoil due to the crash in the global oil economy. According to OPEC, oil revenue accounts for more than 45 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product (GDP) and around 95 percent of its exports. The global oil crisis has a major impact on OPEC countries whose government revenues are heavily dependent on oil, such as Angola, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, and Nigeria. Due to the spike in domestic oil production in the US, their demand for foreign oil declined; foreign countries who relied on the US as a reliable customer have been experiencing grave financial losses. The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) reports that the current price of Brent crude, the main international benchmark for oil, stands at $52 a barrel. This is an enormous plunge compared to the August 2014 average price of $100 per barrel. As a candidate, Lourenco gained public support on campaign promises to diversify the economy and increase infrastructure development. Diversifying the Angolan economy is important to decrease their dependency on oil revenue due to the volatility of prices and the propensity of market shocks, which are difficult to recover from. The global oil crisis led to high inflation in the country, which reached 40 percent in 2016, causing a spike in food prices, according to BBC News.

Moreover, Angola’s oil wealth, mismanagement, and corruption has created economic disparity between the political elite and struggling middle class. However, according to Transparency International, more than 40 percent of the population lives below the poverty line in Angola, or less than $1.25 per day, which is about two-thirds of the population. The despairing level of poverty in Angola has not received much international attention, despite the fact that the country has one of the highest child mortality rates in the world in which one in five children do not survive until the age of five, according to Transparency International.

Furthermore, infrastructure development has been latent in Angola, however, in recent years, China has aided and facilitated infrastructure growth. Aid Data reports that one of the biggest investments China has made in road infrastructure was the 2010 China Export-Import Bank $500 million loan to rebuild roads as part of a concessional loan package to Angola. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, Angola was China’s third largest oil supplier in 2016, in front of South Sudan and the Republic of Congo. To help accelerate economic growth, China has been actively engaged on the African continent. Its engagement on the continent is strategic because China is dependent on Africa’s abundant natural resources to power its own economy. Nonetheless, there are mutual benefits in this partnership with President Xi pledging $60 billion dollars to the continent in 2015 to help transform and develop African economies by providing loans and debt forgiveness, as reported in The New York Times. China is also the biggest financiers of large scale infrastructure projects in Africa including railways, roads, seaports, as well as hospitals and schools, all of which are financed by Chinese development banks.

With that said, as the third President of this country, Lourenco has the power to lead Angola down a new path. While the transfer of power signals headway towards expanding democracy in the country, dos Santos’ endorsement of candidate elect Lourenco indicates that dos Santos stepping down might be more symbolic. John Ashbourne, an analyst at Capital Economics, stated in a note to Reuters that “the influence of the party elite and the dos Santos family will limit (Lourenco’s) room for maneuver.” Nevertheless, it is clear that Angola is facing an economic crisis. As such, Lourenco must prioritize investing in public goods and human capital because a strong civil society will contribute to economic and political stability in the country. Additionally, Lourenco must attract private investment to the country by establishing government transparency and accountability. Angola’s future looks bright, however, concentrated efforts must be made to break the cycle of corruption that has plagued the country since independence.

Luisa Tembo