On 23 August Angolans went to the polls to elect a new parliament, and for the first time in the lives of a great majority of the population, a new president. José Eduardo dos Santos, who ruled the country for 38 years, did not run this time as his party’s top candidate.
Instead, the MPLA, the Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola (Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola) fielded Defence Minister, João Lourenço, as its presidential candidate. So the mais velho (old man) has finally left. This in itself is a significant moment, considering how difficult it appears for some African leaders to relinquish power.
Despite this, it’s likely that the elections will bring more of the same, and only slow and gradual improvements — if at all — of the lives of most Angolans. Lourenço is very much a product of the system. He has the backing of the party and the armed forces, which is an improvement over dos Santos’ previous intended successor, (former) vice-president, Manuel Vicente.
Vicente was pushed through against the party’s will as dos Santos’ running mate in the 2012 elections. He had no “liberation credentials”, and is under investigation for the corruption of a magistrate in Portugal. It would also appear that, for now, any plans for dynastic succession are off the table.
Some Angolan commentators have called Lourenço “dull”, and “not previously known for his intellectual capacities. But, compared to some of his MPLA comrades, he has a reputation of relative probity. Nevertheless he is unlikely to be willing – or able – to change the current political economic dispensation.
Lourenço campaigned under the motto ”improve what is good, correct what is bad“ and vowed to tackle corruption.
Legal frameworks to combat corruption already exist, such as the 2010 law on public probity and anti-money laundering measures in the banking sector. But despite repeated high-level declarations of a "zero tolerance” policy, dos Santos, his family and his close entourage remain the prime beneficiaries of the misappropriation of public funds. This tendency has become even more marked in the past three years, with the president’s family openly multiplying their private gains from publicly funded investments. The appointment of dos Santos’ daughter, Isabel dos Santos, at the head of state oil company Sonangol is the most glaring example of this.
Such “eating of commissions” in all productive sectors of the economy would have to be tackled to address the profound economic, political and social crisis the country has faced since the fall of world oil prices in late 2014.
But it’s doubtful Lourenço will be able to institute such a change, especially as dos Santos has “locked in” by decree his latest appointments. These include the heads of the army and state security forces, as well as those of his children Isabel and José Filomeno ‘Zénú’ dos Santos, at the helm of Sonangol and the Sovereign Wealth Fund.
Dos Santos has granted himself and his entourage lifelong immunity from prosecution and remains president of the MPLA. This ensures that whoever succeeds him is likely to depend on him and his family economically, and is unlikely to go after the family’s ill-gotten gains.
Although election day was peaceful and orderly, there was reportedly widespread abstention (20%) and targeted voter disenfranchisement. Some voters turned up at polling stations only to hear they had been registered at a different place, often kilometres away. On 25 August the nominally independent National Electoral Commission announced “provisional” results with the MPLA as the winner with 61% of the vote, down from 72% in 2012 and 81% in 2008.
Parallel counting from the voting stations, by contrast, shows opposition parties winning in many urban areas. This tallies with some pre-election opinion polls and the general public mood. In a truly open contest — which it was not — the MPLA would probably have lost Luanda and some provincial capitals, even if at national level it would likely still have come out on top.
The results are thus likely to be fiercely contested, though given the politicisation of the judiciary and the electoral organs, the MPLA is likely to emerge as the winner in the end, albeit with a significantly reduced majority.
It remains to be seen whether the end of dos Santos’ rule will also mean turning the page on the Sistema dos Santos (System dos Santos), and a change in the ways in which the Angolan political economy works. For the MPLA, losing key urban districts, and probably in a free contest only just scraping past the 50% mark nationwide was something hitherto unthinkable, especially for the party’s old guard who still think the MPLA has a destiny to lead Angola for the coming 25 years. Perhaps this poor showing might prove a wake-up call and strengthen reformist tendencies within the party, and provide some incentive to start a constructive dialogue with the opposition.
But the regime has so far been remarkably resilient to crises. The political awakening of a growing number of Angolans over the past years has strengthened opposition parties in their positions, yet it will require continued pressure and activism, and more than a change of the figurehead at the top, to fundamentally reorder Angola’s social, political, and economic relations — which is what Angolans are increasingly clamouring for.