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Angola Elections 2017: Is change afoot?

Angola Elections 2017: Is change afoot?

For 37 years President José Eduardo dos Santos has ruled Angola, overseeing an end to the civil war, an African Cup of Nations and an oil boom.

On the streets of Angola, his face is everywhere – on billboards, on money and on ID cards – but on 23 August, the ballot boxes are open and he is finally due to step down. It is widely held that João Lourenço, Defence Minister for the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), will take his place.

In the last legislative elections of 2012 the MPLA took 71.84% of the vote and the main opposition party, the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA), is again polling low. With the MPLA fortress set to remain in place, does Lourenço signify change for the country?

Who is Lourenço?

Lourenço has presented problems for analysts; on the one hand he comes down hard on corruption, but on the other, he has a military background and maintains strong ties with many from the barracks. Born in Benguela, he worked his way through the army ranks and became a general, at which time he entered politics, starting as the MPLA leader in parliament and then becoming the defence minister. 

He is a political moderate and is thought to have been chosen by Dos Santos due to his ability to bridge divides within the MPLA ruling clique. He has campaigned to end corruption and to improve the health and agricultural sectors.

Whether or not Lourenço symbolises any credible change from a predecessor who has muted all opposition, all depends on whether the ceding of Dos Santos’ power is notional or actual. While it is likely that Dos Santos will continue to exert a degree of influence, factors including his wilful retraction from office and a party seemingly growing tired of their former leader, suggest it may be waning.  

Dos Santos’ has made his son the head of Angola’s sovereign wealth fund, and his daughter the chief executive of Sonangol, the all-powerful state oil company. Indeed, some have argued that he has spent the last few years positioning his family and attempting to spread his power base, perhaps fearing the loss of his own.

The potential loss of power could be explained by his ailing health (he has been to Barcelona many times for healthcare), he could be making a choice, or he could be being turfed out. Dos Santos has certainly angered many in the MPLA by his recent moves to appoint family members to high positions.

For now, Dos Santos and Lourenço may be the picture of unity, but with Lourenço’s tough stance on corruption, it remains to be seen for how long. If Dos Santos does take a back seat, Lourenço will start to take precedence and change, in whatever shape or form, will likely come.

The other argument, of course, is that nothing will change and that this transition of power is merely theatrics, that Dos Santos will continue to pull strings through his grip on the most powerful institution in Angola – oil. Regardless of the power make-up, the Lourenço-Dos Santos nexus looks set to rule and the next administration faces a number of pressing issues.

Firstly, there is a growing political crisis in the north, as instability in the DRC is throwing hundreds of thousands of Congolese refugees into Angola’s Luanda Province, souring relations between Luanda and Kinshasa. Secondly, an economic crisis caused by the collapse in the price of crude oil continues to blight the country, demonstrated by Emirates’ recent decision to scale back its flights to Luanda, citing trapped Angolan currency due to the government’s depleting foreign reserves. Lastly, Luanda is under pressure from numerous rebel and separatist groups, notably in the Cabinda and Lunda Norte regions.

Originally published in the August/September 2017 issue of New African Magazine.

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