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Are Angola's democratic values under threat?

July 1, 2024

Angolan NGOs have raised concerns about what they say are attempts by President Joao Lourenco's government to restrict democratic rights, suppress the opposition and reshape the nation in its favor. DW delves deeper.

Police officers arrest a man in Luanda who is seen on the back of a police van
In January 2023, police prevented a Luanda march and detained activists, underscoring tensions around civil rights and freedom of assemblyImage: Borralho Ndomba/DW

Florindo Chivucute, chairman of the NGO Friends of Angola, which aims to raise global awareness about the challenges facing the country, directed a public appeal to President Joao Lourenco.

"Mr. President, if you really want a democratic and livable country for all Angolans, you cannot continue as before! Turn around, you are on the wrong path!" said the activist and blogger who studied conflict analysis and resolution in Washington, DC.

Chivucute expressed his concerns to DW about the state of democracy in Angola and called on Lourenco for an "immediate departure from the policy of suppressing democratic fundamental rights."

"As a first step, I suggest that all political prisoners be released immediately," Chivucute said.

Supporters of Angola's UNITA party protest the return to power of the long-ruling MPLA
Young demonstrators repeatedly demand freedom for political prisonersImage: Julio Pacheco Ntela/AFP

Arbitrary persecution of opposition supporters

Angola was once a socialist state battling US-backed rebels in the Cold War, but the southern African nation has transitioned into an oil-rich democracy and works increasingly closely with the United States.

There are no political prisoners in Angola, according to the government. However, human rights organizations have long reported that citizens who criticize the policies of Angola's government are subjected to discrimination, suppression and even persecution. 

One of the most notable cases involves four young activists who were imprisoned for allegedly insulting the president and have reportedly endured abuse during their incarceration.

Nine months ago, Adolfo Campos, Tanaice Neutro, Gildo das Ruas and Abraao Pensador were sentenced to prison terms of two years and five months for sedition and insulting the president after they participated in a demonstration to show solidarity with motorcycle taxi drivers who were protesting high fuel prices.

Family members and various civil society organizations view the sentence as politically motivated. Currently, a public petition for the release of the activists is underway in Angola.

Growing concerns over activists' arbitrary arrests

"We are waiting for the appeals court to decide in favor of the release of the political prisoners and for those who arbitrarily arrested and convicted the activists to be held accountable," said rapper Jaime MC, from the civic movement Mudei ("I Changed" in Portuguese), which co-initiated the petition.

Neutro's health condition is "critical," and Campos has eye problems that require urgent surgery, according to Simao Cativa, another activist who recently visited the prisoners at the Calomboloca penitentiary near Luanda. 

"This is not an isolated case. We are aware of similar cases all over the country," Chivucute said.

A man lies on the ground while a group of police officers look on
The basic right to peaceful protest is regularly curtailed in Angola, NGOs sayImage: Borralho Ndomba/DW

There have been concerns about arbitrary arrests in Angola since Lourenco began his second term in office, in September 2022. Two Angolan human rights organizations, FORDU and OMUNGA, have publicly repudiated the "arbitrary persecution and detention" by the national police against activists.

Additionally, Article 47 of Angola’s constitution allows citizens to protest without authorization, provided that they inform the authorities in advance. According to Human Rights Watch, the government has repeatedly blocked and dispersed peaceful anti-government protests, often with excessive force and arbitrary arrests.

At the end of June, 10 young people were arrested on the sidelines of a demonstration for the release of political prisoners, according to Amnesty International.

Obstruction of NGOs

"Not only that: It is becoming increasingly clear that the government is stepping up pressure on NGOs that document and denounce such or similar cases of political persecution," Chivucute said.

The Angolan National Assembly in May 2023 approved a new statute for nongovernmental organizations.

Many NGOs feel threatened by this legislative proposal and have been protesting against it for months. There is a risk that uncomfortable voices from NGOs will be silenced should it be become law.

According to the legislators, NGOs will be required to submit detailed reports on their financial sources. A government-controlled agency will be tasked to oversee NGO finances to "prevent money laundering and terrorism financing." Mere suspicions could lead to the suspension of the organizations' activities, critics say.

"This is an unacceptable interference in our work," Jaime MC said. "It is a law that clearly violates the spirit of democracy in Angola."

The draft bill is currently under review in a specialty committee within the National Assembly. NGOs fear that it is only a matter of time before it receives approval and signed into law by the president.

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MPLA eyes provincial division

"Nip it in the bud," Jaime MC said. "We must prevent the government from silencing civil society. NGOs are important to give a voice to oppressed citizens, such as political prisoners."

"The Angolan government acts all too often in the interests of the ruling party and not in the interests of the population," said Guilherme Neves, of the human rights organization Maos Livres. 

Lourenco's government is accused of trying to place all state institutions at the service of his ruling People's Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) — including the education system, the media and all state-owned enterprises.

Critics also say that the MPLA wants to reshape Angloa's administrative units in their favor. 

One notable change is the proposed division of certain provinces. According to recent legislation, Angola will have 20 provinces starting next year, which is two more than it currently has. The province of Luanda is among those prioritized for division.

Many residents of Luanda have criticized the proposals. Law student Simao Formiga told DW that there is no need to divide Luanda, as the province is not particularly large demographically.

"I see this proposal as a strategy by the state party to influence the municipal elections that are to be held in 2025 in their favor," Formiga said.

Adalberto Costa Junior, the leader of Angola's largest opposition party, UNITA, concurs.

 "The division of Luanda is only to prevent UNITA from winning the next regional elections. I see no other reason for the ruling party's initiative," Costa Junior said at a public event of his party last weekend.

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In the 2022 parliamentary elections, the MPLA clearly lost to the opposition in the Greater Luanda area. UNITA led in Luanda province with over 62% of the votes.

Most votes for the opposition came from the districts of Cacuaco and Viana, two suburbs of the capital.

According to the MPLA's new plan, the two districts, along with the municipalities of Icolo, Bengo and Quicama, are to be separated from Luanda province to form the new province of Icolo-Bengo.

"The UNITA strongholds — namely, the districts of Cacuaco and Viana — are to be separated from the important province of Luanda, which also includes the capital. This is intended to mitigate a possible MPLA defeat in the next municipal elections," the political scientist David Sambongo told DW.

"Step by step, President Lourenco and his MPLA are trying to make life difficult for critics and opponents while simultaneously pushing their own interests within the state," Sambongo said.

"This has little to do with democracy," he added

Borralho Ndomba in Luanda contributed reporting.

This article was originally written in German.

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