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Democracy in Angola

Johannes Beck
August 24, 2017

Angola's generally peaceful and well-organized elections mask the powerful structures holding the country back from being a true democracy, says DW's Johannes Beck.

Two elderly women hold out their ID to an election official
Image: Getty Images/AFP/M. Longari

Election day wasn't even over when members of the ruling People's Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) began praising both themselves and the way the poll was organized. This deserved top marks, said a leading politician from the MPLA, which has held power since Angola gained independence from Portugal in 1975.

It is true that Angola's 2017 general elections were noticeably less chaotic than previous ones. Plus there was a marked absence of violent clashes seen elsewhere in Africa, such as in Kenya after the elections held there earlier this month.

But awarding top marks is going too far. For one thing, Angola's National Electoral Commission accredited far too few election observers from opposition parties to enable effective election monitoring in this vast Central African country. For another, the commission took so long to negotiate the accreditation of observer missions from Europe and North America that they either lost patience and gave up or were only able to send minuscule delegations that were virtually ineffective. 

Johannes Beck, head of DW's Portuguese for Africa service
Johannes Beck heads DW's Portuguese for Africa service

Climate of fear

In any case, the organization of the elections was the smallest problem. A bigger one was the lack of opposition voices and critical opinions.

The MPLA dominated media coverage, giving the opposition National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (Unita) and other parties little chance to be heard.

Many Angolans were, and still are, fearful of freely expressing their opinion. Those who exercised their constitutional right to demonstrate risked being beaten by the police. Those with links to opposition parties risked ruining their chances of a career either in the government or with one of the numerous private companies controlled by the MPLA.

In Angola, even meeting with friends to discuss a book outlining non-violent methods of resistance risks landing people in prison.

On paper, Angola may appear to be a model democracy. But in recent years, the MPLA has succeeded in creating a climate of oppression in which no real democracy can flourish.

Chance for a new beginning

This was the first time in decades that Angola truly stood a chance of starting anew - after 38 years as president, this year Jose Eduardo dos Santos chose not to run for reelection.

For the time being, dos Santos remains the MPLA party leader. This is one reason his successor and newly-elected president, Joao Lourenco, probably won't dare touch the billion-dollar interests of the dos Santos family.

Lourenco's career as former secretary general of the MPLA and defense minister of Angola leaves me with little hope that he will usher in democratic change. He may perhaps perform some cosmetic surgery and remove dos Santos'sdaughter Isabel, Africa's richest woman, from her post as head of the state oil company, Sonangol. This would also appease internal MPLA critics.

But I don't think Lourenco is likely to end the repression of human rights defenders and protesters, liberalize the media, or allow local and provincial governments to hold free elections. He is too much a MPLA man for this. 

But if Angola is to really become a functional democracy, such fundamental changes are urgently needed. 

True democracy isn't only visible on election day. True democracy needs openness, tolerance and the rule of law every day of the year.