On Wednesday April 4 Angola celebrated the tenth anniversary of the end of its three-decade civil war.
But what should have been day of unified reflection and celebration was hijacked by the ruling Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola (MPLA) who turned the country-wide events into pro-government rallies that served only to underline the growing divisions within the country.
In a speech to thousands wearing white t-shirts bearing his face, long-serving president Jose Eduardo dos Santos hit out at opposition parties and civil society groups for criticising the government and denied claims the upcoming election was being rigged.
Dos Santos, who has been in power for 32 years, boasted to the crowd in the town of Luena, Moxico, close to where rebel leader Jonas Savimbi was killed back in 2002, that the MPLA was too big and powerful to need to cheat.
“We don’t need fraud, we don’t need tricks, we don’t need to cheat, we are very big and we are a very strong party,” he said, adding “Those who are strong don’t need to cheat to win.”
His retort was aimed directly at the União Nacional pela Independência Total de Angola (UNITA), once led by Savimbi and now the country’s largest opposition party. UNITA has been voicing its concerns about how the elections are being prepared.
They and the other parties were unhappy that voter registration began before the new electoral legislation was passed, but are even more annoyed about the appointment of Suzanna Ingles as chair of the National Electoral Commission (CNE).
Ingles, who is a lawyer rather than a judge as the law stipulates, is also a member of the MPLA Women’s group OMA which clearly brings the notion she is independent into question.
With only 16 parliamentary seats compared to the MPLA’s 191, UNITA was unable to stop the National Assembly endorsing the appointment and instead staged a walkout to show their frustration.
A complaint to the Constitutional Court has been rejected and there are low expectations about a similar appeal submitted to the Supreme Court now that Dos Santos, who personally appoints senior judges, has publicly pledged his confidence in the CNE.
No-one is quite sure how events will develop. UNITA – who like the other opposition parties were deliberately excluded from all peace celebrations – have not ruled out street protests.
Ahead of Wednesday’s anniversary, UNITA’s Horácio Junjuvili travelled to Johannesburg, South Africa, to brief international media about their concerns and the corner they find themselves in.
Defending accusations that UNITA themselves were to blame for their lack of presence in Angola, Junjuvili said the opposition had been bullied and repressed, and starved of media space and funds by a government becoming increasingly dictatorial and intolerant.
“In any normal country, if you had five months to go until an election and no credible electoral body, the polls would be delayed,” he said, sighing. “But Angola is not a normal country.”
The rare trickle of wire coverage that this trip generated is unlikely to worry the Angolan government, which enjoy good relations with a wide portfolio of oil-hungry countries including the United States, the UK, France, Portugal, Brazil and China.
These nation’s diplomatic missions know very well what is going on in Angola. Some even fund the civil society groups who complain about media censorship and lack of human rights.
But satisfying local targets to “support good causes” is a world away from direct government-to-government challenges, and is likely to remain this way especially given Angola’s resource wealth and associated investment opportunities.
Adding to the concerns about the electoral preparation, there are now reports circulating that the European Union will not be sending any observers to monitor the election.
This leaves the job of evaluating the polls for fairness and freedom to the African Union (AU), of which Angola holds the chair of the peace and security council, and the Southern African Development Community (SADC), of which Angola is currently president.
Civil society groups are despairing. “The European Union observers were the only ones who raised red flags in the 2008 polls, now we will have no objectivity,” one activist lamented.
But going back to Dos Santos’ boast – that the MPLA does not need to cheat to win the upcoming polls – doth the president protest too much?
His party may have won the 2008 parliamentary election with an 82% majority but four years down the road, the country is very different.
The 2008 poll was only the second since Angola’s independence in 1975.
The first, during a lull in the fighting in 1992, was so closely contested between Dos Santos and Savimbi that when Savimbi rejected the results it triggered one of the most violent chapters of the conflict.
In 2008, most Angolans voted for the MPLA not for their policies, but because they were wary that a close result could spark violence.
Fast-forward four years and you have people who no longer feel they necessarily have to vote for the status quo to maintain stability, and who are increasingly unwilling to vote for the status quo because it is not delivering.
Too many MPLA promises have been broken and social development has been slower than even the most pessimistic development charities had expected, with half the country still languishing in poverty, many without access to water and basic healthcare.
For all the glossy investment videos and posters – mostly made by Dos Santos’ own children at great expense to the tax payer – Angola’s so-called oil-driven ‘economic miracle’ has largely failed to trickle down to ordinary people.
Billions of dollars have been poured into grand infrastructure projects, repairing war-damaged roads, bridges and airports and building new schools and hospitals. But basic service delivery remains weak, there is a chronic lack of skilled teachers and doctors to staff these new facilities while widespread corruption pervades every level of society.
Until now, the government has been blaming the war and UNITA for all the country’s problems, but now that the ten-year milestone has passed, they will have to start delivering, and with an election on the horizon, pressure is building.
A secret pre-electoral survey, apparently conducted by a Brazilian company on behalf of the MPLA late last year, is understood to have forecast that the ruling party would only win around 48% of the vote.
The lengths to which the government is going to silence its critics – sending in “peace vigilantes” to beat up youth protestors, closing down critical newspapers and filling the rest of the media with over-the-top pro-government propaganda – shows it is nervous.
And ironically, as the country marks this important milestone of peace, the dominant topic of conversation is the growing instability.
“Things are very uncertain and we don’t know what’s going to happen,” said Marcolino Moco, a former Prime Minister who accompanied UNITA’s Junjuvili to Johannesburg this week.
“We have a kind of peace, we have no killings and no weapons but we have no spiritual peace,” he said.
“You can observe youth trying to demonstrate against the power and political situation. Maybe within two or three years if the president continues doing what he is doing and if we have no reaction from the international community, we are going of course to have a kind of revolution.”
Moco, a lawyer and university lecturer who is these days far removed from the circles of power but still greatly respected as an intellectual and commentator, described his country as neither a democracy or a one-party state, but a “one-man state”.
It is clear that no-one in Angola wants a return to violence – too many people still bear too many scars from the country’s difficult past and few will dare speak out for risk of losing their job and social standing. But the “cultura de medo” (culture of fear) that has hung so heavily over Angola in the immediate post-war period is starting to lift.
One-time Savimbi aide Abel Chivukuvuku has left UNITA and formed his own party Convergencia Ampla de Salvacao Nacional (CASA).
Some say the charismatic Chivukuvuku will present a real challenge to the MPLA, others see his breakaway as too little too late.
But all Angola-watchers agree that there will be changes in the months and years to come, although no-one is sure in exactly what form.
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