Angola voted today in an election that will send a new face to the presidency after Jose Eduardo dos Santos held the office for the previous thirty-eight years. Most forecasters expect his chosen successor from The People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), Joao Lourenco, to win handily.
After Angola’s independence from Portugal in 1975, multiple groups battled to gain control of the newly independent nation. One of those was the MPLA, which received support from other African nations as well as the Soviet Union and Cuba. The United States and South Africa supported a rival Maoist group, UNITA, along with China to block what it saw as potential Soviet expansion. The MPLA won the war by 2002 and became the dominant political party. UNITA is the largest opposing party to the MPLA.
The MPLA moved away from its Marxist roots after the Cold War and has remained dominant politically because it was seen as bringing peace to the country as well as presiding over an economic boom resulting from higher oil prices. Angola is Africa’s second largest producer of oil behind Nigeria. But, with the oil boom long ago turning into a bust and most of the nation mired in poverty, younger voters are not as keen on the MPLA as their parents might have been.
Revelations of widespread corruption from cases being brought in Portuguese courts are also shaking the views of many Angolans. Many of those cases show how a small elite of Angolans was able to siphon oil money from the country to purchase expensive European properties while most in the country suffered. They also spotlight numerous instances of bribery and money laundering.
The highest official in Angola to be trapped in the investigations is Vice President Manuel Vicente. Vicente was previously president of Sonangol, Angola’s national oil company. He is accused of laundering money and then attempting to escape charges by bribing a prosecutor.
Polls indicated that the MPLA will still take at least 60% of the vote, but that is down from 2012 when it won 72%. Lourenco has recognized the political cost that corruption is bringing and has promised increased transparency from the government. But, that will be easier said than done. After the election, dos Santos will still remain in control of the MPLA, with his daughter now running Sonangol and his son running the country’s sovereign wealth fund.
Ironically, the loss of standing for the MPLA among some in the country may make Lourenco’s job even more difficult, as he could possibly lack a strong mandate for reform. His immediate concerns will also almost certainly be restoring vigor to a moribund economy and handling a currency crisis in which US dollars trade hands for twice the official exchange rate.
While Angolans will raise their voices, they still lack much of a clear choice in charting a brighter future.