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Angola: The battle between Lourenço and Costa Júnior is just beginning

By Estelle Maussion
Posted on Thursday, 23 September 2021 12:44

Angola’s President João Lourenço and Unita leader Adalberto Costa Júnior. JA photo montage: MICHELE SPATARI/AFP;AMPE ROGERIO/EPA/MAXPPP

Angola will be holding its general elections next year. However, tension is already mounting between the ruling party, led by President João Lourenço, and the historic opposition, led by Adalberto Costa Júnior. All of this is taking place during a very uncertain time for the country.

In the streets of Luanda, the Angolan capital, the pre-electoral campaign has already begun, despite the fact that the next general elections, which are scheduled for next year, are still far away. The flag of the Mouvement Populaire de Libération de l’Angola (MPLA), the party that has been in power since 1979, and photos of its leader, President João Lourenço, bearing the caption ‘re-elect in 2022’ are plastered all over the city.

On 11 September, Union Nationale pour l’Indépendance Totale de l’Angola (Unita), the main opposition party and the MPLA’s historical rival, held a ‘march in favour of free, fair and transparent elections’. The event allowed its leader, Adalberto Costa Júnior, to demonstrate the party’s strength and affirm that “change is possible”. He also called on the government’s opponents to unite to make it happen.

The opposition has the wind in its sails

Although the MPLA and Unita have long been rivals, their feud has taken an unprecedented turn in the run-up to the election that will determine the country’s next head of state. On one hand, two ‘new’ protagonists are crossing swords now.

Lourenço, 67, and Costa Júnior, 59, are both veterans of their respective parties, but they have only just recently taken the helm. Lourenço, defence minister under former president José Eduardo dos Santos, succeeded him in 2017, posing as a man of change. Costa Júnior, who has been at the helm of the movement founded by the charismatic Jonas Savimbi since the end of 2019, replaced Isaías Samakuva and hoped to bring an end to electoral setbacks.

On the other hand, the balance of power between the two camps is changing. For the first time since 2002 and the end of the civil war, from which the MPLA emerged victorious, the formation no longer exerts an overwhelming dominance. In other words, the battle between Lourenço and Costa Júnior has only just begun.

In the current landscape, the Angolan opposition has the wind in its sails. It has been denouncing the regime’s authoritarianism, bad governance and inability to improve the population’s living conditions for years, arguments that are now more popular than ever.

“João Lourenço has seized power and become worse than his predecessor,” says Adalberto Costa Júnior. “You only have to go [to] social media to read the severe criticism that citizens have directed against the MPLA,” he says, pointing out that “the disarray of a party that has been in power for 46 years”, and which practices “permanent censorship.”

The Unita leader hopes to form a broad ‘patriotic front’ by not only employing offensive discourse, but also taking part in processions perceived to be peaceful – such as the ‘march’ – rather than ‘demonstrations’ like that of 11 September. This initiative, which has proved unsuccessful in the past, seems to be taking off, as two other opposition parties have joined forces with it [Unita]. Members of the civil society, including youth groups that have held demonstrations since 2011, are also supporting it.

The MPLA is more divided than ever

The atmosphere is quite different within the Lourenço camp and corridors of MPLA’s headquarters as well as those of the presidential palace. In fact, the party in power is more divided than ever. Although divisions – muffled and settled behind the scenes – have always existed within the MPLA, those that are running the party today are mortified because they [the divisions] are being caused by the leader himself.

Propelled to lead the country by the MPLA – the real key to power in Angola – Lourenço then had to create a rift to make his mark, by declaring war on ‘corruption, nepotism and impunity’. This crusade ended up with former strongmen of the dos Santos clan falling into disgrace. High-ranking civil servants, ministers, party officials and even members of the former presidential family – including José Filomeno, dos Santos’ son – were also brought to justice.

READ MORE João Lourenço’s Angola

Although this series of events was welcomed by the public and the international community, the strategy profoundly destabilised the MPLA. It caused panic, anger and exasperation among a number of ‘comrades’; multiple fault lines between pro-Lourenço and pro-dos Santos activists (both old and young); as well as members who were worried about the law and even others who weren’t.

It is not clear whether José Eduardo dos Santos’ return to Angola on 14 September (after more than a two-year absence) will ease tensions between the group’s different factions.

Posture of appeasement

This delicate context explains Lourenço’s cautious response to Unita. In line with his presidential stance, he has avoided throwing oil on the fire. Although his party had proposed a ‘march of millions’ in response to the event that Unita had organised, the head of state rejected the idea and encouraged his camp to come up with its own agenda.

At the same time, Lourenço took on the role of referee in a media-political conflict that arose during the Unita march. When two public television stations – TPA and TV Zimbo – announced that they would boycott the opposition party’s activities because their journalists had been attacked by militants, the president called on the two parties to meet and exchange views so that they could resolve their dispute.

“The communiqué war only heightens tensions, the way forward is dialogue,” said the head of state. The latter, who officially congratulated Costa Júnior on his election as head of Unita at the end of 2019 – a gesture that was noticed – later received him for a ‘working meeting’ at the presidential palace in February 2020.

Despite this posture of appeasement, the Angolan President (aka ‘JLo’) is not about to let his guard down; and neither will Unita’s leader. The former is traveling in the provinces and abroad to defend his record, while the latter is holding an increasing number of meetings to consolidate his support and mobilise his troops.

Economic crisis

Both camps feel that the key issue, which has already been debated at the National Assembly for several months, is how to manage the next electoral process. Gerrymandering, the method of counting votes (municipal, provincial, national); updating the voter registry; and the electoral commission’s composition are all sticking points between Unita – which denounced what it termed as ‘state organisation of fraud’ – and the MPLA, which has provided assurances that the next election will be truly democratic.

“The issue at stake will obviously be ensuring that the election is a success, but also, and above all, accepting its outcome in the days to come,” says Elias Isaas, former director of the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa-Angola.

“Within the context of free speech on social media, economic crisis, the MPLA’s growing unpopularity and the expectation of an alternative, the presidential party has the most to lose,” says this civil society figure.

The fact remains that the opposition also has its weaknesses, as it is struggling to unite itself and really influence a political system that has been closed to it for decades. The battle promises to be a real marathon.

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