Angola 2022: Can Adalberto Costa Júnior wrest power from President Lourenço?

By Cláudio Silva, in Luanda

Posted on Monday, 28 March 2022 12:18
Angola's UNITA party chief Adalberto Costa Júnior (facebook)

Angola is gearing up for its most competitive elections since the end of the brutal civil war in 2002, and perhaps for the first time the ruling MPLA party, which has been in power since independence in 1975, is not feeling assured about victory. MPLA strategists are worried about the rise of one of the most popular opposition politicians in recent memory: Adalberto Costa Júnior, UNITA’s charismatic president, ideally placed to reach the fast-growing urban youth vote.

Born in 1962, in what is today known as Huambo province, Adalberto has always been a fast riser, but also an outsider. He grew up in the cities of Benguela and Huambo in Southern Angola.

When he was a young teen, he joined the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) in 1975 and then five years later, moved to Portugal where he quickly rose through the ranks to become the party’s representative in the old colonial power, a position he held until 1996.

Later that year, Jonas Savimbi, the party’s then president – who would later be killed in combat in 2002 – appointed Adalberto as UNITA’s representative to Italy and the Vatican. Videos from that time period show an urbane, combative, sharp and well-spoken politician adept at arguing the party’s case in Europe.

Unlike many of his peers in the party, Adalberto never fought in the Angolan civil war, something that UNITA elders who are not so keen on his leadership are quick to point out. He is also of mixed-race heritage and was the first biracial party president in Angolan history as well as a Portuguese citizen until 2019.

Popularity among urban youth

Still, Adalberto goes against the decades-old propagandistic theory spread by the MPLA that UNITA is a tribal party where mulatos are unwelcome and openly shunned. After moving back to Angola a year after Savimbi’s death, Adalberto began to make himself known to the electorate with his precise, incisive analysis in parliament, on television, and in the radio.

An electrotechnical engineer by training (having studied at the Polytechnic of Porto School of Engineering in Portugal), Adalberto would make frequent, well-researched interventions in parliament filled with facts, nuance and damning indictments of MPLA’s governance.

Recent national polls done by civil society groups show Adalberto with a commanding lead over incumbent President João Lourenço

His speeches were widely shared on social media platforms, especially Youtube, Facebook and WhatsApp, racking up thousands of views. Perhaps this would explain Adalberto’s huge following among urban youth, the largest voting bloc in the next elections.

Recent national polls done by civil society groups show Adalberto with a commanding lead over incumbent President João Lourenço and the MPLA, who are doing everything in their power – including manipulating the judicial system – to stifle his popularity.

In the most glaring case, UNITA’s 2019 congress was declared null and void by the constitutional court in 2021, because some party dissidents accused Adalberto of renouncing his Portuguese citizenship after the allotted time (under UNITA’s bylaws, presidential candidates cannot be dual citizens).

UNITA had to repeat its congress and presidential election, where Adalberto ran unopposed and garnered over 90% of the vote.

Disaffected MPLA members

UNITA has an active base that helps finance the party and in an unprecedented move, the party ran a crowdfunding campaign last year to help fund its latest electoral congress.

Such popular support partly explains how the party was able to organise two congresses in a relatively short period of time. However, rumours abound in Luanda that wealthy, disaffected MPLA members with ties to Adalberto are also financing the party, but these allegations have not yet been proven.

Adalberto’s willingness to engage with the media, his openness with his constituents and his ease in dealing with the public in the age of social media –  a platform that he’s known to use keenly – stand in stark contrast to President Lourenço’s awkward, condescending tones and obvious discomfort with journalists and media in general.

Local newspapers have speculated that Lourenço has a personal vendetta against Adalberto; they have not met in years, further stoking tensions between the two leaders. Additionally, comparisons between the two often highlight Adalberto’s ability to unite UNITA’s base with disaffected MPLA members who have grown disillusioned with their government.

Strategic alliances

To bolster UNITA, Adalberto has allied himself with two high profile individuals: Filomeno Vieira Lopes (leader of the small but vocal opposition party Bloco Democrático) and Abel Chivukuvuku (a long-time influential UNITA politician who left the party in 2012 to found his own alliance – the Broad Convergence for the Salvation of Angola – Electoral Coalition abbreviated as CASA-CE).

Chivukuvuku left CASA-CE after the 2017 elections to create another party, PRA-JA SERVIR ANGOLA, which has now partnered with Adalberto and Vieira Lopes in readiness for the next elections that will see the trio vie under one coalition known as Frente Patriótica Unida (FPU), headed by UNITA. It is still unclear, however, how exactly this new coalition will be run.

Internationally, Adalberto has spent the past few years visiting traditional UNITA political allies from the Centrist Democrat International (CDI), of which he is the vice-president. He has visited several countries, including Belgium, Germany, Portugal, Israel and the United States.

Back home, in Luanda, he holds frequent meetings with ambassadors from European countries, as well as local and international NGOs and human rights groups.

Dissenting voices

Even so, Adalberto has his detractors, both inside and outside UNITA. Some party members accuse him of being over-confident and sometimes arrogant; others say he is inexperienced and a poor manager. Consequently, UNITA has expelled or otherwise disciplined party members who have openly criticised or sued Adalberto, including a candidate who ran against him in 2019 and a party member who bizarrely accused him of murder.

The MPLA can’t stand him or his popularity, and has an active plan in place, which was subsequently leaked to the press, to make him ineligible to run in the elections by character assassination and other means. Adalberto has not been seen on national television, nor has he been interviewed by state media – which plays the leading role in MPLA’s attempt to silence him.

There are growing tensions in the country, amidst increasingly visible public discontent with the ruling party, especially in urban areas.

A staunch defender of democracy and rule of law, Adalberto guiding ideology is still somewhat unknown, as is his foreign policy. He has a natural affinity for Europe, where he’s travelled to several times since becoming UNITA president. He recently travelled to the US to drum up support among American senators and interest groups.

Whereas the MPLA used to be a communist party steeped in socialist ideology (even though today they are adamant capitalists), UNITA recently condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The Russian Embassy in Luanda responded publicly with a stern rebuke. Such is MPLA’s stranglehold in Angolan politics and public life as well as its resolve against free and fair elections.

Based on the current polling data and MPLA’s deep unpopularity, it’s hard to see how Costa Junior would not win the elections. Nevertheless, Adalberto’s biggest challenge may not come during the elections, but afterwards. There are growing tensions in the country, amidst increasingly visible public discontent with the ruling party, especially in urban areas.

It is unclear what will happen if the MPLA wins by a wide margin and if the public feels that their vote was stolen, but what is becoming quite clear is that Adalberto will certainly have a say in Angola’s future.

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