Angola: Spanish tech firm accused of helping ruling MPLA steal elections

By Cláudio Silva
Posted on Monday, 23 May 2022 12:54

Woman casts her vote during national elections at the capital Luanda
A woman casts her vote during national elections at the capital Luanda, August 31, 2012. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

Ahead of Angola's general elections set for August, protesters were out in full force in April demanding the release of political prisoners and the need for this year's polls to be both free and fair. At the heart of the protests has also been the government's controversial hiring of a Spanish company. But the response of the Angolan police to those protests in Luanda was both swift and harsh, leading many to wonder how fair this year's polls will be.

A pregnant woman was among the 22 activists arrested as was the mother of a six-month-old child, jailed for more than 48 hours along with her infant son.

The protesters were there to press for the release of political prisoners and the need for this August’s elections to be free and fair. However, their ire also had an international aspect: the government’s controversial hiring of a company headquartered more than 6,000 km away.

It may seem incredible that a Spanish information technology and defence systems business, one of the largest of its type in the world, would be the subject of passionate protests, injunctions and acrimony over the past 14 years in Angola. Still, such is the predicament of Indra Sistemas, the Madrid-headquartered company that has supplied the government with paper ballots, ballot boxes and an assortment of electoral technology since Angola’s first post-war elections in 2008.

Rigged process?

Indra is a publicly traded company in Spain with revenues of more than €3bn ($3.1bn). Its expertise extends to transportation software, air traffic control systems, financial services, telecommunications, and electoral technology.

The company’s shareholders include some of the largest asset managers in the world, including US-based Fidelity Investments and T. Rowe Price and Norway’s Norges Bank. It has local offices in 46 countries and commercial operations in more than 140, making it a truly global enterprise.

Its electoral technology solutions are used throughout Latin America and Europe. Its role in Angola, however, is more controversial.

That’s because of its association with the ruling People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), which has ruled the country since its independence from Portugal in 1975. Although the country has held three elections since the war ended in 2002, critics contend that their goal is not to foster civic participation in the democratic process, but as a means to legitimise an autocratic regime.

The organisation of elections is merely a mandatory formality to continue to look like a democracy…

As such, critics say, elections are structurally manipulated to ensure the MPLA stays in power. Such is the party’s sophistication in this regard that it need not resort to crude measures, such as ballot stuffing or voter intimidation. Rather, it focuses on more subtle targets including voter registration rolls, electoral software, electoral technology, forced abstentions and voter disenfranchisement.

“Elections in Angola have never been a referendum on the public’s will and choice. They have always been instrumentalised to legitimise nationally and internationally a regime that is exclusionary, elitist and corrupt,” says Paula Cristina Roque, a political analyst of African Affairs and author of the book Governing in the Shadows: Angola’s Securitised State. “Over the years this government has become increasingly autocratic, which requires an even greater veneer of democracy.”

Ironically, Roque says, the MPLA would have won legitimately in 2008 and perhaps 2012 — but not in 2017, when people were demanding change.

“If these (coming) elections were free, fair and transparent, UNITA and the FPU platform would undoubtedly win,” she says. “But they will be fraudulent and no international condemnation will occur because of overriding economic interests.”

That’s where Indra allegedly comes in.

The Spanish company first came to Angola in 2008, when it was subcontracted by local business Valleysoft to supply the National Electoral Commission (CNE) with ballot papers. This would seem like a mundane part of the electoral process, except that Valleysoft was created by entities close to then-President José Eduardo dos Santos and the MPLA, and had no business interfering in the electoral process in lieu of the electoral commission.

Indra was immediately mired in controversy when it came to light that they had printed 16 million extra ballots beyond the 10 million that the electoral commission had officially requested. The extra ballots were never properly accounted for. Opposition parties and civil society cried foul, accusing the regime of using the extra ballots to manipulate votes in favour of the MPLA.

Favoured partner

Pleased with Indra’s performance, the Angolan government rehired the company to work on the 2012 elections.

The public tender that led to Indra’s new contract was farcical at best. Jornal de Angola, the nation’s oldest and largest daily newspaper, published an ad on a Friday, informing companies interested in providing logistical support for the elections that they only had the weekend to submit their proposals, which had to have 15 supporting documents.

A total of nine companies responded to the ad, including two from South Africa, one each from the US and Portugal, and two Angolan shell companies without any commercial activity. Only three survived the initial triage: Indra and the two Angolan shell companies. Indra won the tender.

Over the years this government has become increasingly autocratic, which requires an even greater veneer of democracy.

UNITA, Angola’s main opposition party, filed an injunction to annul the tender and accused the government of paying Indra $130m for a contract worth $25m on the open market. The courts dismissed the case.

The government employed a similar strategy in 2017, hiring Indra through a public tender that also appeared to violate Angolan law. By this time, both the opposition and Angolan civil society were fed up. Mass protests were organised, injunctions were filed in court, all to no avail.

In a rare defeat for the company, a Spanish court in 2018 ordered that Indra pay fines in connection with overbilling for the 2012 Angolan presidential elections. The company did not admit to paying illegal commissions to intermediaries, but instead blamed “management deficiencies”. Spanish news outlet El Confidencial reported at the time that Indra’s contracts with the National Electoral Commission of Angola (CNE) for work on the 2008, 2012 and 2017 elections were worth more than €420m ($440m).

With controversy once again swelling, Indra has denied the latest charges in a rare public statement. In February, the company told the state-owned Jornal de Angola that it won a competitive bid to provide technological and logistical solutions for the August elections.

Indra’s work in Angola “guarantees compliance with the transparency and security requirements required by law, which implies the redundancy of computing, transmission, processing and dissemination of results, among many other services”, the company told the newspaper. The statement said Spanish authorities continue to rely on Indra for their own elections.

Push-back

MPLA critics aren’t convinced.

On 16 February, 11 civil society groups and non-governmental organisations along with individual activists, writers and members of the clergy signed an open letter to the EU, the US Congress and State Department, the Spanish government and the African Union, demanding that the public tender that led to Indra’s contract be annulled. The letter pointed to past allegations of election rigging in Angola and the signatories’ “profound preoccupation with the opaque nature of the way the company was hired”.

In March, protesters in Benguela province echoed similar sentiments, saying they were there to “pressure the Angolan state to remove Indra from Angola’s electoral process due to its history of corruption in Spain, Argentina, and in every election it has participated in in Angola”.

“The organisation of elections is merely a mandatory formality to continue to look like a democracy and to continue to have this legitimacy, which is forged, in the eyes of international partners,” says Luaty Beirão, a volunteer election monitor and member of Handeka, one of the advocacy groups that signed the open letter. “Elections are organised merely as a formality so that we can continue to claim that we are a democracy.”

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