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Angola’s President, elected in 2017 on the promise of being “the man of the economic miracle”, is coming out of a trying first term: Covid-19, social protests, the fight against corruption sowing discord in his camp and finally the death, at the beginning of July, of ex-president dos Santos, triggering tensions with the family of the deceased.
READ MORE Series: João Lourenço’s Angola
Despite these obstacles, the man nicknamed “JLo” should, barring a twist of fate, be re-elected for a second term in general elections on 24 August. They will pit him against Adalberto Costa Júnior, the leader of the União Nacional para a Independência Total de Angola (UNITA), a historic opponent of the ruling party, the Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola (MPLA). The vote and its aftermath will show whether JLo chooses to reinvent himself or lean into the MPLA’s authoritarian strategies.
Since his arrival at the presidential palace, “JLo”, born in Lobito in the south of the country, has said he wants to make his mark by breaking with the past. He has had some success. His biggest move came at the beginning of his term when he launched a hard-hitting anti-corruption crusade – which is still going on – that earned him comparisons to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character in the film The Terminator.
These practices, which are identical in every way to those of Dos Santos, are symptomatic of a regime rather than the identity of the person in charge.
That has been accompanied by a modernisation of presidential communication: meetings with people critical of the regime, regular interviews with a pool of journalists, unprecedented responsiveness on the executive’s Facebook page…
At the same time, Lourenço, who was defence minister from 2014 to 2017, has initiated numerous reforms, particularly on the economic front (liberalisation of the currency, privatisations, reorganisation of the banking sector, support for small and medium-sized enterprises). All these efforts give him arguments to defend his record.
Among the achievements the MPLA are touting on the campaign trail are the following:
- reducing public debt;
- controlling inflation;
- building housing, hospitals and schools;
- financing of more than 1,000 projects to diversify the economy;
- recovering $5bn of misappropriated assets in three years.
Who is in control?
The problem is that the 68-year-old Angolan leader, a product of the MPLA system and who trained in the Soviet Union like his predecessor, is quickly experiencing “the leopard cannot change its spots” syndrome.
At the end of 2018, after a year in office, he took the reins of the MPLA from dos Santos, once again criticising the errors of past governance. He now has all the power.
However, he remains a prisoner of the system… and of its failings. “These practices, which are identical in every way to those of Dos Santos, are symptomatic of a regime rather than the identity of the person in charge,” says Luaty Beirão, a famous rapper from a family close to the MPLA but a long-time critic of the ruling party.
The government is cracking down on young people who are demanding better living conditions through their protests, and there are violent clashes between MPLA and UNITA supporters, as during the Dos Santos era.
In the media, the government’s word is omnipresent in the public media and is increasing in the few existing private media that are no longer under state control as a result of the wave of privatisations. So not much has changed on that front.
There is the same continuity at the economic level: a small group of companies tends to win the majority of government contracts, which are almost systematically awarded according to a simplified procedure and not through tenders.
This last point, which contradicts the declared desire for transparency, is worrying even finance minister Vera Daves, who sent a letter on this subject to the President at the end of 2021. The fight against corruption has been undermined by the favourable treatment that some of those close to him seem to enjoy, notably his chief of staff, Edeltrudes Costa, and former vice-president Manuel Vicente – who was accused corruption but spared by the courts. Some critics say JLo used his clean-up campaign to oust the dos Santos clan and its allies.
A divided party
“In Angola, there is no real fight against corruption but rather an internal struggle between two groups within the MPLA: the one that is currently in power and thinks it has not ‘eaten’ enough in the recent past, and the one that was in charge in the past and is accused by the former of having helped itself more than it did,” argued lawyer Sérgio Raimundo at the beginning of July.
He is defending, in particular, two former close friends of Dos Santos, generals Leopoldo Fragoso do Nascimento “Dino” and Manuel Hélder Vieira Dias “Kopelipa”. If his statement should, therefore, be taken with a grain of salt, it is still evidence of a deep malaise shaking the party in power.
Even if the party will again play its role as an electoral machine at the end of August, the presidential camp appears more divided than ever. Despite the call for unity after the death of Dos Santos, the tug of war between his family and the presidency over the organisation of a national funeral illustrated the difficulty for Lourenço to take on the legacy of his predecessor and the impossibility of making it a springboard for the future. The last pitfall: despite the official discourse and his military roots, Angola’s current strongman is less and less immune to criticism from within his camp.
Pressure is increasing as social discontent mounts, led by a reinvigorated opposition and civil society organisations that have become more experienced, capable of organising polls on voting intentions for example.
The fear of expressing discontent is receding, asshown by a video circulating on social networks. It shows a man using a ladder to reach the top of a lamppost. Once up there, he takes down the MPLA flag that was flying in the wind, leaving the UNITA flag, to the applause of passers-by – in the middle of the street – in broad daylight. It is a scene unthinkable a few years ago. It is also to this underlying but real discontent that Lourenço faces.
Previously, he was walking on a tightrope; now he seems to be on the ropes.
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