Angola: João Lourenço put to the test by Adalberto Costa Júnior

By Estelle Maussion
Posted on Tuesday, 23 August 2022 08:59

Adalberto Costa Júnior and João Lourenço.
Adalberto Costa Júnior and João Lourenço. © Montage JAMG : Julio Pacheco Ntela/AFP ; Minasse Wondimu Hailu Anadolu Agency via AFP

Angolan President João Lourenço is up for re-election for a second term on 24 August. He is facing a popular opponent, Adalberto Costa Júnior, who is uniting those who are dissatisfied with the regime.

Although there are eight candidates in the 24 August general elections in Angola, it remains a duel between João Lourenço, leader of the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), and Adalberto Costa Júnior, head of the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (Unita).

The first, outgoing president and successor to José Eduardo dos Santos, intends to ensure that his camp, which has ruled Angola since independence in 1975, remains in power.

The second candidate, a charismatic outsider who is surfing on the growing social discontent, wants to snatch power.

Lourenço appeals to “the strength of the people”, while Costa Júnior says “the time has come”, according to their respective campaign slogans. The tug of war between these two camps – liberation movements VS partisan forces – is a constant in Angolan politics.

In the end, it has always been the MPLA that has won, but each time, at a cost to their popularity. The party won 82% of the vote in the 2008 legislative elections, 72% in 2012 and 61% in 2017 in the general elections that make the leader of the leading party the president of the Republic.

Strong campaigning

Since Lourenço came to power in 2017, the domination is no longer so overwhelming, partly due to the reforms undertaken by the executive, but also because of a more seasoned opposition. In other words, for the first time, a favourite whose aura has faded is facing a challenger who is growing bolder.

This adds spice to this year’s election, the fourth since the end of the civil war in 2002.

The last few weeks of campaigning have been tough, with both candidates crossing swords in rallies. Adalberto Costa Júnior, experienced in oratory with the MPLA for having led the deputies of Unita between 2015 and 2019, blasted Lourenço’s governance:

  • The fight against corruption described as a “farce”
  • The inability to reduce unemployment and inequality
  • The slowness of economic reforms
  • The infringement of individual freedoms or intolerance of criticism… His attacks are numerous.

As for the electoral process, according to him, both the current and previous ones lack transparency. “How is it possible to find the name of Jonas Savimbi in the list of voters?” said Costa Júnior, using the presence in the electoral file of the founder of Unita, who died in 2002, and that of “millions of disappeared people” to illustrate the lack of credibility.

In response, President Lourenço said: “The opposition can rest assured that the dead will not rise on the day of the vote.” Recalling that the organisation of the election is being carried out by a multi-party national electoral commission, the former defence minister of dos Santos denounced what he termed as the irresponsibility of Unita that “encourages the population to defy the authorities in order to create instability and confusion”.

Phenomenon of attrition

The MPLA leader then directly attacked his opponent, accusing him of being the puppet of external forces (without specifying which ones) opposed to the interests of the country. In the face of Unita’s criticism, Lourenço emphasised his record – investment in infrastructure, macroeconomic stabilisation, renewed attractiveness to investors – and the courage of his crusade against corruption, pledging to redouble his efforts over the next five years.

The problem is that this pledge has lost its former weight.

Lourenço’s strength lies in his party, Costa Júnior’s in his personality, which explains why he can win votes beyond Unita

The MPLA’s omnipresence in the media is becoming less and less tolerated by the population, and the promise to improve living conditions generates more frustration than hope, especially among the youth.

In addition, the fight against corruption, Lourenço’s promise at the beginning of his mandate, has proved to be counter-productive: It fuels criticism from the opposition, which denounces a selective application of justice, and divides the MPLA, particularly over the fate reserved for the dos Santos clan and its allies.

As a result, the president has multiplied appearances on social networks, increased his inaugurations and hit the road – he was seen in a cycling outfit during a race in Luanda – but he is struggling to fight against a phenomenon of wear and tear.

In contrast, the leader of Unita is on the rise. His profile, a mestizo who did not participate in the fratricidal battles of the past, appeals to young people and contrasts with the image of the authoritarian military heavyweights of Lourenço’s party. A good speaker, Adalberto Costa Júnior is a unifier, having formed a “united patriotic front” with two other groups and taken the other opposition figure, Abel Chivukuvuku, as his number two.

Card to play

“Lourenço’s strength lies in his party, Costa Júnior’s in his personality, which explains why he can win votes beyond Unita,” says a member of civil society. For example, the former prime minister and member of the MPLA, Marcolino Moco, has just expressed his support, while Tchizé dos Santos, one of the daughters of the former Angolan president, has been calling for several weeks to “vote 3”, in reference to the number given to Costa Júnior (8 for Lourenço).

In this context, making a prediction on the outcome of the match is perilous. If Adalberto Costa Júnior has a card to play like never before in Angola’s recent history, João Lourenço has the means, because of his position as president and head of an electoral machine party, to keep control of the situation.

The battle, which started long before the official campaign, promises to continue after polling day.

How will the results be received by the population? How will the executive react to likely challenges? What strategy will Unita adopt?

Until now, it has always contested the results before finally taking a seat in the National Assembly once its appeals were rejected and the election validated by the courts. With three days to go before the vote, the fate of the oil giant of 30 million inhabitants (14 million voters) could change. It remains to be seen in which direction.

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