Changing of the guard
Defence minister João Manuel Gonçalves Lourenço will lead Angola’s ruling party to general elections against the backdrop of a sickly oil-based economy and regular revelations about corruption amongst the country’s top elite. Long-serving President José Eduardo dos Santos said he will make good on his promise to step down, but will do so a year earlier than planned, and chose Lourenço – a party loyalist he trusts – to manage the transition so as not to hurt his family’s grip on power.
As a former Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola (MPLA) secretary general and veteran of the liberation struggle, Lourenço is seen as a unifying figure and a man hard to intimidate. He is making the fight against corruption, which he describes as “an evil that corrodes” society, his rallying cry, and says he will end impunity for those responsible. If he follows through, that would put him at odds with the high-ranking Angolan officials involved in the multibillion-dollar collapse of Banco Espírito Santo Angola in 2014, to name but one example.
Dos Santos’s children – particularly Isabel, the head of national oil company Sonangol, and José Filomeno, chairman of Angola’s sovereign wealth fund –are in positions of authority, and vested interests will fight back against changes in the status quo. It is unlikely that Lourenço will be able to change the structures and culture, so he may open up a longer and more significant transition.
“We are heading into a situation where, for the first time in many years, it’s hard to know exactly how things will play out,” says Rafael Marques de Morais, an Angolan journalist and anti-corruption campaigner. “There is a new level of uncertainty.”
Angola is due to hold a general election in August. Under the terms of its 2010 constitution, the president and vice-president are chosen from the top of the list of the party that wins the most parliamentary votes. Thus, should the MPLA win – as is expected, given the benefits of incumbency and government ability to restrict the political space – Lourenço will become the new president, with Bornito de Sousa, the minister of territorial administration, as his vice-president.
Soviet-educated Lourenço is an MPLA stalwart with a distinguished military career and many years of experience in public office. He has served as MPLA secretary general and first vice-president of the national assembly, was named defence minister in 2014, and then vice-president of the MPLA in the second half of 2016. He spent quite some time in the political wilderness after publicly supporting Dos Santos’s retirement in the early 2000s when the president was toying with the idea.
“I don’t think we should expect too much from João Lourenço, apart from continuity,” says Søren Kirk Jensen, an associate fellow at the London-based think tank Chatham House. Indeed, while Dos Santos has been dubbed by party propaganda the “architect of peace”, Lourenço, 63, is now being portrayed as the “timoneiro da paz” (helmsman of peace) – in essence, the man to keep the ship on course.
Despite being the continuity candidate, Lourenço also offers a chance for the MPLA to rebrand. The length of Dos Santos’s tenure – which began in 1979 and made him Africa’s second-longest-serving president behind Equatorial Guinea’s Teodoro Obiang Nguema – had become a focal point for his critics, both internal and external. Removing him from the MPLA neutralises this avenue for opposition parties.
Since his candidacy was announced, Lourenço has been working hard to spruce up his somewhat dour public image. In addition to appearing at introductory rallies in different provinces around the country, he has taken to social media – significant in a country where few government ministries have functioning websites.
The 63-year-old’s newly launched Facebook page is full of photographs of the politician smiling and in casual clothes, surrounded by children, and in one case a pet dog. The posts are accompanied by positive messages about feeling “motivated”, “confident” and “happy”.
This attempt by Lourenço to appeal to the ordinary Angolan as a modern everyday man contrasts sharply with the trademark aloofness of Dos Santos, who has made few public appearances during his long rule and seldom speaks off-script or to the media. Lourenço’s public speeches have focussed on “o povo” (the people) and boosting social development.
Graft permeates all levels of society. It has also played a major role in cementing Dos Santos’s rule. Lourenço is set to inherit a tangled web of patronage and a failing economy, and that leaves him little capacity to quench powerful thirsts.
Marques de Morais is skeptical of the new MPLA leader’s commitment to tackling graft. “João Lourenço is no moderniser; he’s your typical political commissar, and very much part of the party machinery, who reads off the official script,” he says. Rejecting suggestions from some analysts that Lourenço may help reform the MPLA, he adds: “We don’t need more discipline or top-down control. What Angola needs is a democrat to build institutions. That is what we lack.”
Supporters point to Lourenço’s early ties to former MPLA secretary general Lopo do Nascimento, who was a strong critic of Dos Santos’s consolidation of power in the presidency, to suggest that he might voluntarily reduce the influence of the president’s office and create more checks and balances. Marques de Morais remains unconvinced: “If Lourenço were a man of integrity, he would have demanded to be elected as leader of the MPLA in an open vote, rather than just accept this appointment, which gives him no legitimacy as a candidate.”
Lourenço’s most-pressing challenge in the short-term will be to ensure the MPLA secures enough votes to maintain its parliamentary majority. Then he must set about trying to rescue Angola’s sinking economy in order to create jobs for an increasingly disaffected and vocal youth.
Six parties and a coalition will take on the MPLA in the general election, although only a handful of these are expected to score enough votes to secure seats in parliament. The União Nacional para a Independência Total de Angola (UNITA), the MPLA’s former civil war adversary, remains the largest opposition party with 32 parliamentary seats. It hopes to exploit dissatisfaction with the economy and social conditions to grow its influence.
It will face stiff competition from Convergência Ampla de Salvação de Angola-Coligação Eleitoral (CASA-CE), led by the charismatic Abel Chivukuvuku. The former UNITA man defected to form a new party just months before the 2012 election and from nowhere won 6% of the vote and eight places in the national assembly. Chivukuvuku is popular among urban youth and could attract frustrated middle-class MPLA voters, but his coalition lacks the grassroots networks and resources of the larger party.
Both CASA-CE and UNITA will struggle to make their voices heard above the MPLA, which is loudly promoted by the state-owned media and has a hegemonic grip on all the economy and state institutions, as well as permeating arts, culture and sport.
Allegations that the MPLA is meddling with electoral processes for its own ends have already begun to surface, and few have faith in the integrity of the voting system or the judicial apparatus in place to hold it to account.