tightrope act

Angola’s President João Lourenço tries to pull off a tricky balancing act

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This article is part of the dossier:

João Lourenço’s Angola

By Estelle Maussion

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Posted on May 11, 2021 10:21

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President Joao Lourenco, Thursday, April 4, 2019. (AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin, Pool)

With a year to go until Angola holds general elections, the country’s head of state is in a tight spot. At the helm of a crisis-plagued country and a divided ruling party, will President João Lourenço be able to keep the situation from spinning out of control?

This is part 2 of a 6-part series

A leopard cannot change its spots, the saying goes. In Angola, João Lourenço is that leopard. The 67-year-old president is four years into his term, after taking the reins from José Eduardo dos Santos in 2017.

Belonging to the same political party as his predecessor, the Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola (MPLA), Lourenço is a pure product of the system. After previous roles as secretary general of the MPLA (1998-2003) and as defence minister (2014-2017), he found a way to cast himself as a beacon of change, promising to do away with Dos Santos’s brand of governance built on political authoritarianism and the opaque management of public finances.

But as the years go by, and despite getting off to a good start, President Lourenço has increasingly struggled to set himself apart from Dos Santos against the backdrop of an economic crisis made worse by the Covid-19 pandemic. The situation has put him in a particularly tight spot a year ahead of general elections, which will be held in 2022.

End of a honeymoon phase?

Were the early days of Lourenço’s term just another honeymoon phase? Within days of taking up residence in the Cidade Alta, the district that houses the presidential palace, Luanda’s new leader played the change card hard. His anti-corruption crusade made an impact at home and abroad, while his approach to the presidency elicited an equal amount of enthusiasm.

Going completely against the Dos Santos grain, Lourenço put his greater openness on display in a variety of ways, such as by granting many long interviews with the media (something his predecessor categorically refused), actively communicating on social media (virtually unheard of before), allowing demonstrations (mostly dispersed in the past) and taking into account the views of civil society groups and even dissenting voices.

These are impressive feats for a former soldier who completed his training at a military academy in the USSR and whose round face belies his stern, rather reserved demeanour. The public is elated with the new tone set by the president, feeling freer to speak their minds – and it seems like there is no going back.

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