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

In depth
This article is part of the dossier: João Lourenço’s Angola

By Estelle Maussion
Posted on Tuesday, 11 May 2021 12:21

Russia Angola
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.

The ultimate climax came a short time later and in two parts. At the presidential palace in late 2018, President Lourenço hosted two opposition figures whom Dos Santos never much cared for: rapper Luaty Beirão and journalist Rafael Marques. One year later, Marques was awarded a medal of merit for his anti-corruption work.

Photos of Lourenço shaking hands with such guests in the gilded and marble opulence of the presidential palace captured meetings that would have been unthinkable in the Dos Santos era.

President João Lourenço meets with anti-corruption activist Rafael Marques at the presidential palace in Luanda, Angola, 5 December 2018. © AMPE ROGERIO /EPA/MaxPP

In 2019, Lourenço sent another strong signal, this time directed at the União Nacional para a Independência Total de Angola, or UNITA, the leading opposition party as well as the MPLA’s nemesis. Honouring a long-standing request, one that Dos Santos had always refused to carry out, Lourenço agreed to hand over the former UNITA leader Jonas Savimbi’s remains, which were transported from the eastern town of Luena, where he was killed by MPLA forces in 2002, to his home village of Andulo, in southern Angola.

The mission was accomplished in June 2019 and, as a symbolic and political gesture, it cemented the president’s reputation as a leader open to dialogue and ready to put the past behind him.

New problems, old habits

But things quickly went south. In 2020, as problems piled up – the economic crisis (Angola’s GDP contracted by 5.1% in 2020, its fifth consecutive year of recession), the Covid-19 pandemic (17,000 cases and 400 deaths were reported by the end of 2020), criticism of the selectiveness of those targeted by the anti-corruption crusade, growing discontent within the MPLA and deteriorating social conditions – President Lourenço reverted to old habits.

Demonstrations, which occurred with greater frequency in the last quarter of the year, took the most visible hit, with the government waging violent crackdowns. By early December, Amnesty International had denounced the authorities’ response to the demonstrations, describing security forces as “using disproportionate and unnecessary force, including unlawful killings, to disperse protests and tackle breaches of state of emergency regulations imposed to stem the spread of Covid-19”.

As 2021 got under way, the situation grew more tense.

On 30 January, clashes between demonstrators and the Angolan police in Cafunfo, a town in the diamond-rich, northern province of Lunda Norte, killed at least six people, sparking an outcry in the country and concern on the part of international observers, including the EU.

The transfer of the remains of Jonas Savimbi on 1 June 2019. RODGER BOSCH/AFP

Though further investigation is needed into the circumstances surrounding the incident, the violence triggered a wave of criticism against Lourenço, not unlike the sort directed at Dos Santos in the past.

Despite the urgency of the situation, the president was slow to address the matter publicly, waiting until early March. Moreover, he sided with the police – even though their version of events was disputed by protesters – and condemned the incident as an “attack against the Angolan state” before the investigation had reached any conclusions.

Censorship and politicised justice?

“Once the honeymoon period ended, we realised that the government is still using the same Soviet-era tactics, namely a mix of political suppression and propaganda,” said Carlos Rosado, a prominent economist who has firsthand experience in this area.

In October 2020, for the first time in his career, he was prohibited from being able to air a report on TV Zimbo, a once-private television station that fell into the hands of the state as part of a process to recover illegally acquired assets, covering a touchy subject: the alleged conflicts of interest of the president’s chief of staff, Edeltrudes Costa.

While Lourenço has denied any interference in the channel’s reporting, the media’s coverage – especially that of the newspaper Jornal de Angola – of the president has been excessively glowing ever since. And when the head of Angola’s statistics office, the Instituto Nacional de Estatistica, resigned after reportedly refusing to manipulate data in the way the government wanted, it had a chilling effect on the scientific community. There is also a nagging suspicion that justice is politicised, though Lourenço, as Dos Santos before him, rejects this idea.

“This presidency is different from the last, but it’s clear that it’s becoming harder to distinguish between the two,” said Beirão. The rapper believes that the president’s communication strategy is partially to blame, with “less and less tweets over time, poor timing and a systematic avoidance of negative topics”.

As a result, despite the apparent enthusiasm and “courageousness” that some attach to Lourenço, he is struggling to embody and generalise a new form of governance. On the political side of things, while the MPLA’s relations with the opposition are more constructive than in the past, the president has had a hard time scoring wins.

According to our sources, he postponed, citing the pandemic, the country’s first-ever local elections. The holding of such elections is something of a recurring issue going back to the Dos Santos era and one that Lourenço promised he would fix.

An MPLA in disarray

To shut down his critics, the president announced last March his plans for a “one-off” revision of Angola’s constitution. The overhaul would include, to be sure, some important measures, as it makes it mandatory to hold general elections on a fixed date, clarifies the relationship between the executive and legislative branches and enshrines the independence of Angola’s central bank, but opposition parties and civil society groups were largely disappointed with the proposed reforms.

On a more mundane, but highly symbolic note, a garbage collection crisis in Luanda that left the capital inundated with mountains of trash at the end of 2020 through early 2021 serves to illustrate the challenge of implementing a modern waste management system.

Facing unpaid debts, local leaders terminated the city’s existing contracts with waste collection companies but failed to complete the tender process for selecting the new operators on schedule, leaving it to the military to clean the streets.

Lourenço’s primary concern, however, lies with his own party, the MPLA. Central to his power, the independence movement-turned-political-party is currently in disarray. While one would expect the party’s members to ardently support the president’s agenda, many of them are displeased with his much vaunted anti-corruption efforts, fearing that their own political careers are being put on the line.

And though Lourenço has been calling for more openness and debate, he comes from a party grounded in Marxism and that continues to have a highly top-down structure, retaining the authoritarian modus operandi for which it has always been known. The president himself is hesitant to permanently close the door on the MPLA’s old ways over concerns that the party could spin out of control.

After allowing two candidates to run to head up the MPLA’s youth wing, known as the JMPLA, which resulted in the election of a hopeful who didn’t have the party’s backing, Lourenço and the MPLA set things right in the following election, this time for the party’s women’s league, or OMA. After two years of campaigning, the OMA’s candidate for the position withdrew from the race so that the MPLA could select a different person.

Though the MPLA denies it, the situation within the party is highly explosive and unpredictable.

From abroad, the Dos Santos family is leading an offensive, as the former president’s two daughters, Isabel and Tchizé, have become out-and-out objectors.

Isabel, aided by an army of law firms and PR agencies, is waging a war in the courts, while Tchizé is using social media to reach out to Angolans and whip up social discontent.

While Angolans who are disaffected with the MPLA keep a low profile, they aren’t exceedingly rare. Some of them are worried about their future, while others are disappointed in Lourenço or lament the party’s divided state.

At risk of becoming isolated

If Lourenço is to come out on top, he has to show himself to be a strategist, like the seasoned politician and chess aficionado that he is. Caught in the crossfire of warring sides, the president runs the risk of becoming isolated. The instability of his administration and government, with dismissals occurring frequently and officials playing musical chairs, demonstrates that he has a lack of dependable partners and often improvises to keep control of the situation.

READ MORE Angola: on the trail of stolen billions

This minefield is compounded by public resentment and the opposition’s first-time decision to form a united front during the 2022 elections. “JLo” is undoubtedly already looking ahead to this key date, as his party, though deeply divided, has become a master of the art of managing an election. Until then, however, the president will be walking on eggshells.

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