from PEDRO AGOSTO in Luanda, Angola
LUANDA, (CAJ News) – ANGOLA ought to be celebrating an iconic year of peace as 2022 marks 20 years to the end of the longest-running civil war in the continent.
Yet, political temperatures are rising as the Southern African country heads to what will possibly be the closest poll since the advent of multi-party democracy.
The fifth poll since the demise of the one-party system in 1991 is set for August.
The toxic prevailing atmosphere, characterised by the arrest of pro-democracy protesters calling for free and fair elections, as well as the continued detention of political prisoners, has cast doubt on the holding of credible polls.
In the most recent onslaught against critics of the government of President Joao Lourenco (68), police arrested 22 protesters in the capital, Luanda.
They were demanding the above liberties when the law enforcers, ever accused to be an appendage to the ruling People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), when the police pounced.
Those detained included a mother with her sixth-month-old baby boy.
Human rights groups accused authorities of keeping the detainees in hostile and overcrowded conditions, without food or water.
The Luanda provincial court on April 11 charged the detained protesters with “rioting and disobeying an order to disperse.”
The activists are out on bail.
If found guilty, they could face up to two years in prison or a fine under article 300 of the Angolan Penal Code.
An imprisonment would rule them out of participation in elections.
The activists had gathered to march against the detention of political prisoners and to call for free and fair elections.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) argued the Angolan police are showing their longstanding disregard for basic rights by arresting and detaining peaceful protesters.
“The Angolan authorities should drop the charges against the activists and investigate the police’s conduct,” said Zenaida Machado, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch.
The alleged conduct by police is reminiscent of the pre-election period of 2017. Then, police unleashed dogs on activists protesting against the ascension of then territorial administration minister, Bornito de Sousa, to the vice presidency of MPLA.
He would later be the vice president of the country, a position he occupies now.
Protesters alleged that because he was in-charge of the voter registration process for the elections, he would manipulate the intra-party election.
In January this year, ten unarmed protesters were killed when security forces dispersed demonstrations in the northeastern Lunda Norte province.
Protesters had peacefully gathered to demand better public services, including water and electricity supply, in the diamond-rich town of Cafunfu.
More than 20 protesters were injured.
In defending the latest crackdown, a police spokesperson, Nestor Goumel, said the activists in question failed to get approval from the authorities prior to their protest.
Yet, this is not required under Angolan or international law.
Protest organisers said they had notified the authorities in any case.
The violations fly in the face of international praise on president Lourenço’s government for promoting and respecting human rights in Angola, with notable improvements in freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.
Praise was bestowed after president Lourenco, the ex-defence minister, came to power in 2017, succeeding incumbent president Jose Eduardo dos Santos, who had been in power from 1979.
The situation changed in October 2020 when Lourenco, as part of measures to control the spread of COVID-19, issued a decree banning all public gatherings of more than five people.
Critics questioned the timing of the ban, coming just before a planned demonstration organized by activists and the main opposition, National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA).
The ban also triggered a nationwide strike by taxi drivers. In addition to their protest to COVID-19 restrictions, they demonstrated against the poor state of roads and demanded social security benefits.
Unidentified people assaulted some journalists covering protests.
In this year’s elections, the opposition’s prospects of wresting power from MPLA seem brighter than ever since the country attained independence from Portugal in 1975.
The governing party will face what on paper is a formidable opposition.
UNITA is part of the Frente Patriotica Unida (FPU or United Patriotic Front), the new opposition coalition.
UNITA has joined forces with fellow opposition parties, Democratic Bloc (BD) and political project, Angolan Renaissance Party – Together for Angola (PRA-JA Servir Angola).
While this is not the first time that a coalition has been formed (the Broad Convergence for the Salvation of Angola- Electoral Coalition (CASA-CE)) was formed in 2012 and currently consists of four political parties), it is the first time UNITA has joined a coalition.
“It indicates that several things have changed,” stated Marisa Lourenço, analyst at Control Risks.
“First, UNITA realises it cannot challenge the MPLA alone,” the expert added.
She noted UNITA recognised that after at least five years of economic decline in Angola, described as one of the most unequal societies in the world, it had a chance to translate popular grievances into electoral gains.
“And third, its leadership under Adalberto Costa-Júnior is transforming it into a more strategically-minded political organisation in tune with the reality on the ground,” analyst Lourenco said.
The poll is thus projected to be a two-horse race between the incumbent president Lourenco and coalition candidate Costa-Júnior (59).
MPLA and UNITA have been rivals since independence.
The outbreak of a civil war soon after self-rule delayed the first post-independence elections until 1980.
Polls in 1980 and 1986 were under one-party state.
At the end of the civil war in 1991, a multi-party democracy was introduced. There were subsequent elections in 1992, 2008, 2012 and 2017.
However, UNITA’s Jonas Savimbi rejected the 1992 outcome and a runoff, which restarted the deadly civil war in the southern African nation.
It ended in 2002 following Savimbi’s death during combat.
Calm has prevailed since then, before the heavy-handed crackdown on protests.
Lourenco came to power on a campaign premised on fighting corruption and delivering “an economic miracle.”
Fortunes have been mixed.
Critics have denounced the blitz on corruption as a witch-hunt targeting sympathizers of dos Santos and his family.
The economy has been in crisis, attributed to the COVID-19 and the unpredictable oil industry globally.
Angola’s economy is overly reliant on oil. It is Africa’s second-largest producer of crude oil, after Nigeria.
The nation of 34,7 million people is experiencing its worst drought in 40 years. Since January 2021, an estimated 3,81 million people have been without sufficient food for consumption.
This is an increase of 138 percent from 2020.
The International Monetary Fund (IMF) projects the economy to rebound, with 3,4 percent in gross domestic product (GDP) growth in 2022.
Lourenco, the analyst, noted popular frustration was almost certain to translate into more frequent civil unrest.
“We advise caution, not only in the run-up to the elections, but in the weeks after it, as opposition parties could continue to drive protests in the likely event of an MPLA win,” she said.
On Saturday, president Lourenço launched MPLA’s pre-electoral campaign in the northern Cabinda.
“More Ambition, Audacity in the Search for Solutions to the People’s Problems to Achieve Progress and Development” is the ruling party’s motto.
President Lourenco highlighted infrastructure in the education and health sectors as well as the creation of jobs among others are highlights of his first term.
He announced the imminent handover of the headquarters of the National Electoral Commission (CNE) and the National Scrutiny Centre to the relevant organisations.
“For the first time in history, the residents abroad can exercise their constitutional right in the general elections in August,” president Lourenco added.
– CAJ News