Angola is following a pattern of gradual democratization but those hoping for rapid and or even radical political change will be disappointed.
After sending signals of his plans to retire from politics for nearly a year, Angola's president, Jose Eduardo dos Santos-the second-longest-ruling leader in Africa-announced earlier this month that he will step down at the end of his current mandate and not run in August elections. That will bring an end to a presidency that began in 1979, when Jimmy Carter was in the White House. The transition from dos Santos' rule is the most significant political event in Angola since its independence from Portugal in 1974, and comes at a time of deep economic and social crisis in the oil-rich country.
For months, it seemed like Angola's governing party, the People's Movement for the Liberation of Angola, better known as the MPLA, would drag its feet on making the decision official. In March 2016, dos Santos announced his intentions to leave active politics in 2018. Those plans seemed on track last August when he went through the routine of being elected as president of the MPLA at its party congress. The bigger news at the time was the selection of the minister of defence, General Joao Lourenco, as vice president, which sent a strong signal of his rising profile within a party that dos Santos has controlled for decades.
Rumours spread on Angolan social media in December that dos Santos' plans had changed and that rather than waiting until 2018, he would not run in August. A document leaked and circulated on Twitter suggested that the transition process was being sped up and that Lourenco would run in dos Santos' place, with the minister for territorial administration, Bornito de Sousa, as his running mate. But still nothing was confirmed publicly.
Dos Santo's official announcement in early February, then, was the culmination of what now seems like a phased approach to introduce Lourenco as his heir apparent. In theory, the MPLA could have held back the announcement until June, the deadline for political parties to issue their list of electoral candidates. But dragging the succession saga on that far could have damaged both the MPLA and the Angolan government, fueling speculation about political plotting behind the scenes and adding unnecessary uncertainty to what will already be a major challenge for the country.
The clarity is good news, in many ways. It suggests a level of maturity within the MPLA, which has ruled Angola since its independence. That should help guide a peaceful transition from dos Santos, avoiding the emergence of a power vacuum and the risk of political infighting. The risk of instability following a sudden transition had increased substantially over the past decade, which saw an ever-growing concentration of power in the hands of the president, making the vacant position even more attractive to aspiring politicians.
The fact that a candidate has been chosen from within the party ranks, avoiding a dynastic transition to one of dos Santos' children, suggests that internal checks and balances may be stronger than many believed. While this process has unfolded strictly behind the scenes, there are indications that the old guard and real powerbrokers of the party had grown increasingly weary of dos Santos' appointments of family members to key positions. After his son, Jose Filomeno dos Santos, became the head of Angola's sovereign wealth fund and his daughter, Isabel dos Santos, the head of the state-owned oil company, the old guard shut the door for further political advancement of close family members.
As the process unfolds, it is clear that Angola is following the pattern of gradual democratization from other governments in Southern Africa headed by former liberation parties that led the armed struggle for independence from colonial powers. In Mozambique, for example, presidential candidates are typically chosen based on a negotiated process between different factions of the ruling party, resulting in a compromise candidate.
Lourenco seems very much like this kind of candidate. His party credentials are impeccable, having joined Angola's armed struggle for independence in 1974 and later holding numerous positions, including governor of two provinces. He has a solid relationship with Angola's powerful generals, and he is married to Ana Afonso Dias Lourenco, who served for many years as the minister of planning and is currently the executive director of the board of the World Bank Group. As a political moderate with the ability to bridge divides between different factions, he can hopefully keep an internal power struggle from emerging. Although he is close to dos Santos, he is not expected to be merely a puppet, even if dos Santos remains in control of the MPLA for now.
But those hoping for rapid and or even radical political change in Angola under Lourenco will be disappointed. While his reputation on corruption is remarkably clean, Lourenco is unlikely to scrutinize the way many members of the Angolan political and economic elite have amassed personal wealth over the past decades' oil-fueled economic bonanza. His running mate, de Sousa, shares some of these attributes, if not to the same degree. The main loser in the transition seems to be the current vice president, Manuel Vicente, who is believed to have been sidelined over his implication in a corruption probe in Portugal.
Should the MPLA win the elections in August, as expected, Lourenco faces two overarching challenges to managing the transition from dos Santos' 38 years in power. The first relates to oil-dependent Angola's other major transition: attempting to wean itself off oil and get out of a deep economic crisis.
Dos Santos' announcement sent an important signal about continuity and stability, which should help calm many international companies doing business in Angola and may even lead to more foreign investment. But there is still a long way to go. With oil prices remaining stubbornly below the $50-a-barrel mark, Angola's macroeconomic outlook remains highly constrained. Growth is expected to pick up slowly to 1.3 per cent in 2017, after being flat in 2016. Year-on-year inflation is above 40 per cent, while the difference between the official exchange rate and the one on the black market is around 200 per cent, despite significant currency devaluation. There is a desperate need to increase the efficiency of government spending by tackling mismanagement and deeply entrenched corruption.
This would help address the second major challenge: improving social conditions in order to reduce poverty. The vast majority of Angolans benefited only marginally, if at all, from the economic boom of the past two decades. Infant mortality rates remain among the highest in the world, and the quality of education is poor. In Luanda, the urban middle class that has gradually emerged is under increasingly severe economic pressure. Worsening social and economic conditions will lead to more disenfranchisement and dissatisfaction with the government. If not addressed, this poverty and discontent could lead to social and political unrest, undermining any government plans for a smooth transition from dos Santos, no matter the outcome of elections this summer.
This article was originally published by World Politics Review.
Soren Kirk Jensen
Associate Fellow, Africa Programme