24 August 2017

Angola: Elections - Different Name, Same Game for Civil Society?

opinion

Over the last 38 years, particularly since the end of the civil war in 2002, President Dos Santos has ruled Angola through securitisation of the society, repressing all dissent and restricting freedom of expression, association and assembly. Will space for civil participation open up after one of Africa's longest serving rulers leaves power following elections this week?

For many Angolans and observers, yesterday's general elections offered both a historic new start and sadly, more of the same.

Angolan civil society, which has suffered government repression for years, might regard this moment as an opportunity for a new leader to introduce reforms to allow for greater citizen participation in decision-making. But by the looks of it, that is likely to be an opportunity missed.

After almost four decades in power, President José Eduardo Dos Santos announced several months before the elections that he would be making way for a newly-elected president. But he will still have a hand in Angola's affairs. While the nation will welcome a new head of state in the next few days, Dos Santos will remain head of the Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) party until 2022 and will continue to influence the economic and political direction Angola will take. Ahead of the elections, he ensured his family's grip on strategic economic areas by appointing his daughter chief executive of the massive state oil company, Sonangol, while his son retains control of Angola's $5-billion Sovereign Wealth Fund, funded by oil revenue from Sonagol.

The MPLA's presidential candidate and the president's chosen successor is the current defence minister, 74-year-old João Lourenço - a key ally who is expected to shield Dos Santos from prosecution and protect his family's vast business interests if he wins as expected.

On the political front, Dos Santos' plans to ensure continuity rather than change are evident in the new electoral registration policy that transferred control of voter registration from the independent elections commission to the Ministry of Territorial Administration. The ministry is headed by Bornito de Sousa, a key Dos Santos ally, MPLA loyalist and vice-presidential candidate. The implication was that the MPLA and current government could have used the voter registration process to influence the outcome of the elections. In February 2017, Angolans expressed serious concerns over this and called on Bornito de Sousa to resign in order to guarantee transparency in the voters roll and the poll.

For civil society, the pre-election period was especially challenging. The run-up was characterised by increased restrictions on freedom of assembly and expression, as well as on citizens' ability to raise concerns over the lack of transparency in the electoral process. This month, global civil society alliance, CIVICUS, placed Angola on a Watch List of countries with serious and on going threats to civic space. The CIVICUS Monitor, an online tool that tracks threats to civil society across the globe, rates Angola's civic space as "repressed."

On 12 August, just days before the elections, the Ministry of Interior banned demonstrations by organisations and groups not running in polls. The reason given was that such protests could clash with the activities of political parties and pose a security risk to the electoral process.

In April, seven demonstrating activists who were demanding greater transparency ahead of and during the elections were detained in the capital, Luanda. They were charged with resisting the authorities and rebellion. Two months later, riot police violently broke up peaceful demonstrations led by the Lunda Tchokwe Protectorate Movement. One person was killed, 13 others injured and more than 70 detained. The protesters had called for an end to arbitrary detentions and unwarranted prosecutions of individuals associated with the Tchokwe Movement and for the authorities to grant greater autonomy to the region.

Since the start of the 2011 Arab Spring, the Dos Santos regime has moved to crush all protests, irrespective of size, out of fear that one protest can spark a mass movement with calls for reforms and regime change.

The media has also not been spared. In June, renowned human rights defender and journalist Rafael Marques de Morais was indicted for crimes of "outrage to a body sovereignty" and "injury against public authority" under the law on crimes against the state and the Penal Code. The charges stemmed from a 2016 article by Rafael, which described the dubious circumstances under which the Angola's Attorney General purchased land in 2011. Journalist Mariano Lourenco was also indicted on the same charges for re-publishing the story. The prosecutions are certain to have a chilling effect on such reporting and in these circumstances, another MPLA victory is most certainly guaranteed.

Over the last 38 years, particularly since the end of the civil war in 2002, President Dos Santos has ruled Angola through the securitisation of the society, repressing all dissent and restricting freedom of expression, association and assembly. Will space for civil participation open up after one of Africa's longest serving rulers leaves power? Judging from tightened restrictions on fundamental freedoms ahead of these elections, Dos Santos' continued control of the MPLA and his appointment of João Lourenço as his replacement, the answer is: not likely - at least, not in the short term.

But even in face of continued repression, there will surely be further protests after the transition, calling for democratic and economic reforms, the opening of civic space and demands from human rights defenders and journalists for accountability from the new leadership.

There is an urgent need to lift these restrictions, reverse the economic crisis, open up the economy to ordinary Angolans, implement economic and political reforms and find lasting solutions to insecurity in the provinces of Cabinda and Ludas. The 23 August elections could have been an opportunity to facilitate a political transition and usher much needed changes after 38 years of the Dos Santos regime. But sadly for Angolans when the next president is sworn in, it might just be a case of the more things change, the more they stay the same.

* DAVID KODE is Head of Campaigns and Advocacy at global civil society alliance, CIVICUS.

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