External Affairs

Angola at a Crossroads

The death of the old MPLA revolutionary Lucio Lara, the announcement by President do Santos that he will step down in 2018 and the escalating health crisis are shaping the country’s political and economic future in uncertain ways.

The Cidade Alta in Luanda, Angola, stretches along a ridge lined by pink colonial buildings including the president's and archbishop's palaces. Credit: David Stanley/Flickr CC 2.0

The Cidade Alta in Luanda, Angola, stretches along a ridge lined by pink colonial buildings including the president’s and archbishop’s palaces. Credit: David Stanley/Flickr CC 2.0

There’s a lot going on in the oil-rich southern African nation of Angola. The Western media has extensively covered the trial and detention of the so-called book club – really a civic activists study group on protest – and the imprisonment of Cabinda activist Marcos Mavungo to the exclusion of other questions. The 15+2 activists, as the book club is known, and Mavungo highlighted economic mismanagement and corruption in their critiques of the government. Meanwhile, a related crisis – the government’s navigation of the ongoing economic crisis caused by the price of oil plummeting with no prospect of resurgence any time soon – has received less attention outside of the business press. That is, until the government bowed its head and requested assistance from the IMF last month.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights enshrines economic rights – like the right to an adequate standard of living and to work. Yet most human rights organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch opt for focusing on political rights – freedom of political expression, freedom of association and assembly. That may be why we don´t hear much in the international press about the economic crisis that squeezes daily life for ordinary Angolans more than politics does.

Three other events since the beginning of 2016, equally as important as political human rights issues, are also shaping the political scene and refracting the economic crisis in Angola.

The first is the passing, on February 27, of Lúcio Lara, an historic leader of the ruling MPLA during the country’s armed struggle against Portugese colonialism and in the first decade of independence. Lara was considered the successor to the country’s first president, Agostino Neto, who died in 1979, but stepped aside so current president, Jose Eduardo dos Santos, could take charge. Lara, who frequently clashed with profligate MPLA leaders, effectively retired from politics when the MPLA made the transition from Marxism to neoliberalism in the late 1980s.

Lucio Lara the revolutionary, seen here in this undated photograph. Credit: ANGPOP

Lucio Lara the revolutionary, seen here in this undated photograph. Credit: ANGPOP

Eulogies proliferated upon Lara’s death. Many Angolans and interested observers read these as critiques of the current regime.

The political scientist and long time Angola analyst, Gerald Bender, noted that Lara was known as “o duro” (a hardliner to Washington, hard to keep in line to Moscow, hardcore in terms of his discipline within the MPLA). Mostly, Bender opined, he was a strong nationalist.

Reginaldo Silva pointed to the ongoing racial issues in the MPLA that caused Lara to step away from leadership (and propelled dos Santos to the front), when he, Lara, was an obvious successor to Neto. He also recalled his role in the repression and the political narrowing that followed the 27 de Maio. Both questions inflect current political and social life.

Lara was also a dedicated leftist. His exit from politics, leaving the MPLA’s main decision making body, the political bureau in 1985, but remaining a member of its central committee, coincided with the transition to a market-driven economic strategy controlled by the party leadership. While Silva points to his distancing from the party as early as 1982 (in what he calls dos Santos’s first house cleaning), Lara remained an icon of the struggle. Journalists, foreign researchers, and the intelligentsia continued to gravitate to him.

If, as according to Silva, absence defined Lara´s political life in the last 30 years, a great part of Lara’s legacy is his archive – a form of historical presence – kept by the Associação Tchiweka (Lara’s nom de guerre). Before succumbing to illness, Lara committed his time to organising his archive and publishing three books of documents related to the struggle for independence. He mobilised the evidence of the past to press against the encroaching new narrative and inversion of priorities.

This is the Lúcio Lara that clings to popular memory. Sergio Piçarra’s daily comic in Rede Angola captured it best. That is, the contrast between the old and the new MPLA (doctrinaire Marxism-Leninism versus a capital-friendly, oligarch-building politics) that so many articulated in their eulogies; or, Lara’s singular discipline and uprightness compared to the blurred lines of politics and economic interests, the lack of ethics, and not so up-standing behavior of today’s leadership.

This brings us to the second event of consequence: President Dos Santos´s announcement on March 11 that he will step down in 2018. Angolan writer José Eduardo Agualusa summed up the contradictions in this move in an interview with Cape Verdean radio Morabeza:

We have elections in 2017. What does this mean? If there are indeed elections, he doesn’t know if he will win or lose, so how can he say he’ll leave in 2018? …..On the other hand, if he wins, he will leave just after he’s won? That also doesn’t make any sense because it lets down those who voted for him.

The announcement has renewed the debate about succession. Given that the assumption is that the MPLA will win the elections, who will be vice president? The current VP, Manuel Vicente (former head of the national oil company Sonangol) is in hot water, his face splashed across the international media for bribing a Portuguese prosecutor investigating a corruption case against him. The other much-touted option is José Filomeno dos Santos, or Zenu, one of the president’s sons and the head of Angola’s Sovereign Wealth Fund.

There’s not much news coming from the sovereign fund, of late, as the price of oil is less than half of what it was when the fund was formed to help leverage oil wealth to diversify the economy and stabilize Angola’s future. That said, it has crossed the Panama Papers radar and from that vantage point, it looks like little diversification and much diversion of funds has taken place.

Then there’s the horrendous condition of state hospitals in Angola – the main news story in Angola in late March. A petition from central Angola suggested the state take monies from the sovereign fund to help remedy the situation.

In the meantime, hundreds, if not thousands, of Angolans have made donations of medical supplies, purchased in local pharmacies at (anecdotally) reasonable prices (something for example that is not the case with food these days) to stanch the hemorrhaging. Angola is hit with an epidemic of yellow fever and a spike in malaria cases. Already chronically under-funded, under-staffed, and under-resourced neighbourhood hospitals are sending more patients to the central city hospitals. One friend who dropped a donation at the David Bernadino pediatric hospital said it “smelled like death.”

A new minister of health, Dr. Luis Sambo (former WHO Regional Director for Africa), widely praised, has been welcomed with this disaster. $4 million went missing from the Global Fund via the Health Ministry. In the 2016 national annual budget, defence received as much as education and health combined, suggesting that this problem, while not intractable, will not be easy or quick to resolve.

High-rise buildings are seen behind informal settlements in the capital of Luanda, in this file photo. Credit: REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

High-rise buildings are seen behind informal settlements in the capital of Luanda, in this file photo. Credit: REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

Meanwhile, the ‘book club’ group of 15+2 received their sentences on March 28: judgments ranging from 2 to 8 years in jail (Domingos da Cruz, the supposed leader got 8 years). While it would be an exaggeration to say, as Angola´s diplomat-at-large, António Luvualu has, that 99% of Angolans, unlike the Western media and observers, don´t care, many Angolans have a broader set of concerns. They are worrying about where to find sugar, how much cassava flour costs, and how to afford and find the medical supplies required for treatment in dilapidated health facilities. They also care about political expression. And they vote. It’s safe to say that the MPLA has not delivered on any part of its 2012 campaign slogan “grow more to distribute better.”

The international press largely focuses on Luaty Beirão, as the face of the 15+2. Meanwhile, the prisoner Nuno Dala went on a hunger strike (protesting the fact that his ATM card has not been returned to his family who has no access to money), in a wheel chair, surviving on a drip and Osvaldo Canholo has threatened suicide in protest of the poor prison conditions. Dala ended his hunger at the end of April.

In championing a flat notion of political human rights, the international press erases the careful work these activists have done to build bridges across the divides of the centre city and musseque, across differences of race, class, ethnicity, and education. To a degree, they play into the state’s argument that they are being fomented by outside forces. Until we can see the whole picture – social, economic, political – of contemporary Angola, it will be hard to understand why this case has generated so much discontent in Angola.

Marissa J. Moorman is a professor of history at Indiana University, Bloomington