Young Angolan voters prepare to call for change in ‘existential’ election | Angola

Millions of Angolans will vote this week in a historic election described as an “existential moment” for the main oil-rich central African state and a test for democracy in part of the continent.

Wednesday’s poll pits seasoned politicians against a generation of young voters who are just beginning to understand they can bring about dramatic change and escape the shadow of the Cold War.

Observers say dissatisfaction with the power of the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), in power since Angola declared independence from Portugal in 1975, has reached a point where the party no longer can only get five more years in power through rigging and repression.

“It’s an existential election, and it’s going to be a very close race. If there were free and fair elections, there’s no doubt the opposition would win, but the government won’t allow that,” said Paula Cristina Roque, analyst and independent author.

Other parties and leaders who have remained in power for decades since the victory of liberation struggles on the continent are likely to see the mounting difficulties of their counterparts in Angola as a warning.

Tiago Costa, one of Angola’s new comedians, said young voters must step up and make the country a better place. Photo: GOZ’AQUI

As elsewhere in Africa, a key factor in Angola is the youthfulness of the population. More than 60% are under 24 years old. Tiago Costa, one of the biggest hits in a new wave of comedians and other creative artists in Angola, said the millions of young people voting for the first time had radically different values ​​and opinions from those of their politicians .

“We just go through the same thing over and over again. Young Angolans ask: “What is going on here? These kids are lost in these talks and stories that they just don’t understand or deserve,” said Costa, 37.

“Young people here must learn from the mistakes of their elders [and] intervene to make Angola a country for Angolans, not for parties that always divide us and never do their job.

President João Lourenço, a former MPLA official and former defense minister, took power in 2017 as the hand-picked successor to José Eduardo dos Santos, whose authoritarian rule lasted 38 years. The body of the former president, who died in Spain in July, arrived in Luanda on Saturday, throwing a new element into the tense election campaign.

A hearse transports the body of José Eduardo dos Santos to Luanda airport.
A hearse transports the body of José Eduardo dos Santos to Luanda airport. Photograph: Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters

Although Lourenço, 68, has tried to spur economic growth and pay off huge debts, he has failed to improve the lives of most 35 million population. Critics say a high profile anti-corruption campaign only targeted potentially powerful enemies – like Isabel dos Santos, the ex-president’s extremely wealthy daughter – while Amnesty International described “an unprecedented human rights crackdown, including unlawful killings and arbitrary arrests, ahead of the August 24 elections.”

Analysts said that when presented with the choice between saving the MPLA or saving the nation, Lourenço put the party first. “They weren’t going to reform out of power,” Roque said. “For a long time Angolans said, ‘We are poor, we are struggling, but we are at peace and that is enough.’ But now they are angry and disappointed and have nothing to lose.

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A boom that followed the end of the brutal 27-year civil war in 2002 has largely benefited the elite. Life expectancy in Angola remains one of the lowest in the world, services are unequal and millions of people live in misery despite the country’s huge income from oil exports.

“Most people I talk to say Lourenço has done nothing for them in those five years,” said Laura Macedo, an activist who campaigns for better conditions for residents of Luanda’s sprawling poor neighborhoods. “Most plan to vote for the opposition.”

Lourenço’s main rival is Adalberto Costa Júnior of the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (Unita). Although only eight years younger than the incumbent, Costa Júnior tried to position himself as a representative of young civil society and of all those who lost under the years of MPLA rule.

Isabel dos Santos, the daughter of former President José Eduardo dos Santos
Isabel dos Santos, the daughter of former President José Eduardo dos Santos, has built a huge fortune but has been the target of a high-profile anti-corruption campaign. Photography: Bloomberg/Getty Images

Unita was once the West’s proxy, funded and armed by the United States and its allies, but ultimately lost the civil war to the MPLA, which was backed by the Soviet Union and Cuba.

Under Costa Júnior, the party moved to the center but is still seen as pro-Western and pro-business, contrasting with the socialist ideological background of the MPLA and its continued links with Russia.

Angola, with its huge oil reserves, is again a key area of ​​great power competition. Beijing has lost ground in recent years after José Eduardo dos Santos has accumulated massive debts to China for pay for infrastructure projects that are often poorly constructed or poorly designed. Russia and the United States have also made efforts to gain influence in Luanda.

The conflict in Ukraine has intensified rivalries across the continent. Angola was among 17 African countries that refused to back a UN General Assembly motion condemning the Russian invasion, leading some to describe a “new cold war” on the continent.

Sergei Lavrov, Russian Foreign Minister, and Antony Blinken, US Secretary of State, have toured Africa in recent months in an effort to strengthen relations on the continent. Neither stopped in Luanda, although both paid attention to Central Africa.

Unita officials say they are prepared to wait another five years before taking power, but the MPLA’s difficulties underscore the challenges faced by many other parties or leaders who came to power in the aftermath of the conflict on the continent.

In Uganda, Yoweri Museveni, 77, has been in power since 1986 and faces a powerful opposition movement led by former musician Bobi Wine who has won the support of young people and city dwellers. According to a recent poll, Nelson Chamisa, leader of the opposition in Zimbabwe, three points ahead of the Zanu-PF party, came to power in 1980.

The ANC in South Africa was led into government by Nelson Mandela after the fall of the racist apartheid regime in 1994, but also suffered a severe loss of support. Recent polls have suggested the party could fall to 38% in the 2024 elections, potentially ending his rule or forcing a new era of coalition politics in Africa’s most industrialized country.

Nic Cheeseman, professor of democracy at the University of Birmingham who specializes in African politics, said existing problems had combined with the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on the continent and recent global increases in food prices and fuel to stir up a wave of discontent that threatened to destabilize governments everywhere – authoritarian and democratic.

“You can rig elections and stay in power, but that doesn’t get rid of anger. The risk then is that the frustration will manifest in other ways, with riots, political violence and unrest,” Cheeseman said.

This may be a risk the West, hungry for new energy supplies, will be willing to take.

“Angola has oil. The West needs energy security. So even if the MPLA retains power through fraudulent elections, the West will continue to put stability before democracy,” Roque said.

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