Gwynne dyer An­gola: a lot of dry po­lit­i­cal tin­der wait­ing for a match

Truro Daily News - - OPINION - Gwynne dyer is an in­de­pen­dent jour­nal­ist whose ar­ti­cles are pub­lished in 45 coun­tries.

There is mo­men­tous change in An­gola. The oil-rich coun­try of 28 mil­lion peo­ple on Africa’s south­west­ern coast has just elected J-Lo as pres­i­dent.

There is also very little change in An­gola. The new pres­i­dent is not Jen­nifer Lopez, the Amer­i­can J.Lo (which would def­i­nitely mean big change). It is João Lourenço, a mem­ber of the rul­ing Pop­u­lar Move­ment for the Lib­er­a­tion of An­gola (MPLA) since the 1970s, a gen­eral since the 1980s, and most re­cently the Min­is­ter of Defence. He can’t sing, ei­ther.

J-Lo re­places 75-year-old José Ed­uardo Dos San­tos, who has been pres­i­dent for the past 38 years (the sec­ond long­est-rul­ing pres­i­dent in the world). But it’s ques­tion­able how much power he will re­ally in­herit from the out­go­ing pres­i­dent, who passed a new law pro­hibit­ing his suc­ces­sor from chang­ing the heads of the army, the po­lice or the in­tel­li­gence ser­vice for eight years. Dos San­tos wants no sur­prises after his re­tire­ment.

In fact, it’s hard to say that Dos San­tos is re­tir­ing at all. He will re­main the head of the rul­ing MPLA party, his daugh­ter Is­abel (Africa’s rich­est woman) runs the state oil com­pany, and one of his sons con­trols the $5 bil­lion state in­vest­ment fund. Other al­lies and cronies dom­i­nate the rest of the economy.

J-Lo, by con­trast, holds no po­si­tions that pro­vide op­por­tu­ni­ties to steal mas­sive amounts from state funds, and is widely be­lieved to be non-cor­rupt­ible or nearly so, a rare qual­ity in the MPLA’s se­nior lead­er­ship. That may be why he was forced on Dos San­tos by the party as a suc­ces­sor.

The MPLA has a little prob­lem. After a dev­as­tat­ing 27-year civil war be­tween ri­val lib­er­a­tion move­ments ended with the death in bat­tle in 2002 of Jonas Sav­imbi, leader of the Na­tional Union for the To­tal In­de­pen­dence of An­gola (Unita), rapidly grow­ing oil pro­duc­tion and high world oil prices cre­ated a huge boom in the An­golan economy. In sev­eral years since then it has been the fastest­grow­ing economy in the world.

A great deal of the new wealth went to se­nior MPLA mem­bers and their al­lies, but enough trick­led down to keep the im­pov­er­ished masses quiet and obe­di­ent. But the col­lapse in oil prices since 2014 has halved the An­golan gov­ern­ment’s in­come and killed the pri­vate economy, such as it was. In the sprawl­ing cap­i­tal, Luanda, half-fin­ished, aban­doned apart­ment tow­ers line the shore.

The poor are get­ting poorer, and they may even­tu­ally get an­gry. This is a rel­a­tively rich coun­try where 20 per cent of chil­dren die be­fore their fifth birth­day and a quar­ter of the adult pop­u­la­tion is of­fi­cially un­em­ployed (unof­fi­cially, much more). There is a lot of dry po­lit­i­cal tin­der ly­ing around wait­ing for a match.

The op­po­si­tion Unita party won 27 per cent of the votes in last week’s elec­tion, 10 per cent more than ever be­fore, de­spite what was prob­a­bly large-scale vote-rig­ging.

The rank-and-file of the rul­ing party is get­ting wor­ried, and de­spite hav­ing made the tran­si­tion from hard­line com­mu­nist to freemar­ket cap­i­tal­ist over the years the MPLA re­mains a dis­ci­plined or­ga­ni­za­tion.

Dos San­tos was in­vul­ner­a­ble un­til he got ill, but for more than a year he has been re­ceiv­ing treat­ment for can­cer. He had his cousin, Vi­cente Manuel, made vice-pres­i­dent in 2012 with the in­ten­tion of mak­ing him the des­ig­nated suc­ces­sor, but the party chose João Lourenço in­stead in 2015. And though no­body is ad­mit­ting it pub­licly, it prob­a­bly pres­sured Dos San­tos not to run again in the 2017 elec­tion.

So change is prob­a­bly on the way in An­gola after all, de­spite Dos San­tos’s stren­u­ous ef­forts to pro­tect his fam­ily’s own wealth and power and ham­string his suc­ces­sor. What kind of change it’s hard to say, be­cause like all prom­i­nent MPLA mem­bers J-Lo has had to hide any con­trary opin­ions he may have held dur­ing the long reign of Dos San­tos.

Lourenço has fought for and served the MPLA all his adult life, and he cer­tainly has no in­ten­tion of re­mov­ing it from power. But he could be se­duced by the idea of mak­ing it re­ally pop­u­lar again, and thereby hold­ing onto power by gen­uinely demo­cratic means.

In which case we must wish him luck, while know­ing that he is likely to fail.

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