Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Presidential Election Up for Grabs in Angola
Presidential Election Up for Grabs in Angola

Presidential Election Up for Grabs in Angola

On April 6, 2022, Angolan President Joao Lourenco announced to the Council of the Republic that general elections will be held on August 24, 2022. Lourenco, of the ruling People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), will be running for reelection on a platform of policy continuity and continuing to improve ties with the West. The United Patriotic Front (FPU) is running against the government. The FPU is spearheaded by MPLA’s main opposition, the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA), which joined with the Democratic Bloc (BD) and the Angolan Renaissance Party – Together for Angola (PRA-JA Servir Angola). Their candidate is UNITA leader and parliamentarian Adalberto da Costa, Jr.

This year’s elections for parliament and president are expected to be the most competitive in Angola’s post-independence history. However, the results are not expected to usher in that much actual change to the country’s political situation. In a May 9, 2022, Bloomberg report, the research company Afrobarometer stated that the MPLA’s lead over its opposition was only seven percent.

MPLA has ruled Angola since it gained independence in 1975, and Lourenco is only its second president, replacing the first president Jose Eduardo dos Santos in 2017. Under dos Santos, Angola was a country where freedom of expression and freedom of the press were under threat. Lourenco appeared to take some steps to liberalize the country soon upon taking office, but over time he continued the repressive actions of his predecessor. Since the 2017 elections, tensions in the country have increased with more street protests and political disputes, and there have been more restrictions placed on private media. During the post-independence civil war, the United States backed Jonas Savimbi’s UNITA rebels against the MPLA, which was supported primarily by Russia, China, and Cuba. Since his election in 2017, Lourenco has moved to improve relations with the United States. In November 2020, he expressed a desire to build a closer relationship with America and said that he looked forward to working with newly-elected US President Joe Biden. He continues to maintain ties with China and Russia but has “rebalanced” them, especially relations with China.

It’s a Horse Race …

The presidential race will be between incumbent president Joao Lourenco of the MPLA and the FPU candidate, Adalberto da Costa, Jr., the leader of UNITA.

In 2017, Lourenco was elected to replace Jose Eduardo dos Santos of the MPLA who had served as president of Angola since its independence from Portugal in 1975. During the first few months of his presidency, Lourenco seemed to be keeping his promises to reform the political environment of Angola, including taking a more liberal stance with private media. But he was unable to deliver on the economy. His moves to open the oil export-dependent economy had little effect. The country’s 2014 economic crisis led to general dissatisfaction and anger. The opposition painted Lourenco’s actions as geared to an external audience in an effort to improve Angola’s international standing, while the poor in Angola continued to suffer. Lourenco’s actions to fight corruption, for example, have been selective, targeting primarily former president dos Santos’ family and allies, while those who support him continue to feed at the public trough.

In addition, as the elections near, he has begun to crack down on independent media and has used the Constitutional Court, most of whose members are MPLA-allied, to hobble the opposition.

Most observers predict that MPLA, despite its vote share declining in recent years, will win the necessary majority of votes to retain power, but that it will be due to obstruction and election fraud.

UNITA President da Costa, who replaced Isaias Sama Kota in 2009, is a member of Angola’s national assembly. He quickly gained popularity within his party as a result of his ability to more clearly articulate political positions than his predecessor and his criticism of MPLA’s anti-corruption policies, and when UNITA, BD, and the Angolan Renaissance Party merged into FPU, he was the clear front runner to be the FPU candidate to run against Lourenco.

MPLA has a 7 percentage point lead in public polls, according to the research company Afrobarometer. That figure is down from 25 percent in 2019. As the date for elections nears, things could change, but the poll numbers have remained relatively stable since May 2022.

… But on a Muddy Track

Both candidates face headwinds due to Angola’s economic decline. Angola is second to Nigeria in African crude oil production, with 95 percent of its export revenue dependent on oil. While Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which triggered EU nations to stop buying gas from Russia, might work to Angola’s benefit as a potential supplier of oil and gas, half of its oil and gas now goes to China to pay off debts. Angola predicts a 1.6 percent increase in the sector in 2022. Whether this will affect the outcome of the election, other than increasing the amount in MPLA campaign coffers, depends on Lourenco’s ability to convince Angola’s citizens that they will benefit from the increase.

Currently, Angola’s average life expectancy is 61 years, among the lowest in the world. While it’s a resource-rich country (in addition to being the second largest oil producer, it’s the fourth largest diamond producer), according to the World Bank, nearly half of the population lived on less than $1.90 per day in 2018, up from 34 percent in 2008. The high level of poverty and low life expectancy are attributed to the lasting impacts of the 27-year civil war, a high fertility rate, an inadequate health sector, low education rates, an unequal distribution of wealth, and corruption of the elites. The oil and diamond revenue stays with the large companies and the elite leadership. Politicians also misuse and misdirect funds. In 2017, the federal budget was $44 billion but many local officials reported that they didn’t have sufficient funds to provide running water, even as the government spent more than $1 billion to build four stadiums for a soccer tournament.

Improvements have been made since Lourenco took office in 2017, but the question remains how much and who has really benefited. Even if MPLA is able through fraud and pressure to prevail in this year’s elections, failure to address these crucial bread and butter issues for the population is likely to lead to further anger and instability.

Stakes for the United States and the Rest of the World

With elections just a short time away, the picture in Angola is murky. Foreign investors view Lourenco as a reformer, while the World Bank ranks Angola among the 20 worst countries for doing business.

According to the UN World Food Program, the worst drought in 40 years has devastated the southwest region of Angola, putting 1.58 million people at risk of severe hunger. General dissatisfaction is on the rise. Even if MPLA is able to manipulate the vote and cling to power, the country can only avoid further turmoil if it addresses its list of challenges.

The United States established formal diplomatic relations with Angola in 1993, after the Angolan government renounced Marxism. Relations between the two countries, however, remained tense. Washington supported UNITA and other groups opposed to MPLA, which was supported by the Soviet Union and Cuba. Currently, U.S. foreign policy goals in Angola are to promote and strengthen democratic institutions, promote economic prosperity, improve health, and consolidate peace and security. Because of its petroleum exports, Angola is America’s third largest trading partner in sub-Saharan Africa. Moreover, it is a partner country with Power Africa, a five-year initiative launched in Tanzania by President Barack Obama in July 2013 during his visit to Africa, which aims to support economic growth and development in Africa by increasing access to reliable, affordable, and sustainable power. In 2009, the US and Angola signed a Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA), which aimed to further improve trade relations.

Angola was one of the 17 African countries that abstained from the March 2022 UN General Assembly vote condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine. This is likely to put somewhat of a chill on bilateral relations. H.R. 7311, a House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee bill called “Countering Malign Russian Activities in Africa Act,” passed by bipartisan vote (419-9) in the House on April 27, 2022, and sent to the Senate, is also likely to cast a pall over relations with countries like Angola which maintains friendly relations with Russia, MPLA’s ally and supporter in the Angolan civil war. It is seen by some in Africa as a law that obliges the American administration to punish Africans for certain support of certain Russian activities in Africa. While aimed at the actions of such Russian entities as the Wagner Group, a private military company owned by a Russian oligarch with close ties to Vladimir Putin, the timing, over two years after the group first appeared on the continent, but only months after the invasion of Ukraine, it is leaving an impression that Washington is more concerned about Ukrainians than Africans. Whether this is a correct impression or not is irrelevant. The fact that it exists poses problems for American relations on the continent.

It is unclear what Lourenco’s position might be, but the abstention at the United Nations occurred during his tenure and it is unlikely that he will pull too far away from Russia. It is not known what da Costa’s position might be, but he has reached out to the US and EU during his campaign.

Another issue that might be impacted by the outcome of the election is Angola’s relationship with the EU. Brussels is likely to look to Angola and Nigeria for gas in the wake of the cutoff of Russian gas, but the EU has not yet been invited to send an election observer mission to Angola for the August elections.

The election outcome is not foreordained. Regardless of the outcome, other than the potential for more disaffection and possible increased instability in Angola, it’s hard to see what this election will change.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.