The MPLA’s crisis of legitimacy could be sowing the seeds of a revolution against itself.
On 8 September, the façade of democracy in Angola was dealt another near fatal blow. After three decades of elections and a veneer of tolerance for opposition politics and civil society, the nation was shown to be little more than a thinly veiled authoritarian state.
On 24 August, the majority of voters had narrowly rejected the incumbent government. The main opposition UNITA’s parallel vote count suggested it had garnered 49.5% of the vote to the ruling MPLA’s 48.2%, based on 94% of results sheets from 13,200 polling stations. Nonetheless, the electoral commission – which is controlled by the ruling party – announced that the MPLA had won with 51% to UNITA’s 43.9%.
UNITA took the matter to the Constitutional Court, calling for a recount and a comparison of the official results with their own count. They cited widespread irregularities, of which there were many. There were an estimated 2.7 million dead voters on the electoral register, giving the MPLA a buffer to play with numbers and justify different results in specific provinces. And there were questions around the role of the Spanish election logistics company Indra, which has been accused of facilitating fraud in favour of the MPLA in previous elections.
There were also clear cases of creating an unlevel playing field and opacity in the process. The state media, for example, allocated the 90% of its coverage to the MPLA. Meanwhile, the electoral commission made two key changes that contravened electoral law just a week before the election. The first was to remove the total number of voters from result sheets, making it easier to alter the numbers. The second was to restrict access to the national tally centre to just five electoral commissioners and a “technical group”, thus denying admission to other commissioners along with the press and civil society.
Angola’s constitutional court – another purportedly neutral institution heavily influenced by the MPLA – took just two weeks to consider the case before dismissing UNITA’s claims. In that time, the judges did not ask for a verification of the results nor for the electoral commission to show its result sheets or explain how it tallied the result. A conclave of ten justices failed to respect the most fundamental role which is the respect for public probity. They violated their own constitution.
Sowing the seeds of revolution
Today, on 15 September, President João Lourenço will be sworn in for a second term. He will take the oath in a capital under siege. One of the remarkable outcomes of the election was UNITA’s victory in Luanda, which represents a third of the electorate. Urbanites, the educated youth, and even many former MPLA supporters voted for the opposition there.
It is through fear of protests in Luanda therefore that the government has deployed the military, police, and presidential guard along strategic arteries. Interestingly, much of the security forces’ rank and file seem to have voted for the opposition if results near barracks are a reliable indication.
Nonetheless, columns of armoured police vehicles and Russian-made kamaze trucks now line the streets in key suburbs. In neighbourhoods that voted for the opposition like Rocha Pinto, Samba, Zango, Viana and Cazenga, the presence of security forces is bringing back memories of the civil war and the political massacres of 1977 and 1992. Yet not even in the worst years of the war did Luanda have the entire security apparatus on display for public intimidation rather than public safety. Elsewhere, activists have been threatened or arrested by the stasi-like Service for Criminal investigation (SIC) and the intelligence service SINSE. And on social media meanwhile, alleged lists of opposition leaders meant for elimination are circulating.
This is not a new scenario. Several authoritarian regimes in Africa and beyond have subverted democratic processes and then mobilised security forces to eliminate peaceful contestation in the aftermath. Often, this prefigures a further descent into chaos in the years following, fuelled by misgovernance and unaddressed injustices.
Understood this way, the MPLA’s stealing of the 2022 election only secures it more power in the immediate term. The ruling party, in power since 1975, is increasingly unpopular and, by subverting the popular will so brazenly, seen as increasingly illegitimate. This would be dangerous for a regime at any time, but at a moment of worsening economic conditions and growing food insecurity, the MPLA could find it is sowing the seeds of a revolution against itself.