Op-Ed: When things are too quiet to be good

Aug. 29, 2012, 4:19 p.m.

On August 31, Angola will hold the nation’s second parliamentary elections since the end of a 27-year civil war in 2002. In theory, because the parliamentarians select the president, this election could lead to new head of state in Angola. The national festivities scheduled to commemorate President José Eduardo dos Santos’s 70th birthday just two days before the election suggest that radical change is unlikely to result from these elections. Dos Santos has ruled Angola since 1979, making him second in longevity only to Guinea Equatorial’s dictator among African rulers. To understand why his political machine is likely to prevail in the upcoming “elections,” a review of recent history is in order.

In 1975, after independence and under the Alvor Agreement the three main liberation movements were to implement a liberal democracy but the transition process failed and the country quickly plunged into a violent civil war. Dos Santos’s ruling party, the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) faced significant military counterbalance by UNITA (the Portuguese acronym for National Union for the Total Independence of Angola) and in 1990 was forced to accept a transition to a democratic regime. The country then held its first elections in 1992. The international community considered these elections to be generally free and fair but UNITA rejected the results claiming fraud and plunged the country into another civil war.

In 2002, UNITA leader Jonas Savimbi was killed in combat and there were new expectations for peace and transition to democracy. However, elections were not necessarily convenient or desirable. The general population, starved and displaced, was worried and avoided the mentioning of the word election, wary of the war it had produced before. The opposition was weak and fragmented. And, businesses were thriving from the oil and diamond industry and its partnership with the authoritarian regime. It was no surprise that the MPLA won 82 percent of votes in the 2008 ballot. Though severe poverty is widespread in Angola, public coffers are not underfunded. Angola was able to let US$32 billion from its oil revenues from 2007 to 2010 go missing, as reported by the IMF in December 2011.

The Constitution of 2010 that attaches new powers to the president is also an authoritarian law that limits the exercise of freedom of expression and of assembly and demonstration, especially of those that criticize the president. Since then, the continued violation of freedom of expression and demonstration, political violence against those who belong to opposing parties (particularly the recent attacks on peaceful demonstrators) and the abusive use of public resources and the national social communication agency to support the ruling party crush hopes for a democratic transition.

Despite the opposition’s plans to demonstrate against the conditions of the country’s general elections, things seem quiet. Earlier this year, in May of 2012, the IMF reported that it had traced 85% of the missing oil revenue back to expenditure of the State Oil Company, Sonangol, in undisclosed projects of infra-structure, commissions and self-reimbursement for spending in the name of the government. It reported that only US$4.2 billion remains unaccounted for. How much of that has gone to the MPLA campaign?

My colleagues in Angola tell me that the streets are quiet and that demonstrations against the regime have been few and far between. It is not because they do not want to speak out. It is, my Angolan colleagues tell me, because they can’t.

Nadejda Marques is the manager of the Program on Human Rights at the Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law (CDDRL) at Stanford University. She has worked extensively in Angola and coordinates the program’s research and activities on human rights discourse and institutions in Angola.

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