Angola is a country that has been ruled by the same party, the MPLA, since independence in 1975. The party has effectively transformed itself from a socialist bloc into a purely capitalistic organization with a diverse array of business interests and impressive market-savvy, all thanks to the barrels upon barrels of oil the country has been endowed with. In order to even begin to understand Angola’s politics however, one must first attempt to comprehend just how powerful and ubiquitous the MPLA is. O MPLA é o povo, e o povo é o MPLA (“The MPLA is the people, and the people are the MPLA”) is one of their most cherished slogans, originating from the time Angola was a single-party state between 1975-1992. If even just symbolically, it effectively demonstrated that in the MPLA psyche there was not even a need to separate between party and state and citizenry. The slogan speaks to the core about how the MPLA is so ingrained in Angolan civil society.
The country’s flag and the ruling party’s flags are virtually indistinguishable, all 18 provincial governors are appointed by the President and belong to the ruling party, and virtually all Ministers, government officials, judges, professors in state universities, and journalists in state media belong to the MPLA. Even Akwá, arguably Angola’s greatest professional football player, appeared in an election campaign ad for the MPLA dressed in the full national team uniform and scored a penalty kick after an overweight player dressed in UNITA’s colors had missed his. Akwá then became a Member of Parliament for the MPLA.
People in Angola usually blame the opposition for allowing this hegemony to go on unchecked, claiming that they are weak, bereft of ideas, and just as corrupt as those who they want to depose. Although true for some of the parties out there, most people are simply not aware of opposition party activities because these activities are not broadcast in national media. And when they are, the material is usually manipulated so that it loses its impact. In effect, the opposition is blockaded in traditional media.
Since the 2012 elections however, the opposition parties have showed renewed vigor and strength. Perhaps buoyed by their improvement in the polls (in 2008 MPLA won the elections with 82% of the vote to UNITA’s 10%, while in 2012 they only managed 72% to UNITA’s 19% and CASA-CE’s 6%), they have become more active in Parliament and more adept at ruffling party feathers. Last month for example, CASA-CE went beyond merely complaining about the murky circumstances behind the new Angolan Sovereign Wealth Fund, arguing that the President did not have the power to arbitrarily create new funds by decree, and actually took the issue to court (it was defeated, of course).
At the beginning of last week UNITA went where no opposition had gone before: they lodged a criminal complaint against President dos Santos and several senior members of the MPLA for charges related to the most recent elections, which the opposition and several rights groups consider to have been seriously flawed. Among the several charges against the President and his collaborators is the charge of High Treason.
What’s always fascinating to watch when such opposition initiatives occur is MPLA’s reaction. It usually goes something like this: within days the MPLA will issue a statement that will be reproduced in all state media, including the country’s only daily newspaper, the country’s news agency (ANGOP), state radio, state and private television, and private newspapers. Subsequently, Angolans from all walks of life will come forth and repudiate whatever it is that the Party is repudiating. It is truly a sight to see and a testament to just how much control the MPLA has over the national discourse. Sports stars, musicians, party spokespeople, members of parliament, television stars, and, much more worryingly, priests and other religious figures come out in support of whatever it is that the party is supporting at the moment. Even semi-literate kuduro artist Nagrelha has been asked for his views on matters of national policy (he sided with the ruling party).
In the blanket coverage and universal repudiation that ensues, there is no room for public discourse on the matter. There is no second opinion, no dispute of facts. There is no debate, no argument. The other voices in the conversation are simply not heard – it’s almost as if they don’t even exist. Tension is ramped up and before long the rhetoric of war is brought up. The party of the Architect of Peace, as dos Santos has come to be known by, invariably invokes the war rhetoric. Just last Friday for example, the ex-UNITA co-founder who went over to the MPLA in 2008 alluded to the war and said that UNITA should just be glad that they are still alive and thank dos Santos’ for his magnanimity.
Perhaps most distressing of all for our young democracy is MPLA’s mostly explicit but sometimes also subtle reinforcement that questioning the powers that be, debating their policies, making use of our rights, courts and institutions and otherwise participating in the democratic process as concerned citizens (or political parties) is somehow a danger to the stability of the country and could plunge it back into war (note the recurring war theme). It’s no secret that corruption is rife in Angola and trust in our public institutions is now woefully low. An engaged and critical civil society is necessary for the normal functioning of a State and is an integral part of the democratic fabric of a nation. So are strong institutions that have the respect and support of said civil society.
Unfortunately, the government abhors the former and has disenfranchised the latter.
Angola is a nation of bright minds, brilliant writers, exceptional musicians, and a civil society that, almost 11 years after war’s end, is ready to have its voice heard. It’d be nice if the government understood that. It’d be nice if they ceased with controlling all aspects of national discourse and national media and treated us as a democratic society that is capable of free-thought. It’d be nice if they respected us as citizens.