President João Lourenço’s iron cage

Gilson Lazaro
Marissa Moorman

Preoccupied with attracting foreign investment and fighting corruption while managing a split in the ruling party, the Angolan president João Lourenço ignores his strongest ally: youthful civil society.

President João Lourenço. Image via Eu sou João Lourenço Flickr CC.

This post takes as its title the term “iron cage” that refers to the German thinker Max Weber’s nightmare in analyzing bureaucratic rationality. Weber, in his incessant search for how bureaucracy marked modern societies, found himself imprisoned in his own analytical propositions. I use this metaphor of “a Weberian prison” to describe the current Angolan political scene and suggest a way out. I see the same prison created by the current political system led by Angolan President João Lourenço in his attack on corruption.

The fight against corruption inside the MPLA threatens to open a political fissure or, at the extreme, to cause the ruling party to implode. Lourenço will have to choose between either aligning with society, opening plural and democratic debate, and freeing up the state or remaining imprisoned within his party, protecting the new economic powers around him, and distancing from the groups dominant under former president José Eduardo Dos Santos. This is precisely the iron cage within which Lourenço finds himself.

The political decadence and waste under Dos Santos (in power from 1979 to 2017) opened the doors for presidential succession in Angola and in the MPLA. In 2016, Dos Santos, under social pressure, promised to abandon active political life, creating the possibility for his party to choose a successor. At first he hoped to maintain his position as MPLA president, while stepping down from his position as state president in order to control political power from the halls of party headquarters and through economic monopolies. He was mistaken.

In 2017, on the eve of a general election, Lourenço became Dos Santos’s chosen successor and in an attempt to capture the attention of Angolan voters disenchanted with the party, the former promised a serious fight against corruption and impunity in the country and within the ruling party. We’ve written about this here, here, and here. In contemporary Angola, the MPLA has been the main port of entry for economic advantages and privileges. The state was the means through which a dominant political class enriched itself in the hopes of fulfilling Dos Santos’ expressed desire to create, in record time, a national bourgeoisie that could be the motor of Angolan economic and social prosperity.

From the moment that Lourenço’s attention turned to the party itself, what had been the connivance of comrades suddenly became an internal struggle over control of the state machinery, with the presidency of the republic, and over the MPLA party on which it was largely built. Since then, at least two groups have confronted one another in the political and economic spheres. Lourenço heads one of these groups while his predecessor and direct collaborators (namely, Dos Santos’ children and a set of military generals) constitute the other group.

Lourenço’s “iron cage” is, on the one hand, his intention to fight corruption and impunity within the MPLA in which a few became rich and powerful at the cost of the public treasury—with the help of companies, multinationals, foreign consultants and national and foreign banks—and, on the other, his need to attract foreign investment in exchange for Angolan dependence on that capital underwritten by strong guarantees of foreign export. Given the abject living conditions of the poor and the lacking social infrastructure, Angola is an economy with a high level of external dependency.

João Lourenço finds himself imprisoned within dos Santos’s legacy. He intends, therefore, to get himself out of this prison at any cost by implementing a policy of increasing austerity (with the blessing of the IMF and World Bank) that has resulted in the devaluation of the national currency (the Angolan kwanza) relative to the US dollar, and in economic privatization. If Lourenço hits the dominant class—whose most visible face internationally was Isabel dos Santos—with his left hand, he delivers with his right hand a suite of important public investments in strategic sectors to a group of political allies with dubious reputations.

In the three years since he became head of state, Lourenço, has not managed to offer political solutions for the grave social and economic conditions that most Angolans have to cope with: workers’ strikes, miserable salaries, businesses firing employees, the devaluation of the national currency, problems in education, health, and social assistance for the most vulnerable in the population. João Lourenço has overseen a giant wave of public disinvestment in the economy. The situation is worst for the poorest sector of the population and the number of desperately poor in the interior is rising. This has resulted in the reappearance of beggars on the streets of Luanda, something not so evident since the hardest period of the civil war in the late 1990s.

The alternative to the iron cage would be to look to Angolan society, especially the young and vibrant, with a realistic and democratic political program—a vision for the country—that would lead it to acceptable political options and economic policies, in open dialogue with the available social forces. Such an alliance between Lourenço and civil society would create more secure conditions for taking down the political walls that shore up the structures of the state, from the judiciary to parliament, for personalities with questionable profiles and reputations. In civil society Lourenço finds a younger generation, many of whom do not know the civil war, and who have a great desire for change in the old political and civic structures that hold no meaning for their lives or futures.

Youth platforms like Movimento Revolucionário (Revolutionary Movement) in Malanje and Benguela and the Associação Cívica Laulenu (Laulenu Civic Association) in Moxico have mobilized in some provincial capitals (Malanje, Benguela, and Luena) and in at least three of Luanda’s municipalities (Cacuaco, Cazenga, and Viana) to protest social conditions and to advocate for the decentralization of power to municipalities. These groups constitute alternative and new forms of thinking and acting politically, outside the narrow channels of the traditional political parties (FNLA, MPLA, and UNITA) and older civic associations. New forms of political action by citizens are also visible in Cacuaco with Projecto Agir (Project Act), in Cazenga with Cazenga em Acão (Cazenga in Action), and the Movimento Estudantil Propinas “Not” (Student Movement No to Fees); they mark a sea change in Angolan society.

This youthful force mobilizing to think and act as alternatives to existing spaces for political and civic participation extends to other regions of Angola. In three provinces, youth have mobilized to protest poor public management by provincial governors: Norberto dos Santos in Malanje; Rui Falcão in Benguela; and Gonçalves Muandumba in Moxico. In at least four provinces (including Luanda), youth influenced by the dynamics of past and present have criticized President João Lourenço for having maintained a considerable group of public administrators from the Dos Santos regime. The question is: does Lourenço realize that these youth—irreverent and without personal political interests—may be the best allies he has in the current political context?

About the Author

Gilson Lázaro is Associate Professor in the Sociology Department at Agostinho Neto University and an investigator at the Center for African Studies at the Catholic University of Angola.

About the Translator

Marissa Moorman is on the Editorial Board of Africa is a Country. She is Associate Professor of History at Indiana University.

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