In late March 2020, following parliamentary approval, Angola’s Conselho da República (Council of the Republic) recommended that the first-ever municipal elections should be held in the country before the end of 2020. Beyond the uncertainty caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, this seemed to be a positive development in Angola’s long, complex, and tortuous path towards democracy during the past 40 years. After independence in 1975, Angola entered immediately into a civil war that lasted almost consecutively until 2002. In the meantime, the regime transitioned from a socialist single party system into a multiparty “social democracy,” which nevertheless has only known one ruling party: The People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA). Concomitantly, the country’s legislative history has also been a complicated one, with provisional texts until the final approval of the current constitution, in 2010.
The 2010 constitutional reform included a Section VI that put in place a process of decentralization of “poder local” (“local government”), but, 10 years into the new juridical framework, this has never gone from “paper to practice,” with constant delays and postponements. However, after the 2017 elections, President João Lourenço announced his public commitment to tackle the issue of local elections, with the promotion of an “overarching public debate.” Subsequently, a 2018 memorandum from the Ministry of Territorial Administration and State Reform revealed a specific plan with phases for the effective implementation of local authorities through a gradualist process. The March 2020 decision, emerging at the onset of COVID-19, was another important and necessary step toward the long-awaited celebration of elections.
Although this implementation of municipal elections might be one of the few political initiatives that gathers consensus across Angola’s social political spectrum, it became, in the pre-COVID-19 moment, the main political battle in the country. For example, in August 2019, while the Angolan parliament unanimously approved the municipal legislative package, a demonstration was held outside the National Assembly, with dozens of young activists protesting against it.
The participants in the demonstration were mostly members of several local citizen platforms that emerged after 2016, in the aftermath of the notorious “15+2”—the arrest and trial of 17 activists in 2015, accused of an attempted coup d’état. Many of the detainees were activists of the so-called “Revú” or Revolutionary Movement that emerged in Angola in 2011 in reaction to the Arab Spring, leading several demonstrations against then-President José Eduardo dos Santos and his cabinet. After the trial, however, many activists regrouped to focus on addressing local and regional problems, while networking with each other. This is the case, for instance, of the Projeto Agir, which emerged from the mobilization of activists in the district of Cacuaco, north of Luanda. Similarly, other groups have emerged throughout Luanda: Plataforma Cazenga em Acção (PLACA) and Libertadores de Mentes (LDM) in the district of Cazenga, Mudar in Viana, Plataforma de Intervenção (PIKK) in Kilamba Kiaxi, and Núcleo de Boas Acções (NBA) in Benfica. Outside Luanda, other citizen movements have also emerged: Okulinga in Matala, Kintwadi in Uige, Laulenu in Moxico, Movimento Revolucionário de Benguela (MRB) in Lobito, and Balumukeno in Malanje.
Throughout 2018 PLACA, Projeto Agir and other groups staged several protests against the administrator of the district of Cazenga, Tany Narciso, over insecurity, lack of access to water, and financial malpractice, among other things. Similarly, in September 2019, the Laulenu group used João Lourenço’s presidential visit to the region to stage a protest against the local governor Gonçalves Muandumba and corruption. All groups embraced the issue of the autarquias as one of their main demands, through the convergence into a national network called Movimento Jovens pelas Autarquias (Youth for Municipalities Movement). Here, while they necessarily converge with the government’s municipal elections project, they strongly contest the geographic gradualist strategy to implementation (whereby only 55 of the 164 constituencies would be able to vote in a first phase, while others would only do so at a later stage), which is based on “merit”, and determined by government, with no public consultation or accountability.
Coincidentally, constituencies such as Cacuaco and other districts or municipalities traditionally non-aligned with the MPLA were left out of the initial roster. From the perspective of Projeto Agir and other groups, this was a trickster move: while the government was aware of its constituency’s ambition for more direct representation, they were also aware of the possibility of losing power to opposition parties (namely National Union for the Total Independence of Angola—UNITA).
In response, activist groups not only challenged the government’s Pacote Legislativo Autárquico (Municipal Legislative Package) in recurrent demonstrations in front of the National Assembly, but also promoted several debates, roundtables, and onjangos (collective communal gatherings) to discuss the process and raise citizen awareness. Both PLACA and Projeto Agir co-authored revisions of the legislative package, in which they offered arguments for the implementation of a non-gradual, horizontal, and universal autárquico system based on the logic of “devolução do poder aos cidadãos” (devolution of power to the citizens). They argued that municipal autonomy, albeit not the solution for all of Angola’s problems, is certainly a more effective and legitimate instrument of governance than the current central state administration—in itself an obstacle for sustained development toward a transparent and just democracy due to lack of accountability, the concentration of resources, the lack of popular representation, weak citizen participation, and the single party control of local communities.
In July 2020, amid the COVID-19 crisis, the Angolan parliament approved yet another legislative package related to the municipal election system. Still, the mood in Luanda is one of uncertainty regarding the upcoming poll. Recently, the suspicion was finally confirmed, after the Conselho da República officially announced a further postponement sine die, “until the right conditions are met.” The uncertainty stems from the make-believe consensus built around the process, which continues to ignore the views and expectations of ordinary Angolans.
In this respect, the struggle continues.