There’s a lot going on in Angola. Western media have extensively covered the trial and detention of the so-called book club (really a civic activists study group on protest) and the imprisonment of Cabinda activist Marcos Mavungo to the exclusion of other questions. “The 15+2 activists,” how Angolans refer to the book club , and Mavungo highlighted economic mismanagement and corruption in their critiques of the government. Meanwhile, a related crisis, the government’s navigation of the ongoing economic crisis (the price of oil plummeted with no prospect of resurgence any time soon), has received less attention outside of the business press.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights enshrines economic rights – like the right to an adequate standard of living and to work. Yet most human rights organizations (Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, etcetera) opt for the more idealistic political rights – freedom of political expression, freedom of association and assembly. It may be why we don´t hear much in the international press about the economic crisis that squeezes daily life for ordinary Angolans more than politics.
Three other events since the beginning of 2016, equally as important as political human rights issues, are also shaping the political scene and refracting the economic crisis.
The first is the passing, on February 27th, of Lúcio Lara, an historic leader of the ruling MPLA during the armed struggle and first decade of independence. Lara was considered the successor to first president, Agostino Neto, but stepped aside so current president, Jose Eduardo dos Santos, could become leader in 1979 . Lara, who clashed with profligate MPLA leaders, effectively retired from politics when the MPLA made the transition from Marxism to neoliberalism in the late 1980s.
Eulogies proliferated. Many read these as critiques of the current regime.
The political scientist and long time Angola observer, Gerald Bender, remembered Lara on his Facebook page. He noted that Lara was known as “o duro” (a hardliner to Washington, hard to keep in line to Moscow, hardcore in terms of his discipline within the MPLA). Mostly, Bender opined, he was a strong nationalist.
Reginaldo Silva pointed to the ongoing racial issues in the MPLA that caused Lara to step away from leadership (and propelled dos Santos to the front), when he, Lara, was an obvious successor to Neto. He also recalled Lara’s role in the repression and the political narrowing that followed the 27 de Maio. Both questions inflect current political and social life. If, as according to Silva, absence defined Lara´s political life in the last 30 years, a great part of Lara’s legacy is his archive – a form of historical presence – kept by the Associação Tchiweka (Lara’s nom de guerre).
Sergio Piçarra’s daily comic in Rede Angola best captured popular discourse. That is, the contrast between the old and the new MPLA (doctrinaire Marxism-Leninism versus a capital friendly oligarch building politics) that so many articulated in their eulogies; or, Lara’s singular discipline and uprightness compared to the blurred lines of politics and economic interests, the lack of ethics, and not so up-standing behavior of today’s leadership.
This brings us to the second event of consequence: President Dos Santos´s announcement on March 11 that he will step down in 2018. Angolan writer José Eduardo Agualusa summed up the contradictions in this move in an interview with Cape Verdean radio Morabeza:
We have elections in 2017. What does this mean? If there are indeed elections, he doesn’t know if he will win or lose, so how can he say he’ll leave in 2018? …..On the other hand, if he wins, he will leave just after he’s won? That also doesn’t make any sense because it lets down those who voted for him.
The announcement has renewed the debate about succession. Given that the assumption is that the MPLA will win, who will be Vice President? The current VP, Manuel Vicente (former head of Sonangol) is in hot water, his face splashed across the international media for bribing a Portuguese prosecutor investigating a corruption case against him. The other much chatted option is José Filomeno dos Santos, Zenu, one of president’s sons and the head of Angola’s Sovereign Wealth Fund.
There’s not much news coming from from the Sovereign Fund, of late, as the price of oil is less than half of what it was when the Fund was formed to help leverage oil wealth to diversify the economy and stabilize Angola’s future.
Finally, there’s the horrendous condition of state hospitals in Angola – the main news story in Angola last week. A petition from Central Angola suggested the state take monies from the Sovereign Fund to help remedy the situation.
In the meantime, hundreds, if not thousands, of Angolans have made donations of medical supplies, purchased in local pharmacies at (anecdotally) reasonable prices (something for example that is NOT the case with food these days) to stanch the hemorrhaging. Angola is hit with an epidemic of yellow fever and a spike in malaria cases. Already chronically under-funded, under-staffed, and under-resourced neighborhood hospitals are sending more patients to the central city hospitals. One friend who dropped a donation at the David Bernadino pediatric hospital said it “smelled like death.”
A new minister of health, Dr. Luis Sambo (former WHO Regional Director for Africa), widely praised, has been welcomed with this disaster. $4 million went missing from the Global Fund via the Health Ministry. In the 2016 national annual budget, defense received as much as education and health combined, suggesting that this problem, while not intractable, will not be easy or quick to resolve.
The 15+2 await their judgement today, but most Angolans, unlike the Western media and observers, won’t notice: they are worrying about where to find sugar, how much cassava flour costs, and how to afford and find the medical supplies required for treatment in delapidated health facilities. It’s safe to say that the MPLA has not delivered on any part of its 2012 campaign slogan “grow more to distribute better.”