August 23, 2012 3:52 pm

Repression fears ahead of Angola election

Men stand on a truck chanting slogans as thousands of Angolans take part in a demonstration©AFP

Towards midnight one Tuesday in May, 15 men armed with pistols, machetes and iron bars burst into the house where the young rappers behind a rare campaign of protests against Angola’s authoritarian rulers had gathered.

According to Rafael Marques de Morais, a campaigning journalist who documented what followed, the men who administered brutal beatings before departing the house in Luanda, the capital, used police vehicles and belonged to a “pro-government militia”.

Angola map Thumbnail

Angola map Thumbnail

Alongside a crackdown on public protests, the attack formed what rights groups say is escalating repression ahead of next week’s general election. Human Rights Watch catalogued instances over recent weeks of “excessive use of force, arbitrary arrests, unfair trials, obstruction and intimidation of journalists and other observers”.

These attacks are a sign of the determination of President José Eduardo dos Santos to extend his 33-year rule – and to entrench an elite that controls Africa’s second-biggest oil industry and is fast expanding its hold over the continent’s natural resources.

Such is the ruling Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola’s hold on power that few predict anything other than victory for Mr dos Santos, despite a Gallup poll last year which found that only 16 per cent of Angolans approved of his rule.

Tens of billions of dollars from BP, Total, Chevron and others have turned Angola into a crucial supplier of oil to China and the US. Oil provides 97 per cent of government revenue but only 1 per cent of jobs. It is the lifeblood of an oligarchy that has grown fabulously wealthy. Among young Angolans facing 50 per cent unemployment, frustration is mounting.

“If you are close to the president, if you are family, you get whatever you want because you have connections,” says Maria Lucia da Silveira of the Association for Justice, Peace and Democracy, a campaign group. “If you are not connected you can’t succeed.”

Angola GDP growth

The government has spent about $150bn in the decade since the end of civil war building roads and railways, schools and skyscrapers – and this week pledged a further $17bn to bring electricity to the two-thirds of Angolans who lack power. Soaring crude prices have generated some of the world’s fastest economic growth rates. Annual GDP growth averaged 11 per cent from 2003 to last year. Yet UN analysis found that only six countries have fared worse at translating gross domestic product per head into rising living standards, suggesting that the well-connected few are the main beneficiaries.

“When the MPLA dropped its Marxist garb at the beginning of the 1990s . . . the ruling elite enthusiastically converted to crony capitalism,” writes Ricardo Soares de Oliveira, an Angola expert at Oxford university.

Even as it faces new threats at home, the regime’s international interests are flourishing, notably through an alliance between state oil group Sonangol, key figures close to the presidency and publicity-shy investors from Hong Kong known as the 88 Queensway Group.

Twin vehicles – China International Fund, which pursues mining and infrastructure ventures, and China Sonangol, which has amassed oil interests – have created what one banker familiar with their operations calls a “vast” African resources business. With deals from Guinea’s iron seams to Zimbabwe’s diamond fields, this Sino-Angolan network is expanding fast, often cultivating ties with repressive regimes.

At home, fear of renewed conflict damps many Angolans’ desire to protest. But among the intelligentsia and on the hip-hop scene, a vanguard of dissent is forming. At its forefront are rappers such as Hexplosivo Mental, who rails against the status quo on tracks such as “Reaction of the masses” and “How it feels to be poor”. The demonstrations he has helped to orchestrate are small but they have paved the way for much larger protests organised by opposition parties and ex-combatants.

“Before, we did not know how to protest,” says the young rapper, who is still nursing his injuries from the militia attack in May. “Now we are growing.” A mass demonstration against alleged manipulation of the electoral process is planned for Saturday.

Expectations are mounting that Mr dos Santos is planning to step down a year or two after the election. Either of the two favourites to succeed him would owe their position to the president.

One is Manuel Vicente, who ran Sonangol, the regime’s financial engine, for 12 years until Mr dos Santos brought him into the innermost circle in January as minister of state for economic co-ordination. He is second on the MPLA’s candidate list, behind the president, and is expected to take the vice-presidency under new election rules where voters choose a party list rather than an individual candidate. In a Financial Times interview in June, Mr Vicente declined to scotch succession rumours, saying that he would take the top job “if my party calls me”.

The other potential heir would represent the birth of a new African political dynasty. José Filomeno dos Santos – “Zenú” to his father’s “Zedú” – is a British-educated investment banker. He has avoided the reputation for unbridled cronyism that has accrued to some elite family members. But, like Mr Vicente, he faces resistance from parts of the ruling party.

For all the talk of succession, the world’s third-longest serving ruler – after those of Brunei and Equatorial Guinea – has given no cast-iron indication that he intends to depart. One person close to the regime, who asks not to be named for fear of reprisals, says: “He has no intention of leaving for a long time.”

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