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Angola: From politics of disorder to politics of democratisation

Steve Kibble


20 April 2006

SARPN acknowledges Pambazuka as the source of this document -
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On Wednesday, Angolan President Jose Eduardo dos Santos declared that his country would go to the polls before the end of 2008. Elections, not held since 1992, have been constantly delayed in the country, leading human rights activists to accuse the government of clinging to power. Steve Kibble analyses the complex nature of the Angolan state, concluding that: "Despite rhetoric on increased transparency, accountability and democratisation little has yet been accomplished to overcome the gap between ruler and ruled."

Angola became independent from the Portuguese in 1975 after a costly and long running liberation war with three antagonistic independence movements based on different ethno-linguistic, ideological constituencies. In its almost fourth year of peace there is no immediate reason why war should resume. This follows 27 years of nearly continuous civil war between Uniao Nacional para a Independencia total de Angola (UNITA) rebels under their dictatorial leader Jonas Savimbi, and the governing Movimento Popular de Libertacao de Angola (MPLA). The former were US and apartheid South Africa-backed, with a rhetoric of representing the poor 'real' rural Africans of the interior. The governing party was based on the coastal elite which has large urban and mestizo elements, with a commitment to nationalism, socialism, and anti-imperialism in a conflict overlaid by the Cold War.

In 1991 the Stalinist state with an inefficient command economy changed to a supposed multiparty democratic state and market economy. Few freedoms were realised although free and fair elections were won by the government in 1992 - the 'excuse' for UNITA to renew the war. The state remained heavily centralised with the president able to control extra-budgetary revenues for his own accumulation and clientilist purposes. It has massive oil production, revenues and potential. Much of the infrastructure, agriculture and rudimentary health services were destroyed by war with millions of landmines being laid - with knock-on effects on agriculture, transport as well as people's lives.

War also meant excess mortality of one million deaths - roughly a tenth of Angola's population, displacement and urbanisation with about half of all Angolans, perhaps seven million people, living in cities and towns. The agrarian system collapsed as did the health and education services - only 37 percent of primary-aged children were enrolled in school whilst most of the health budget goes to hospital-based curative services, including elite spending in South Africa and Portugal.

Peace broke out in April 2002 when Savimbi was killed, leaving the MPLA-controlled government undisputed victor, but espousing reconciliation (Although reconciliation here largely means (six) blanket amnesties, no truth commissions and inviting selected opposition elements into the elite) - for which civil society can claim some credit. The country in theory faces a triple transition from war to peace, from devastation to reconstruction, and from a state/elite patronage system to a transparent market economy. The first two are better advanced including a greater commitment to infrastructural (re)construction. Many in civil society express concerns over delays in and government commitment to reform. Inflation has been brought down although no major structural reform has occurred. In particular there is unlikely to be a challenge to the key nature of the bazaar economy (Cadongo) in trade and services controlled upstream by commercial tycoons and army officers able to accumulate resources by using special powers, granted them by senior politicians, to import goods (Angola is ranked 133 out of 145 countries on Transparency International's corruption index. Between 1997 and 2001, $8.45 billion of public money was unaccounted for (an average of 23% of GDP)- IMF.).

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