President José Eduardo dos Santos, whose party will no doubt win Friday’s election, has ruled Angola for 33 years. He once declared that democracy and human rights “do not fill up bellies.” But he has not even given ordinary Angolans bread as a substitute for freedom.
In 2002, after emerging from nearly three decades of civil war, Angola’s government began an ambitious national reconstruction program carried out and financed by China. As the state’s coffers filled with oil wealth, there was general optimism that millions of impoverished Angolans would share in the peace dividends. But hope was short-lived.
Mr. dos Santos hasn’t relied on Angolan workers for national reconstruction, which would create jobs and spur the economy. Instead, his regime has admitted more than 250,000 Chinese laborers on work visas. Angolans who initially complained about not getting jobs were led to believe that the Chinese would produce a miracle by building new infrastructure in record time.
But the Chinese-built roads, hospitals and schools began to crack as fast as they were being built. Luanda’s General Hospital had to be shut down in June 2010, when bricks started to fall from the walls, threatening it with imminent collapse. Newly tarred roads were washed away after one rainy season.
After Mr. dos Santos’s People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola claimed a highly suspect victory with over 80 percent of the vote in 2008, he promised to build one million houses in four years. But, as he recently acknowledged, over 60 percent of Angolan families remain mired in extreme poverty, living on less than $1.70 per day and without proper shelter — a problem that Beijing hasn’t helped him solve. Instead China helped the government build blocks of apartments selling for between $125,000 and $250,000.
The Chinese are not investing to develop the country. They have brought more corruption and, consequently, more poverty. African leaders have a duty to serve and guide their people, and not depend on foreign intervention. Unfortunately, in Angola, the presidential family, government officials and top generals have monopolized the country’s resources for their illicit enrichment while paying Chinese to do shoddy labor.
In this year’s budget, Mr. dos Santos earmarked over $40 million to promote Angola’s image abroad, through a private company owned and managed by two of his children. The two also received two state-owned television channels, and the government now pays them millions to dabble as TV executives.
Elections are unlikely to change things. Preparations for Friday’s vote have failed to meet the most basic standards of organizing a democratic poll.
Voter registration was carried out by the government. The database of registered voters was handed over to the National Electoral Commission only three months before the elections. A partial audit carried out by Deloitte found that the identities of two-thirds of the country’s 9.7 million registered voters could not be verified and that the government still holds the voter registration cards of over 1.5 million citizens whose whereabouts are unknown. Two million voters still need to be assigned to polling stations.
The commission, under the thumb of Mr. dos Santos, also refuses to allow opposition parties access to certified copies of electoral results from each polling station, which is required by law. To prevent exit polling, the commission has ordered that results cannot be tallied at individual polling stations. And no member of the opposition or independent observer will be allowed to enter the “national scrutiny center” where results will be tabulated and announced, as was the case in 2008.
The outcome on Friday will therefore not remotely reflect the will of the people.
Mr. dos Santos has missed an opportunity to implement democratic reforms both as a safeguard for his peaceful retirement and as a legacy for the country. All he needed to do was let the peace dividends and the economic boom trickle down to ordinary Angolans. Instead, he used victory on the battlefield, after 27 years of war, to consolidate his power even though his family and his cronies were already rich.
The government, unnerved by the Arab Spring, has become increasingly repressive in the past year. It has been particularly frustrated by regular youth protests demanding the end of Mr. dos Santos’s rule. The largest of these demonstrations, which were started by rap musicians in 2011, drew 3,000 people. The movement is gaining traction among Angola’s more than 200,000 war veterans, some of whom have also been demonstrating to demand their pensions, many of which have been in arrears for 20 years. Even former presidential guards, who were laid off without compensation, tried to protest, on May 27. Two of the protest’s organizers, Alves Kamulingue and Isaías Cassule, were swiftly kidnapped and are now feared dead.
If elections cannot produce the changes that Angolans are seeking, then there will be increased pressure for the president to step down as a precondition for change. Indeed, the risk of violent revolt is increasing, and Mr. dos Santos will go down in history as just another dictator who was blinded by power and greed.
Rafael Marqués de Morais is a journalist and anti-corruption activist.