Angolan polls, Zim’s succession: A glass half-full or half-empty?

On August 23 this year, millions of Angolans voted in the country’s fourth general elections since independence from Portugal in 1975.

Gwinyai Dzinesa,Political analyst

Dubbed the “transition polls”, the national elections were momentous as a means to national leadership renewal. Although constitutionally capable of running for a second term under Angola’s 2010 constitution, President Jose Eduardo dos Santos did not seek re-election after 38 years at the helm. Dos Santos’s decision represented a radical shift on the country’s political landscape as the towering political figure is the only leader that generations of Angolans have known (over 60% of Angola’s population is aged 25 and younger and constitutes a new generation of voters).

The general elections, which were also the third since the end of Angola’s 27-year civil war in 2002 and the second under the 2010 constitution, tested the consolidation trajectory of the country’s democracy. About 77% of around nine million registered voters participated in the elections.

The main opposition party, Unita and the coalition Casa-CE won 26,7% and 9,5% respectively. This translated to the MPLA winning 150 of 220 parliamentary states — more than the two-thirds majority needed to pass any legislation without help from another party. The results closely mirrored the 60-40 victory margin predicted by analysts in an uneven playing field. This meant that the MPLA’s share of the vote was remarkably lower than the 82% and 72% it garnered in the 2008 and 2012 elections, respectively.

Election observation missions from the Southern African Development Community (Sadc) and the African Union (AU) gave the polls a preliminary clean bill of health. Notwithstanding the misgivings of the opposition, the fact that the elections were held smoothly and without incident across the country will help confer legitimacy on Angola’s president-elect, the MPLA’s João Lourenço, and his new government.

So, what exactly do the recent elections mean for political succession and power transition in Angola?

Political succession in Angola via the 2017 elections is the proverbial glass of water — depending on the political perspective of the observer, a glass half-full or half-empty. The political transition did not mark a clean break with the Dos Santos past, as the long-serving ruler will become the country’s president emeritus and remains leader of the dominant MPLA. Despite relinquishing the country’s top position, Dos Santos will retain sweeping powers as the doyen of the MPLA.

There is a possible creation of two centres of power in post-election Angolan politics, whereby Dos Santos would be the chief of the ruling party, while Lourenço would be president of the country.

The glass-half-full perspective would suggest that with the exit of Dos Santos from the country’s top office, a positive precedent will be set and a political reset possible.

Lourenço’s ascent to the country’s presidency may usher in a period of transformative change by walking the MPLA’s “Improving what is right and correcting what is wrong” campaign talk.

This would include focussing on social governance that addresses Angolans’ real socio-political and economic concerns, such as reducing poverty, unemployment, inequality and corruption — steps that Dos Santos was either unwilling or unable to take.

The reform and opening up would entail the daunting task of standing up to the MPLA’s entrenched politico-security elite and the Dos Santos children in control of the purse strings.

His son, José Filomeno, runs Angola’s US$5 billion sovereign wealth fund and his daughter, Isabel, controls the country’s oil behemoth Sonangol, which extends patronage and facilitates elite aggrandisement.

Lourenço has vowed to revive the Angolan economy which has been sent tailspinning into chaos by the drop in oil prices since 2014. He will have a mission to lead diversification from the diamond and oil sectors and investment in job-generating sectors such as manufacturing and agriculture well cut out for him.

Meanwhile, Dos Santos, for all his criticisms, will, in addition to winning plaudits for voluntarily relinquishing power, enjoy a legacy for restoring peace, stability and growth to a war-inured nation.

Under the glass-half-full outlook, the Sadc Electoral Advisory Council (SEAC) would continue to use its stronger role in regional election matters to work with Angola’s election stakeholders to ensure alignment of the country’s processes with regional guidelines and principles. Indeed, Sadc and AU election monitors took note of opposition concerns and suggested key recommendations for Angola to strengthen its electoral processes and democracy building.

These include: transparent and credible voter registration and control of the key voters’ roll by an independent CNE instead of the Ministry of Territorial Administration, which was headed by the MPLA’s deputy presidential candidate; timely release of the voters’ register; transparent and smooth accreditation of opposition political parties’ representatives; strengthening of the media regulatory body to ensure equal access and coverage of all political parties and candidates in the public media; suitable location of polling stations; and civic and voter education on the modalities of the diaspora vote.

Historically, such recommendations have been easy enough for countries to ignore, given the lackadaisical promotion of their adequate implementation and follow-up by the regional and continental bodies.

The glass-half-empty perspective warns of ex-president Dos Santos still lurking behind the scenes and pulling the strings of power at will. Unita leader Samakuva encapsulated this viewpoint: “Lourenço will be just a chauffeur, with the boss sitting in the back seat and directing him where to turn, when to accelerate, to slow down and when to stop . . . Lourenço didn’t win his candidacy via a contest or party election.”

Significantly, with an extra post-presidential hold on power and wealth, Dos Santos may recall Lourenço should he dare manoeuvre to unseat him from the party’s helm. In order to avert a political crisis, the two leaders will likely collaborate to perpetuate “System dos Santos”, which has maintained the MPLA in power and postpone essential structural reforms. Angola will have witnessed elections without change.

An unlikely glass-empty perspective is that of a disputed MPLA victory. Unita and Casa-CE, which alleged electoral fraud have not accepted an MPLA win, had their complaints about voting irregularities dismissed by the CNE. The opposition parties can appeal the CNE’s decision to the constitutional court, which is the final arbiter of the country’s elections.

There remains concern around the independence of the court as the MPLA’s Dos Santos was responsible for appointing the judges. In this regard, one cannot ignore the Kenyan Supreme Court historic annulment of last month’s presidential election won by incumbent President Uhuru Kenyatta on the grounds that the poll was inconsistent with the country’s constitution and the Elections Act.

In Angola, the opposition’s appeal may fail and possible street protests by its supporters could trigger instability in the country in a context of festering discontent, Cabinda separatism and Dos Santos’s departure. In the event of social unrest, Angola’s security forces could respond with disproportionate force. Should Sadc’s Election Observer Mission find Angola to have violated the Sadc Principles and Guidelines Governing Democratic Elections and post-election violence stir up, recourse could be found through Sadc’s Organ on Politics, Defence and Security Cooperation (OPDSC) and the Sadc Heads of State Summit.

Significantly, the placing of Angola on the regional body’s peace and security agenda would have to take into account the fact that Angola is the chair of the Sadc OPDSC. With a stronger role throughout the electoral cycle, SEAC’s assessment of
the conditions that would have led to the election-related conflict could be the basis of sound advice for the organ on mediation strategies.

So, what is the relevance of the Angolan elections and political succession story to Zimbabwe? Although each country has its own specific political culture and context, there are parallels. Zimbabwe has a long-ruling strong leader, too. In fact, President Robert Mugabe, who has led Zimbabwe since its Independence from Britain in 1980, has replaced Dos Santos as Africa’s second-longest-serving leader after Equitorial Guinea’s Teodoro Obiang Nguema.

But, unlike Dos Santos, who at 74 decided not to run in Angola’s last elections and voluntarily pass on the leadership baton, Mugabe is earmarked to be again the ruling Zanu PF’s presidential candidate in Zimbabwe’s 2018 elections. And at the ripe old age of 94.

Angola’s August 2017 elections took place in a peculiar political context that was skilfully engineered by Dos Santos and his inner circle to guarantee their prolonged hold on power. The hallmarks of “System dos Santos” that were real public concerns and need to be addressed include: Political patronage and nepotism; corruption and lack of transparency; politicisation and weak capacity of state institutions; and opaque political and security sector interests in the economy.

Nepotism at its finest was exemplified by Dos Santos’s appointment of his kids to run Angola’s sovereign wealth fund and Sonangol. The Sonangol chief executive, Isabel dos Santos, has proven experience as manager of several listed companies around the world. She is Africa’s richest woman with an estimated fortune of US$3,5 billion. Notwithstanding this, there had been concerns that Dos Santos was angling for a dynastic transition to one of his children to guarantee his family’s stranglehold on the country’s economy.

Zimbabwe may not be too different. There reportedly exists a politico-military-business complex designed to protect regime security and ensure Zanu PF political hegemony. Mugabe’s daughter, Bona Chikore, was recently appointed a member of Zimbabwe’s Censorship Board and the new Empower Bank, which will be run by the National Indigenisation and Economic Empowerment Board. Although Bona obtained a master’s degree in banking and finance in Singapore, she reportedly has no post-graduation banking work experience.

Bona’s husband — Mugabe’s son-in-law — is chief operating officer at Air Zimbabwe without requisite qualifications and managerial experience at that level.

Mugabe’s nephew Patrick Zhuwao (who is also the Indigenisation minister) defended the appointment of Bona and two other young officials to the Empower Bank board, saying they possessed the necessary skills and fit the ministry’s youth promotion policy.

These appointments not only raised eyebrows and allegations of patronage, nepotism and cronyism; there was also speculation that Mugabe was intent on building a quasi-dynasty to safeguard his family’s financial and political survival.

Bona’s ultimate succession to her father’s position is a long shot, but the First Lady Grace Mugabe has featured prominently in the internecine power struggles to succeed her husband as leader of the ruling Zanu PF and the country.

She was instrumental in the purge of former vice-president Joice Mujuru and several cabinet ministers from the party in 2014. She has reportedly been linked with one of Zanu PF’s factions — the G40 — that is said to be contending with Vice-President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s Team Lacoste clique in the ruling party’s game of thrones.

Grace has said the ruling party should ensure that one of her husband’s two deputies as ruling party leader is a woman. As head of the party women’s group, Grace is well-paced to be shoehorned into that position.

The First Lady has even called for Mugabe to anoint his successor. A stage-managed transition may prevent clandestine succession wrangles from imploding the revolutionary party.

Significantly, the two prominent leading contenders to fill Mugabe’s big shoes, Mnangagwa (Team Lacoste) and Defence minister Sydney Sekeremayi (G40), both have liberation war credentials and unquestionable allegiance to Zanu PF. The former is reported to have the backing of the important security chiefs, while the latter is reportedly backed by Mugabe.

Indeed, the MPLA has shown how the controlled and peaceful transition from Dos Santos avoided the emergence of a power vacuum and helped stem the risk of political infighting inside the liberation movements-cum-ruling party.

Dos Santos’s official announcement that he would not stand for re–election and the designation of then Defence minister Lourenço as his heir apparent resolved the MPLA leadership succession saga, which was seen as one of the greatest possible sources of instability in the country.

Lourenço is a party loyalist with unquestionable war credentials and the support of the armed forces. He was a better candidate than Dos Santos’s previous choice as successor, (former) deputy president, Manuel Vicente, who lacked the wartime badge of honour.

Analysts noted that the risk of instability following a sudden transition had increased substantially over the past decade, which saw greater concentration of power in the hands of the president, making the vacant position even more attractive to aspiring politicians.

It is still premature to establish a political bellwether for, and predict, Zimbabwe’s 2018 elections vis-à-vis political succession. Much will rest on how Zanu PF manages the factionalism around Mugabe’s succession and whether the fragmented opposition will form and maintain a serious coalition strong enough to challenge the bitterly divided ruling party.

Early signs are that Mugabe will not anoint a successor and will be the party’s presidential candidate pitted in a major battle against veteran opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, who will likely head the opposition coalition.

The 2018 elections will signify a political succession and power transition glass-empty scenario should Mugabe skillfully engineer a replica of Zanu PF’s 2013 election triumph. Conversely, an opposition alliance victory will represent a glass-full political succession and power transition situation.

The first glass-half-full perspective sees Mugabe doing the unthinkable and anointing a successor (perhaps the Defence minister like in Angola), who would then be the Zanu PF candidate for the 2018 poll. Mugabe would continue to be an influential godfather of the party. The second half-full outlook perceives a disputed election outcome that may result in another Sadc mediation ditto 2008.

Dzinesa is a freelance peace and security researcher. His latest book, Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration in Southern Africa: Swords into Ploughshares? has just been published by Palgrave Macmillan.

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