Angolan Elections 2022: Final Days of the Campaign

It was a hectic end to the campaign: observing MPLA rallies in Benguela and Luanda and, on the last day of the 2022 campaign, UNITA’s final rally in the district of Cazenga in the capital, Luanda. It was a spectacle of music, dance and speeches that was received enthusiastically by the thousands who flocked to the area behind the site of the Luanda International Fair.

The atmosphere was buzzing; over-eager youth almost pushing over the barricades as they tried to get closer to the stage where the UNITA candidates would sit. There was little of the regimented wearing of party colours seen at the MPLA rallies. One of the party’s parliamentary candidates said they were thrilled that ordinary people were coming, not just the party members. And with a wink, “we didn’t have to hand out money to random motorcyclists to turn up, either”. That’s something the ruling MPLA is reported to have done to increase numbers at some of its rallies.

UNITA has embraced allied party members, independent politicians, and social activists onto its list of candidates for parliament. Number one on the list is the party leader, Adalberto Costa Júnior, who would become President of Angola if UNITA were to secure a majority of votes cast. Second on the list is Abel Chivukuvuku, the charismatic former UNITA star politician. Chivukuvuku narrowly escaped with his life in the ‘Halloween Massacre’ that erupted after the 1992 election results. He left UNITA in 2011 to form the Broad Coalition for the Salvation of Angola – Electoral Coalition (CASA- CE in the Portuguese acronym), which currently has 16 members in Parliament. Other politicians in CASA-CE fell out with Chivukuvuku, and pushed him out of the coalition. Last year he tried to form his own party, which (unlike some newer parties such as the Humanist Party and P-Django) was denied registration. Would he have been a greater threat to MPLA dominance? From the rapturous response he received, I gauge that he still commands a lot of admiration and respect.

Adalberto Costa Junior, like the speakers before him, talked about the failings of the MPLA which has ruled for 47 years: the missing billions of petrodollars that could have alleviated the underdevelopment of infrastructure across the nation, the grinding poverty affecting half the population who live on less than two dollars a day, too few opportunities for training and jobs for young people. He says things will be different if he’s elected, he’ll free things up, feed the hungry, give youth a future. It’s time for a change.

UNITA’s final last day of the 2022 campaign, in the district of Cazenga

It’s a seductive message compared to the dreary list of “achievements” being trotted out by the incumbent MPLA leader João Lourenço, who addressed his closing rally on Saturday. The party faithful were taken by coach to the suburb of Camama, some 25 kilometres from Luanda’s downtown core. More than 150 hired coaches transported MPLA card-carrying members from the nine municipalities in and around Luanda to this distant venue: an open field behind the new headquarters of Angolan State Television. Although open to the public, this was not a place within easy reach of the casual observer. Attendance at campaign events is obligatory for party members and they are well drilled. Here in Luanda, as in the even more numerous rally in Benguela last week, when President Lourenço made the calls, the massed attendees promptly and in chorus thundered the required responses:

Lourenço: “Viva Angola!”

Crowd: “VIVA!”

Lourenco: “Um só povo…” [One country indivisible…]

Crowd: “UMA SÓ NAÇÃO”. [… one single nation.]

Lourenco: “O povo unido …” [The people united…]

Crowd: “JAMAIS SERÁ VENCIDO” […will never be defeated.]

Lourenco: “A luta continua…” [The struggle continues…]

Crowd: “A VITÓRIA É CERTA”. […victory is certain.]

João Lourenço’s closing rally on Saturday

Is victory certain? Maybe not. At the MPLA rallies addressed by the President in Malanje, Benguela and Luanda, I saw a pattern emerge: masses of people, energized and enthusiastic at the start of the rally, gradually losing interest the longer it went on. Long before the President ended his dreary speech, people were already streaming for the exits (myself included), hoping to escape before the inevitable traffic jam.

Without doubt UNITA has its best-ever chance to benefit from discontent over the under-performance of the ruling MPLA and is widely predicted to gain seats and a larger overall percentage of the vote. The UNITA leader and candidate for President, Adalberto Costa Júnior, has repeatedly pointed to the MPLA’s greater financial resources, saying they have frittered away a billion dollars on this campaign alone.

Huge quantities of party-branded giveaways were imported and distributed around the country: flags, shirts and blouses, sarong-style wraps, hats, headscarves, sunglasses, beads, clackers, and backpacks. Was this money that could have been better spent on subsiding food or delivering aid to the drought-ridden southern provinces?

It’s clear that Angolans have woken up to the corruption and self-enrichment of previous MPLA Administrations, that there is widespread impatience over their failure to pull more than half the nation out of grinding poverty in the two decades since the war ended. But the MPLA remains the most numerous, best funded and best organized political machine, with all the natural advantages that accrue to the party in government. Their strategists say they are confident that despite losing ground they will still have the numbers to retain a majority in parliament and deliver a second term for João Lourenço.

Both parties resort to the tactics of yesteryear, smearing opponents, complaining of dirty tricks, alleging fraud before a single vote is cast. For example, it is no secret that the Angolan electoral roll is not up to date. When the Ministry of Territorial Administration was calling on Angolans to attend in person to update their records, Minister Marcy Lopes admitted his staff had no means of knowing how many of those on the registry might have died since the last election. He said they were depending on Angolans themselves to provide the information. The opposition parties have known this for months and yet waited until mid-campaign to complain that the ‘phantom’ names offer an opportunity for fraud.

The governing party counters by saying regardless of whether the name is there, if the person has died then they are not going to turn up to vote. To the last moment UNITA suggested that the MPLA might try to rig the vote but that if all their supporters turn out, they will prevail. They’ve called on them to vote and then stay nearby (“Votou, Sentou”) to ‘protect’ the security of the ballot boxes.

The power of the dead

Just hours after João Lourenço closed the MPLA’s campaign in Luanda, the President was conspicuous by his absence as a chartered Angolan Airlines plane brought home the mortal remains of his predecessor, José Eduardo dos Santos.

The scene at Luanda’s 4 de fevereiro airport was vastly different to that which greeted the country’s first post-colonial President, Agostinho Neto, who also died abroad. There was no guard of honour, no respectful, white-gloved hands to carry the flag-draped coffin from the aircraft. Instead, the man who had ruled unopposed for 38 years, the ‘architect of peace’ who defeated UNITA on the battlefield, was unceremoniously dumped onto a mobile luggage conveyor belt before funeral home employees juggled him aboard a hearse.

From the airport, flashing blue lights and sirens provided an escort to the mansion built by the former president high above the bay in Miramar, with its unobstructed views of the Atlantic Ocean beyond. A state funeral is now scheduled for Sunday August 28th – four days after Angolans go to the polls and the day on which, had he lived to see another birthday, Dos Santos would have turned 80.

The return of the former President’s body to his homeland represents a victory of sorts for his widow and for the MPLA that wants to give its former leader a funeral befitting a former head of state. It puts an end to the unseemly tussle over which of the Dos Santos next of kin had the legal right to claim him for burial. The older children, most of whom face legal jeopardy in Angola over alleged corruption and money -laundering offences, claimed his widow had betrayed him in life and again in death by making a deal with President Lourenço. They feared a state funeral might offer a boost in popularity to the man they say has a vendetta against them.

By the time a Barcelona court ruled that the widow had jurisdiction, five days of official mourning had come and gone without papering over any of the divisions within the MPLA. The election will be over before the funeral. And his children, even those who happily accepted hundreds of millions of dollars to launch business interests and live in luxury, have been offered a temporary amnesty to attend.

The most vocal and litigious of his children, Welwitschia dos Santos, known as Tchizé, a former member of parliament for the MPLA, is livid with her father’s successor and clearly wants to see him brought down, to the extent of calling on fans of the former first family to vote for UNITA. As though Zédu, a man who joined the MPLA as a teenager and rose to command it for nearly four decades, would approve of turncoats siding with his sworn enemies.

Nonetheless, like Tchizé, many are crossing the floor: Marcolino Moco a former MPLA Prime Minister now backing UNITA and advocating for change; one of Savimbi’s reputed 32 children joining the MPLA, saying he can’t recommend the organization founded by his father. In one sense this is a healthy sign – that the new generation has greater freedom of choice and yet it just adds to the sense of confusion. The day before polling day is supposed to be a day of “reflection”, free from party politics – though that is no longer possible in the age of social media. Tomorrow 14 million Angolans are eligible to cast their votes. There won’t be long to wait before the result: more of the same or the start of a new era.