Angolan Elections 2022: Indifferent Reception for President Lourenço in Malanje

Who writes the campaign speeches for the Angolan President? A statistician? For a couple of hours on Wednesday, João Lourenço stupefied would-be MPLA supporters at a campaign rally in Malanje with a stuttering list of his government’s ‘achievements’ over the past five years, doing nothing to inspire confidence in MPLA’s ability to deliver on their promise of a better future.

Suffice to say, the speech was not well received by those in attendance. As the speech dragged on the frustration of those in attendance, particularly the young people, became all too clear. Members of the audience chatted, flittered, and giggled throughout, disregarding what was being said by the President. It was impossible to ignore the contempt demonstrated by the younger members of the audience, a clear signal that the MPLA was an antiquated out-of-touch party quickly losing its once uncontested grip on a pivotal demographic.

At times the President would start a new sentence, or paragraph, by emphatically shouting “MALANJE!”, the name of the town, followed by a minute-long pause. I began to wonder if he’d lost his place while reading out his speech or if this were a pre-recorded segment and there’d been some technical malfunction. The pregnant pause would eventually be followed by the next point on his list.

Through the years MPLA demagogues had become accustomed to engaging in a call-and-response routine. Perhaps Lourenço was pausing because he expected thousands of people to respond: “PRESENTE, CAMARADA PRESIDENT”, however, no such response came, and the organizers scrambled to fill the silence with canned applause to save face. The failure to parrot the expected reply made it clear they no longer see the MPLA leader as their comrade.

I was there with an Angolan journalist. We circulated, talking to people as we went, trying to gauge their most pressing concerns and whether any of the visiting candidates had enthused them. Some, perhaps suspicious of our intent, said at first that “naturally” their vote would be “for the MPLA, the peoples’ party”. But those who carried on talking to us soon revealed their disillusion. Anyone born after 2002, when the brutal civil war ended, had no reason to share their grandparents’ allegiance to a movement that brought liberation from colonialism, nor their parents’ acceptance of the wartime one-party system. They see no reason to support the historic party of government: “We study but there are no jobs for us, no future here.”

One after another, young people revealed their growing discontent with the current system. “People are hungry” was the most common complaint. “Everything is too expensive”.

Unfulfilled promises

Angola’s expected peace dividend has not brought any improvement in living standards for the majority. As João Lourenço droned on about some 500 new homes built in Malanje while the tens of thousands of people still living in crumbling colonial bungalows or one-roomed straw and mud huts, were grumbling “Well, who lives there? Not us”.

A one-party state accustomed to a centrally-planned economy may see itself as the paternalistic provider of everything, including housing, for the people. It creates a system of preferred patronage in which people have no option but to expect the state to provide. However, these days Malanje has grown far beyond the scope of a town that has had no significant construction since the colonial period. Over a million people now live in and around the town and it would be impossible for the state alone to satisfy the housing needs of so many.

As the President boasted of new roads completed to link Malanje to the capital, Luanda, some 350 kilometres to the west, those of us who had just endured six hours of giant potholes and dirt-road diversions were left blinking and open-mouthed at the blatant untruth.

The MPLA has spent millions on this campaign. The party hands out hats, t-shirts, wraps, flags, whistles, and beads in single use plastic bags, all emblazoned with the party logo – and sometimes the President’s face as well. It busses in thousands of party loyalists for the rallies. They are carefully placed right in front, stage-managed to show uncontrollable excitement to be captured by the cameras of the state-owned media, which fully controlled by the governing party. These party members whistle, cheer, pump fists and wave flags as required. But look ten rows back at those who came under their own steam to gawp at their President and hear his pitch, and you find people kissing their teeth, jeering openly, spitting at the empty promises repeated over 47 years and still undelivered.

Malanje is traditionally one of the MPLA strongholds. My strong impression is that the MPLA has already lost the youth vote here and may struggle to retain the loyalty of long-term supporters. Outside of the urban areas, Angola’s government has retained traditional leadership structures. Rural communities look to their traditional chief, the soba for guidance.

At this rally, the MPLA had brought the chiefs in from all over the province, some of them collected as early as 3 am. I was shocked to see them forced to sit on the ground, in the red dirt, at the side of the main stage. By midday with the sun burning down, the temperature had risen to 32º C with no cooling breeze. These sobas, many of them elderly, had been sitting there for hours with not so much as a cup of water given to them. They weren’t invited to join the President for lunch at the governor’s mansion – that was for the party apparatchiks.

It should surprise no-one to learn that the traditional authorities complain of being disrespected and maltreated. In conversation with one of the few female chiefs later –Soba Maria – she told me that the government has done nothing for her people: her community has no paved roads, no medical clinic, no school, no sanitation, only a single communal water pump with no other infrastructure whatsoever. As I was driven through rural areas surrounding the provincial capital after dark, long lines of people, mostly barefoot, were walking in single file at the road’s edge in pitch black conditions, many carrying on their heads baskets of the fruits and vegetables they had grown or gathered that day, as they made their way home.

Many people here count themselves lucky if they can provide a single meal for their family once a day. Empty bellies fuel discontent and the MPLA is clearly out of touch with the grinding existence of the people it has governed for four decades. Their campaign strategy seems so out-of-touch with reality: hours devoted to a litany of (frankly) paltry achievements, instead of an attempt to empathise and offer solutions.

Freedom of expression

Remarkably, younger people feel much freer to express their disapproval of the government compared with previous years. Over and over, we saw young men and women flashing the three-fingered sign that means they support the main opposition party, UNITA, or slating the current government out loud in public. Self-censorship for fear of immediate reprisal (at best detention and a beating, at worst maybe a bullet) has evaporated as quickly as peoples’ belief that the MPLA is capable of funding development across the provinces and not just filling the pockets of its leaders. This is a concrete achievement by President Lourenço, yet he never mentions it.

The MPLA seems in thrall to the cult of personality, as though their leader’s presence is enough. There was little or no attempt to adjust the text of his speech to make it relevant to the people of Malanje except for a fleeting reference to agriculture. Clearly the party is conscious of the perception that it has failed Angolans in the provinces but a list of economic talking points, such as how the Lourenço’s government has lowered national debt, is meaningless when the vast majority have no formal education beyond elementary or secondary school.

The President’s only nod to the actual locale of the rally (other than pathetic attempts to conjure a success out of residential construction for the few and road construction yet to be completed) was a little segment on agriculture and how the fertility of the ground and climate in Malanje could supply food reserves for years for Angola. “Could” is the operative word here. Without government investment in safe roads or rail links to nearby markets and refrigeration at more distant ones, without help for irrigation, fertilisation, seeds and seedlings, agricultural implements and machinery, how is this to be achieved in practice?

The lack of enthusiasm amongst the majority of those present in Malanje was so noteworthy that the MPLA organizers began to play canned applause for the moments when President Lourenço stopped speaking. He must have noticed, surely? Even the most charismatic of politicians would find it hard to win re-election on the strength of this campaign.

What’s the alternative?

What may yet save the MPLA is the conviction amongst many that the Opposition would do no better. “All these people (government members and officials) may be poor when they take the job, but they are rich very soon after,” one of our interlocutors was happy to be quoted as saying. It was a much-repeated sentiment.

The other factor in the MPLA’s favour is appreciation that Lourenço came to power inheriting a looted country, which, together with the falling price of oil and the COVID pandemic, hampered his efforts to relaunch the economy. Some say he should be given the chance of a second term to see if the MPLA really can deliver. Others argue that the President’s economic team are the same bad apples (with few exceptions) that helped Dos Santos plunder the Treasury. Perhaps, aware of the precariousness of his position, instead of a clean sweep Lourenço felt he had no option but to fill positions with loyalists at a time of transition.

Also, it cannot be discounted that the governing party came into this race with many advantages over its main opponent: it set the rules for the election, it counts on the resources and finances of government, absolute control of the state media, and can tip the balance in its own favour. The main opposition party, UNITA, has failed to put together a convincing and coherent manifesto. There are no specifics, no concrete plans, backed by evidence of how they would be financed or achieved.

Internal migration and demographic change showed in 2017 that UNITA has considerable support outside its traditional heartland. The MPLA knows the era when it could guarantee victory across the board, is over. UNITA’s candidate, Adalberto da Costa Júnior, says the Angolans are ready for change. And yes, they are. But does he have an experienced competent team who can hit the ground running, who have clear goals and estimates of how much of the national budget they can put towards achieving each one.

Silent on necessary reforms

Pro-democracy advocates argue that Angola needs a cross-party agreement for a separation of powers as well as a devolution of powers (and budgets) at provincial and municipal levels if things are to change. This would require considerable investment in training for public administrators and judges, appointed by selection on the basis of the best qualified, rather than partisanship, to create a non-political (or apolitical) cadre of career-minded public servants.

The current electoral system does not allow voters to pass judgement on corrupt or incompetent individuals. The electorate can only express a preference for one or other of the eight parties whose registration was approved, each of which has a slate of candidates in hierarchical order, the first of which is their leader and candidate for President. An Angolan voter does not have the power to choose someone from their region or district to represent them in parliament or as provincial governor. Under the current system, provincial governors, like ministers and senior officials, are appointed by presidential patronage. Not one of the parties in this election has expressed any intention to consider or discuss reforms of this kind. It’s a winner-take-all system designed to keep the party of power in power. The suspicion is that UNITA and the others simply want their turn on the gravy train.

Tone and style

Meanwhile back at the MPLA campaign rally in Malanje, after several hours of circulating through the crowd and listening to what people had to say, my over-riding impression was that the mood was indifference at best, contempt at worst. The atmosphere improved only when the President stopped speaking and the music started.

Lourenço’s dour style of public address could not be less well-suited to these times and places. I have yet to meet a single person, pro or anti-MPLA, willing to say they feel the President understands their plight. Instead, people said things like:

“Does he not know we are hungry?” “The President doesn’t feel our pain, none of them do.” “They are living well; they don’t care about us.” “These are just promises, promises… they don’t keep their promises.” “What can we do? If we vote for the others and they win, they are just there for their turn to fill their pockets.” “They are as bad as each other. If I vote… I don’t know if my vote counts for anything.”

If President Lourenço and the MPLA truly want to connect with the electorate at their remaining rallies, there is still time for them to adjust: show respect to local dignitaries, introduce more charismatic speakers, and get the President to speak last, and succinctly, with a realistic plan to address the cost of living and hunger issues. Instead of reading a lengthy script, have him talk to his fellow Angolans from the heart. Many people say they want to hear that he knows the MPLA has under-achieved, that he feels their pain, that he is sorry and wants to do better and that he understands this is the last-chance saloon.