Devolution: Local Government Is the Way Forward

The situation in Angola’s is complex. The younger generation have shown the depth of their discontent with the lack of opportunity for study or employment. Young people in Angola see nothing to help them offered in politicians’ and technocrats’ speeches about the economy and they are desperate to change their lives for the better.

This is why, in the election that just took place, the younger generation overwhelmingly voted for change, and they did so in an unparalleled peaceful and orderly manner. No good purpose could be served by creating a situation in which peace and tranquillity are abandoned for conflict and violence. Destructive behaviour now is not going to deliver employment or put food on the table. There has to be a political response that meets the aspirations of the younger generation, that eases the pain of a demographic that has shown it wants a radical change in politics, government, and the economy, and it wants that change now.

Why waste the excellent example of democratic and civic responsibility evinced by Angolans in the elections on August 24th? UNITA is entirely within its legitimate rights to challenge the results announced so far and to demand a recount. There is a right and proper way to do this, through the existing official channels, and this is exactly what UNITA is doing. The National Electoral Commission (CNE) needs to respond in the letter and spirit of the law, to examine all the signed-off tallies and compare them to ensure the correct results were registered and this process should be transparent.

You cannot achieve this by subjugating Angola’s national sovereignty and independence to a foreign organization. Angola neither wants nor needs to take orders from Portugal, or from any other foreign or multi-national body. Unwonted attempts to short-circuit the system, or sweep it aside, may seem like a practical solution in the short term, but they will set an anarchic and disastrous precedent.

The Angolan people, and above all, the under 30s, need answers. And they deserve to be given a full picture that can allay their fears and suspicions. Whatever the final numbers may show, there could (and should) be an immediate political response to the peoples’ demand for a change of attitudes and behaviour by the government. One aspect of the change they need to see should include stronger checks and balances on the powers of the presidency and government, including a requirement for scrutiny by the National Assembly, giving the opposition a more significant role in auditing the activities of government. The government needs to take swift action to make some of the necessary changes it has been contemplating, to show the electorate that it is listening to them and acting on their wishes. In particular, the government needs to act urgently to set a date for provincial and local elections, ideally in 2023.

People across the provinces need to be able to elect their local governments directly, so that the people holding these positions are not imposed by the national government but selected from their communities, with the local knowledge and contacts necessary to identify and prioritize the issues of most importance to their areas. Devolving powers to the provinces and local authorities would show voters that the national government has heard what they want and is acting on it. It allows the electorate to feel confident they can elect people they know and hold them directly to account. This act alone would alleviate some of the anger and tension felt across the nation.

People suspect the MPLA is reluctant to cede the reins of power for fear that UNITA has no experience of the complex tasks of government and may make a difficult economic situation worse. Provincial and local elections will certainly deliver devolved powers to UNITA in many places and gaining experience of direct control over local matters can serve as essential preparation for the wider task of governing nationally.

In addition, devolving administrative powers to provincial and local governments allows people outside the national capital to develop these skills and will create the capacity for a separation of powers between the political parties who may form governments and an independent and non-partisan public administration.

Change is inevitable. The older generation has a duty to help the younger generation acquire the necessary knowledge and skills so that in due course they can take over. The election on August 24th has clearly shown that Angolans are ready for alternância – for political parties to alternate in government, as happens in all the established democratic systems. It seems self-evident that the outgoing government should concentrate its efforts now on re-establishing civic reconciliation and harmony, and on creating the necessary conditions for future transfers of power, thus averting any possibility that outside and predatory forces could once again seize a moment of disunion for their own advantage. Attitudes need to change, so that instead of immediate electoral gain, parties are able to consider what can guarantee medium- and longer-term progress, resulting in gradual but effective improvements of the lives of the many, not just the few. Experts concur that acting quickly to organize local elections, ensuring a swift devolution of governance at the local level, is certain to achieve a better balance of power between the MPLA (which has ruled unopposed at all levels for 47 years) and the main Opposition party UNITA. Establishing directly-elected local governments will usher in a new era in which local decisions are made in the best interest of all in the community, and multi-party democracy has real meaning and impact.