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MPLA rattled as Angola’s oil price plummets

There’s a palpable sense of crisis in Angola, say observers of the country. That’s largely because of the plummeting price of oil, the mainstay of the economy. This is making it harder for ordinary people to make ends meet and so is stirring social discontent. It’s also making it harder for the MPLA (Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola) government to finance the security apparatus and the patronage networks that have so far kept it in power, despite the rising discontent.

In June, a motley group of 15 youths was arrested – including the well-known rapper Luaty Beirão – supposedly for plotting a coup against the regime of President José Eduardo dos Santos. This suggests that the always-paranoid MPLA is feeling more jittery than usual, and so, is overreacting.

The arrests may, on the other hand, ironically also be developing into a catalyst for the change that is bubbling just below the surface – not least because of the MPLA’s overreaction.

Language and political barriers keep South Africa and most of the region largely in the dark about events in Angola. An appalling massacre in April by government forces of members of a religious sect demonstrating in Huambo, in the Central Highlands, barely caused a ripple outside the country.

Rafael Marques de Morais, the journalist and activist who has been trying to keep the world up to date about corruption and political repression through his website Maka Angola, insists the 15 arrested youths had merely gathered to discuss peaceful political opposition when they were picked up. Marques disclosed that earlier this month, government agents had travelled to Portugal to interrogate the Angolan academic and opposition figure Alberto Neto about the 15 youths, since they had been meeting at his house in Luanda when they were arrested.

Angola arrests 15 Youths for opposing president. Photo: Leanwords
Angola arrests 15 Youths for opposing president. Photo: Leanwords

Neto told Marques the security agents had said that the 15 youths were plotting a coup and had already persuaded members of the Angolan Armed Forces to remain neutral when the coup was unfolding. The agents also told him the youths had a list of leaders to replace the government. This included José Kalupeteka, the leader of the sect whose members were massacred in Huambo, as well as the arrested rapper Luaty Beirão, who would become the new attorney general of the republic.

‘I told them these kids are nobodies, much less have any military training. How could they possibly attempt a coup?’ Neto told Marques.

Marques is organising a meeting in Luanda on Saturday of a wide range of civil society groups, where the opposition UNITA party (National Union for the Total Independence of Angola) is also expected. This is to protest the arrests of the 15 youths, and also that of the activist José Mavungo in the Cabinda enclave, who is on trial accused of attempting an armed rebellion.

Angolan-Rap-artist-Luaty-Beirao. Photo: Vao News
Angolan-Rap-artist-Luaty-Beirao. Photo: Vao News

Whoever one believes about the real intentions of the group of 15 – and the government has produced no evidence of a coup – there does seem to be growing sense that the country’s politics are graduating from the old MPLA-UNITA enmity and rivalry that has dominated for 40 years to a younger generation. This has uncertain and possibly far-reaching implications.

Marques is among several observers who believe the UNITA leadership is no longer up to the task of mobilising opposition to the MPLA government. He and Angola expert, Justin Pearce, said in Johannesburg this week they believed that although UNITA had lost considerable support in its old Central Highlands heartland, its support was growing in Luanda, which is not a traditional stronghold of the party.

Pearce said UNITA was ‘looking both backwards and forwards.’ In rural Angola, UNITA was still pursuing the sterile, civil-war-era politics of trying to present itself as an alternative state to the MPLA, rather than an opposition party. In the cities, however, it was starting to practise the modern politics of joining forces with even progressive civil society activists.

But Marques said the UNITA leadership was not capitalising fully on the growing support for the party in Luanda, or on the rising popular discontent in the country. The journal Africa Confidential agreed, in a recent article, noting that UNITA’s parliamentary team might at most move a motion of censure in the assembly against the arrest of the 15 youths, ‘but it doesn’t try to fuel mass protest. This caution, and sometimes co-option, has left space for a third force in which a younger generation makes the running.’

Angola expert Paula Roque, of the International Crisis Group, believes this is a moment for UNITA to assert its leadership. She said it was encouraging that UNITA in Parliament had recently led a united effort of all parties calling for a process to hold Dos Santos personally responsible for criminal actions, such as corruption.

Flag of Angola. Photo: Defence Web
Flag of Angola. Photo: Defence Web

She also noted that Marques’s protest meeting on Saturday was being held at UNITA premises, suggesting the party was starting to get involved in the popular protests. This is the moment to capitalise on, she believes, as Angola is ‘slowly imploding’ because of the plunging oil price, which had basically halved the government budget this year.

Quoting a Bloomberg report of a briefing by oil executives in Luanda last Friday, she said some oil companies were threatening to pull out of Angola because the falling oil prices and rising costs, including a new tax that the government was introducing.

‘Strict new regulations on emissions and waste, coupled with low prices, mean some companies are considering pulling the plug on Angola, which became OPEC’s newest member in 2007,’ the report quoted Pedro Godinho, the managing director of the US–Angola Chamber of Commerce, as saying.

Roque said in an interview that the MPLA was thrashing about for new sources of revenue and was even asking companies to finance its rallies.

The International Monetary Fund said in August that Angola might need external support to bridge a balance of payments shortfall caused by the falling oil price.

Roque said the falling oil price had slashed the MPLA’s ability to finance its patronage networks and its security apparatus, loosening its tight grip on power. The economic crisis has also made it much harder for the ordinary Angolan to make ends meeting, stoking social unrest.

‘Luanda is bubbling. Angolans don’t have an appetite for revolution, but something could provide the trigger,’ she said, noting that many centres of disaffection with the government were coalescing.

Wits University Angola expert Claudia Gastrow says while it may be true that Dos Santos has amply demonstrated his genius for survival in his 36 years of power, she also believes that he is slowly losing his grip as he gets older, presenting the MPLA with a quandary about succession.

Jose Eduardo dos Santos. Photo: Daily Maverick
Jose Eduardo dos Santos. Photo: Daily Maverick

Is a popular ‘third force’ emerging to displace UNITA, as Africa Confidential suggests? This is not yet clear, though a generational change seems to be taking place in the opposition, as Angolans too young to remember the MPLA-Unita civil war, which ended in 2002, come to the fore.

‘New opposition voices led by young Angolans are emerging whose methods and demands do not fit with the style of party politics that have been in place since the end of the war. There is a growing number of activists and groups whose interests are beginning to converge, most often around demands for rule of law and human rights,’ Gastrow says.

Whether they will converge into a movement broad enough to change the government is the great imponderable, she said. ‘But there is definitely a sense of crisis in Angola right now,’ Gastrow added.

This article was first published by the Institute for Security Studies and is republished here with their permission.

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