Al-Ahram Weekly Online   6 - 12 September 2012
Issue No. 1113
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Gamal Nkrumah

MPLA preponderates

Buttressed by its landslide victory, Angola's ruling party must act now with a new mandate to bolster confidence among the country's youth, contends Gamal Nkrumah

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A man looks at a copy of the ballot poster at the entrance of a polling station in the Angolan capital Luanda during national elections

Wherever he goes Angolan President Jose Eduardo Dos Santos, Africa's leading Communist capitalist cannot escape the question. When will the trickle-down effect impact the poorest of the poor in the third largest economy in Sub-Saharan Africa after South Africa and Nigeria -- except that South Africa has a population of 50 million and Nigeria a population of 170 million while Angola only has 20 million. With two-digit economic growth rates over the past decade half of the Angolan population lives below the poverty line.

The United Nations Human Development Index ranks Angola 148th out of 187 countries -- a paradoxically poor performance for one of Africa's wealthiest countries, one blessed with minerals galore, oil and natural gas, and tremendous agricultural potential.

Dos Santos understands that Angola is on course to become an African energy superpower, and the rejuvenation of Angola's capital city and other urban centres is a hopeful sign that the scars of the three decades long civil war are fast healing. Moreover, Angola long involved militarily in its northern neighbour, the Democratic Republic of Congo's civil war, has long pulled out of the Congolese imbroglio.

Angola's National Electoral Commission declared the ruling Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (better known by its Portuguese acronym MPLA) as having won a landslide victory of 72 per cent. Its onetime arch rival the Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) scooped barely 19 per cent, almost doubling its 2008 tally. UNITA never survived the crushing blow of the assassination of its charismatic leader Jonas Savimbi, an ethnic Ovimbundu, in 2002.

The newly formed political party, the Salvation Electoral Commission CASA-CE trailed behind as a poor third with no more than six per cent. Predictably enough, what the Angolan media played down was that the turnout was down from 80 per cent during the last general elections in 2008 to 60 per cent last week.

"We will not allow a fraud to take place and we will not recognise the legitimacy of any government resulting from elections held outside the law," UNITA's leader Isaias Samakura ominously cautioned before the elections. The turnout in the Angolan capital Luanda, traditionally an MPLA stronghold, was less than 50 per cent. Meanwhile, the MPLA's campaign cost $70 million -- a substantial sum by African standards. UNITA, CASA-CE and civil society groups filed complaints and threatened a legal challenge.

Even now with Savimbi long dead, the doubters are asking many questions, a number of them reasonable enough, about the pace and process of multi-party democracy in Angola.

With its fabulous wealth the country, and the ruling party, do not want to be remembered as one of the wretchedly brief experiments in half-baked African democracies. The restless youth seem determined to run their own affairs, whatever the MPLA government may say. Dos Santos insists that Angola at least is heading in the right direction.

Angolans must be given the chance to disprove these prejudices against African democracy. The MPLA's role model appears to be South Africa's ruling African National Congress (ANC) -- a party that has monopolised power since the end of apartheid on 1994. Both South Africa's ANC and Angola's MPLA claim to be parties of the left -- in the MPLA's case it is avowedly a party with Marxist roots.

What was once Angola's Achilles heel is becoming a competitive advantage. The country was depopulated in the course of five centuries by Portuguese slave traders shipping hapless Angolans to Brazil primarily and South America more generally.

Next, the Portuguese instituted one of the most brutish colonial regimes on the African continent with ruthless exploitation of the peasantry and indentured labour. The Portuguese colonialists deliberately foisted tribal divisions and encouraged ethnic and tribal identities in a most ruinous divide and rule policy.

Angola's low population density has now become a decisive advantage. Still, Angola's ramshackle public services desperately need upgrading. The country has one of the highest rates of disabled people as direct result of the calamitous civil war that claimed the lives of countless Angolans. Dilapidated roads hamper rural development. It is against this grim backdrop that social tensions are brewing.

The Angolan capital Luanda has been home to the largest population of mixed race, or Mestizos residents in Africa, and they formed the basis of the MPLA to begin with. The Mestizos provided the bulk of the early nationalist, anti-colonial leaders and rank and file of the MPLA. Angola's late first president Augustino Neto and the current leader Eduardo dos Santos hail from the Mestizo community.

The MPLA has not yet quite shaken off that particular legacy yet, much to the chagrin of the Bantu groups, numerically far superior, such as the Ovimbundu, the country's most populous ethnic group, the closely related Mbundu and the Bakongo. Tribalism inevitably aggravates inequality, and political tribalism has played a dangerous, destructive and disgraceful role in Angolan politics.

The butchery was unsparing. The Angolan civil war ended exactly a decade ago in 2002. And, even as the MPLA attempts to attract a bigger following by staging musical festivals and carnivals where music blares and beer flows, anti-MPLA hip-hop blasting from the speakers of Luanda's candongeiros -- local dance halls. And, not to be outdone, the gangsters, or gatunos (criminals), and jobless youths wreaking havoc in the sprawling shantytowns surrounding Luanda deface the natural beauty and exuberance of the Angolan environment and its people.

None of this is an excuse for failing to act or stifling criticism. In Angola, like in South Africa, there is no time for tribalism. But there are serious differences between the ANC and the MPLA.

Angola urgently needs a more diversified economy. Strong energy revenues have not benefited the most disadvantaged groups of Angolans. South Africa's domestic market could form a solid foundation for its manufacturers to become exporters, reducing its dependence on minerals and agricultural produce. There is a fair amount of industry left in post-apartheid South Africa and that has prospects of competing in the regional, continental and international markets. Angola is bound to rely on energy and minerals for its economic growth and prosperity.

This is the root of it all -- slavery, colonialism and civil war. One of the under-appreciated trends is the rich musical tradition that gives the country its special character. The country is famous for its Kizomba dance and musical style with soft melodies to match the fast-paced Kuduru Techno-House music unique to Angola. Kizomba, Angola's answer to Argentina's Tango is a derivative of Semba, the traditional seductive Bantu "touch of the bellies" dance.

Kazutuka, Kabetula are Congolese, or Bakongo-style dances from northern Angola and the Rebita dance, like Kizomba is danced to songs with Portuguese lyrics. Kilapanda and Angolan Merengue stir the spirit of the nation. Angola's rich cultural heritage lends it a unique place in Africa and the Lusophone world.

If only. There is also the current trend of corruption in high places. And, the spectre of tribalism and ethnic strife haunts the sprawling country. The Ambundu, or northern Mbundu, who constitute around a quarter of the population of the country rival the southern Mbundu, or Ovimbundu, Angola's largest ethnic group constituting around 40 per cent of the total population of the country. The Bakongo in the far north are the third largest ethnic group with slightly less than 15 per cent of the Angolan population.

From its Marxist beginnings, the MPLA today appears as a plutocratic party of the prosperous top echelons of government and the inner circle of Dos Santos and well-to-do family members and high-ranking officials. Cranes and cement-mixers toil relentlessly in the fast-expanding Angolan capital. And Angolans have largely put down their guns to dance and enjoy their spectacular beaches.

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