The power of oil and the state of democracy in Angola

by Rafael Marques

The civil war in Angola ended in 2002. In this speech, given at Harvard University, Rafael Marques argues that the peace agreement signed in April 2002 has failed to promote democratic values or engage citizens in public affairs. Elections that the government promised the people since 1999 have not materialized. Instead, Angola is undergoing a process of commercialization as a substitute to democratization, writes Marques.

It is a privilege for me to be here at Harvard, a center of intellectual and scientific excellence. I am here simply as a student to have a conversation and share some ideas about Angola.

I am also in the US to learn from you about the merits of an open-minded and uncompromised debate about democracy, international relations and solidarity.

Currently, preparations are being made for the registration of voters in Angola, as a major leap forward towards the holding of elections in 2007, 2008 or 2009. There have been hints of elections ever since 1999.

These elections would be the second ever held in the country. The only other ones, the 1992 general elections, led to war breaking out again.

What is at stake at the moment is whether holding elections could be a measure of democratization for Angola or not? That is the first of several questions to be asked.

After a devastating 27-year conflict, a military peace deal signed in April 2002 has not been fostering the promotion of democratic values in society and engaging citizens in public affairs. Angola has been described as a “state without citizens.” Despite recent promises of increased transparency, accountability and democratization, little has yet been accomplished to bridge the gap between the rulers and the ruled. The underlying causes of this situation are many and interlinked. Political power is highly centralized and some would argue that historically this power was further consolidated through the control of resource flows by three institutions – the Presidency, the National Bank and SONANGOL, the national oil company.

The reality is of opportunity, but for whom? For those who hold power and sway, it means dividends from the privatization of the state, according to the hierarchy in the regime. For outsiders, it means a rush to promote their economic interests, cut new deals or explore new market opportunities.

This prompts the second question. What does the present situation mean for the majority of Angolans? Put in a different way, is the country just open for business or is there some scope for democracy as well?

What are the prospects of change, defining a new future for Angola? This is the third question I shall try to elaborate on as part of this conversation.

Electoral Democracy

The first indication of democracy in the country would be the establishment of checks and balances in the state institutions, as well as their openness to public scrutiny. This is essential for the process of nation-building,

To demonstrate the absurd contradictions of the system, justice is still administered through the former colonial Portuguese Penal Code of 1886. Portugal itself has reformed the Penal Code a number of times since then.

Many of the state institutions have not been altered to fit the new political system. For instance, the office of the Attorney-General is still governed by a one-party Marxist-Leninist law (cf Law 5/90, of 5 April) to safeguard not democracy but the “socialist legality”. This office is, by law, under the presidency and the President of the Republic gives direct instructions to the Attorney-General, which must be complied with in accordance with article 5, clause 2, of law 5/90.

Unfortunately, this situation, which is unconstitutional, cannot be challenged in court. The Constitutional Court, which is required to safeguard the Constitution, has not been established since 1992. Three members of the Constitutional Court are supposed to be elected by a two-thirds majority of Members of Parliament (article 135, clause 1b). The ruling MPLA does not have such a two-thirds majority and has found it risky to bring up the issue because it might wake up the opposition.

So far, the judges of the Supreme Court, appointed by the President of the Republic, perform the duties of the Constitutional Court in violation of the Constitution. The vice-president of the Supreme Court, Mr. Caetano de Sousa, is also currently the head of the National Electoral Commission, appointed by the President of the Republic.

On July 22, 2005, the Supreme Court decided that the President has been performing interim duties since 1992, the year he failed to win in the polls. Back then the second round of the presidential elections never took place because war broke out again. As such, none of his periods as President count. So, after 25 uninterrupted years in power, he can run again for three more consecutive periods.

Another important aspect to take into account is the effectively subordinate role of the National Electoral Commission, which also includes opposition members, in relation to the Inter-Ministerial Commission for Elections, all of whose members come from the MPLA government.

And why does the opposition not rally behind the issue? As I speak, the 220 parliamentarians, whose constitutional mandates expired 10 years ago, are lavishing upon themselves luxury cars of their own choice from a special budget of over US$16.5 million which they granted to themselves.

Moreover, some of the main opposition parties represented in Parliament, like UNITA, PRS and PLD, also hold ministerial portfolios in the government and the due privileges. That’s how the patronage system works. The political opposition becomes part of the problem and not of the solution.

Along with the control of the judicial power by the political powers comes control of the State media, which comprises the only radio and TV broadcasters with national coverage and the only daily newspaper in the country. The Minister of Information, from the MPLA, also heads the National Radio of Angola. I worked for the state media, and
I can say from experience that there was more room for some innocuous criticism 12 years ago than there is today. These media outlets only reproduce the orders of the political establishment.

The six privately owned weekly newspapers, as critical as they are, remain ineffective in expressing the thoughts and wishes of the majority. They circulate almost exclusively in the capital, Luanda, at an average price of US$2.50 for a 24-page tabloid, which is too expensive for the average citizen. Altogether these papers only print
up to 25,000 copies per week, while there are over four million people living in the capital alone.

Both the judiciary and the media are fundamental to the exercise of democracy, one by upholding the rule of the law and the other to serve as a vehicle for freedom of expression. But they are, in fact, instruments of partisanship.

Moreover, the regime has produced a state class, in which figures of the ruling MPLA accumulate wealth rapidly by robbing the state coffers. That’s how the President’s family, without a record of labour, has amassed a vast fortune and is a major shareholder in the telecommunications, banking, mining and other most profitable
enterprises. Other high-ranking families of the regime are also entitled to such fortunes.

These brief examples illustrate that the time of peace is being used neither for serious institutional reform nor to establish a proper transitional platform to a fully fledged democracy. To put it simply, there are no functioning institutions for the formal democratic participation of citizens.

How can elections change this state of affairs? The absence of a transitional mechanism, to mitigate abuses of power, leaves little room for peaceful change and risks a showdown between the government
and the people for lack of alternative and buffer institutions.

The Power of Oil

Any change will put at risk not just the ruling party, but the business interests of the state class, who are the partners for foreign governments and enterprises in oil, diamonds, construction, etc. Foreign interests fight for privileged access to the state class.

The interests of the Presidential family in remaining in power, to safeguard their business interests, coincide, for instance, with the U.S. policy to ensure stability and safeguard a continuous flow of Angolan oil into the U.S. By 2007, Angola’s oil output is forecast to surpass 2 million barrels a day and continue to increase until 2010.

The international view of Angola has been narrowed down to business interests. Angola is undergoing a process of commercialization as a substitute to democratization.

International pressure has mainly been self-serving and the call for good governance has focused more on issues of transparency and an improved climate for foreign investment than on poverty alleviation and democratization. Countries with a strategic interest in Angolan oil, especially China, have been willing to provide Angola with
concessional, oil-backed loans, which carry no conditions on improved governance.

In the past, the U.S. led Western countries in fomenting guerrilla warfare in the country in the name of a global fight against communism while, at the same time, allowing Cuban soldiers to guard Chevron oil facilities. Then it switched sides to annihilate the
guerrillas in the name of helping to achieve peace and democracy.

Such international leverage in the country’s affairs has robbed the people of external solidarity in the fight for change. Reality shows that it is all about access to the country’s natural resources and profitable dealings. In 2005 Angola could boast the highest rate of growth in Gross Domestic Product in the Southern African Development
Community (SADC) area (if not all of Africa), according to IMF figures. In stark contrast, Angola has some of the worst poverty levels in Africa. Last year Angola was ranked 160 out of 177 countries on the UNDP Human Development Index. According to the statistics, 67% of the population lives below the poverty line. Of those living in rural areas, 90% are estimated to live below the poverty line. Illiteracy and infant and maternal mortality rates are very high. The shares of the government budget allocated to health (4.4% in 2006) and education (3.8%) are lower than average in the SADC area and have declined steadily since 2004. In general, there has been a bias against spending on initiatives to improve broad-based primary education and primary health care.

In principle, elections will not provide people with alternative choices because the political opposition is either incorporated into the system, tamed or too marginal to have the resources and the ability to make itself known to a wider audience. This explains why the pressure for elections from civic organizations and society at
large has gone quiet.

Thus the holding of elections will by no means be a measure for democracy. The regime has already prepared itself for an eventual alternative, which it calls an agenda of national consensus. From time to time, when pressure mounts, it takes it out of its pocket to lure people into an idea of broad dialogue to give a new direction to the country.

For there to be a space for democracy, Angolans have to find a more balanced and sustainable way of dealing with the openness to foreign investors, which is used as an international public relations tool to re-legitimize the regime and dodge the pressing need for dialogue on the country’s situation.

We must be forceful in explaining that one issue must not obscure the other. We must have them both, and democracy should be a priority to establish the rule of law that turns the institutions of state into the safe keepers of transparency, fair competition and greater safety for foreign investments. Currently, businesses have to rely on powerful individuals for protection, but sooner or later this will come to an end.

Prospects of Change

As a citizen, I always wonder why my political leaders always prefer to take the most difficult and treacherous routes of war, violence, corruption and denial to govern the country?

My country is drifting towards a political dead end. The growing detachment between the rulers and the ruled, in the formation of the state class, can only lead to profound resentment and an unpredictable outcome.

Dialogue and compassion are not new ideas, but that’s what Angolans have always needed most from their rulers, and been denied.

There must be the political will by the regime to open up and allow the establishment of a “state of citizens” as the best option to avoid the perils of anarchy, for its own good and because time is running out.

Thank you to the Harvard Law School Human Rights Program and its co-sponsors. And thanks to the Northcote Parkinson Fund for sponsoring my trip here as part of the Civil Courage Prize.

Rafael Marques de Morais, an Angolan journalist and a human rights activist, is the winner of the 2006 Civil Courage Prize. Through his writing, Rafael Marques de Morais has exposed the corruption of the Angolan government, the tragic impact that diamond extraction has on the lives of local populations and the abuses committed by the industry’s private security companies.This article was first published in Pambazuka, an email newsletter about Africa. The original article can be seen at

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