Opinion: Angola errs in ending presidential elections

NEW YORK — Angola, Africa’s biggest oil producer, had hoped that hosting January’s Africa Cup of Nations would bring positive publicity to the country.

Those hopes of promoting a good picture of Angola were first dashed when Angolan separatists attacked the bus carrying the Togo team, killing three people. This made many question Angola's security.

And then on Jan. 21, the Angolan parliament voted to change the country’s constitution to abolish direct presidential elections. This action made many question Angola's commitment to democracy.

The Angolan government should not have modified the constitution. It risks eroding its progress toward becoming a major international player, and it has called into question the seriousness of its efforts to develop the country.

Angolan President Jose Eduardo dos Santos, 67 and in power for 30 years, had promised last year to hold presidential elections. He called the change to abolish direct presidential elections a “significant advance in the consolidation of our democratic process and the creation of the conditions for a harmonious and sustainable country." On the contrary, the new constitution is a consolidation of presidential power and a recipe for long-term political instability.

Under it, the president is the head of the party that earns the most votes in parliamentary elections. Since dos Santos controls the selection of parliamentary candidates, he now effectively “controls everything,” as one Angolan professor told the New York Times.

The new constitution also allows the president to choose a vice president, as well as to serve two more five-year terms. Since approval of the constitution, dos Santos has reshuffled his cabinet and appointed a new vice president, a move seen as a further consolidation of power.

Dos Santos and his party, the Movimento Popular de Libertacao de Angola (MPLA), control 191 of 220 parliamentary seats in Angola. The opposition party, the Uniao Nacional para a Independencia Total de Angola (UNITA), has little sway within the government. Given the MPLA’s overwhelming hold on the government, changing the constitution was unnecessary.

In the 2008 parliamentary elections, the MPLA won 82 percent of the vote. No candidate was expected to mount a viable challenge to dos Santos in a direct presidential election.

Prior to January’s constitutional change, Africa analysts had been taking a wait-and-see attitude toward Angola, particularly given the uncertainty surrounding presidential elections. Luanda was clearly trying to boost its international credibility, and it had met with some success. After joining the OPEC oil cartel in 2007, Angola assumed the presidency of the cartel in 2009.

Angola has also increased its diplomatic role in the Southern African Development Community (SADC), and worked to diversify its global relationships by strengthening ties with a variety of countries, including Portugal, Brazil, China, India and the United States. The new constitution will put a damper on Angola’s efforts to assert itself as a global power, particularly since dos Santos reneged on his public promise to hold direct presidential elections.

Foreign investors will also be deterred by the constitutional change. Savvy businesspeople were aware that the Angolan government had made efforts to reduce corruption and improve the country’s infrastructure, and some felt there were opportunities to exploit the widespread perception that the country was too corrupt for doing business. Angola ranked 162 out of 180 countries on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index in 2009. However, in recent years, the country’s state-run oil company, Sonangol, has exceeded some of the reporting requirements of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI).

But Angola is still known for its political patronage system and entrenched corruption. The constitutional change shows that the limited progress made to combat corruption is just that — limited. It also jeopardizes Angola’s long-term prospects for economic development; without significant foreign investment and technology transfer, the country’s ability to jumpstart new industries will remain limited.

The Angolan government faces the difficult task of rebuilding the country and attempting to diversify the economy away from oil. When Angola's civil war ended in 2002, the country’s roads and agriculture infrastructure were destroyed. Now, many young Angolans are uneducated, the health-care system is fragile and many industries suffer from a lack of skilled workers.

Yet life has improved for Angola’s citizens in the past five years. Roads have been built, railroad lines have been rehabilitated and increasing numbers of children have enrolled in school.

In 2009, Angola rose to 143 on the U.N.’s Human Development Index (out of 182 countries), pushing it into middle-income country status. The Luanda government should be focusing on how to use its oil revenues to further improve life for Angola’s general population, instead of changing the constitution to solidify the ruling party’s hold on the country.

Angola wants international credibility and it wants a more robust, stable economy. The best way to achieve both is to increase transparency and adopt domestic political processes that are democratic, not change the constitution to consolidate power in the president’s office.

Stephanie Hanson is director of policy and outreach at One Acre Fund, an agriculture organization based in Kenya. From 2006 to 2009, she covered economic and political development in Africa and Latin America for CFR.org, Council on Foreign Relations' website.