Angola at a crossroads as citizens vote in tight presidential election race

By Elaine Hulbert, Nimi Princewill and Stephanie Busari, CNN

(CNN) – Voters in the oil-rich African nation of Angola will go to the polls on Wednesday to decide who will lead the country — the party that has been in power for nearly five decades, or an opposition promising a fresh start especially for disaffected youth.

President João Lourenço of the ruling Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) party is hoping for a second term in office. He has governed Angola since 2017.

Lourenço wrapped up his campaign on Monday, claiming to have built “a new Angola.”

“There have been exactly five years since the moment we started this mandate that is ending now,” he said at a campaign ceremony at the weekend. “We worked during this mandate to make Angola a new Angola, an Angola that is better accepted by the Angolans but also by the international community.”

Angola is the second-biggest oil producer in Africa but the country’s vast oil wealth does not trickle down to many of its impoverished citizens.

A former Portuguese colony, Angola emerged from the wreckage of a 27-year civil war to become one of the continent’s major economic players.

Long-time leader José Eduardo dos Santos of the MPLA party oversaw much of Angola’s post-war economic growth and rebuilding efforts.

Lourenço was the hand-picked successor to dos Santos, who ruled the country for 38 years and made himself and his family enormously wealthy.

His daughter Isabel dos Santos became very powerful during his reign and at one point was the richest woman in Africa.

The anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International in 2017 said that “nepotism and cronyism” under dos Santos had “stopped ordinary Angolans from benefiting from the country’s natural resource wealth, especially when oil prices were high.”

Upon taking office in 2017, Lourenço pledged to fight corruption and turned on the dos Santos family, firing Isabel and her brother from lucrative positions. Her brother Jose José Filomeno dos Santos was eventually jailed for five years for fraud. He was the former head of the country’s $5 billion sovereign wealth fund.

The former President dos Santos died last month while in Spain and his funeral will be held at the end of the tense election period.

Lourenço vowed to improve the economy but the World Bank says that in rural parts of the country, more than half of the population lives in poverty.

Angola’s capital, Luanda, is also one of the most expensive cities in the world, with a large expat population working in the country’s oil and gas sector.

“We are not content or happy with the government actions, we await more from them,” Luanda resident Pedro Simao told CNN, while street vendor Madalena Mondole said she sees no benefit in voting.

“If you ask me to vote I have no one to vote for, because even if I vote no one will help my son in life,” Mondole said.

Who are the candidates?
There are eight candidates in the elections. Adalberto Costa Junior, leader of the main opposition party, the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA), is a popular candidate who has tried to appeal to the many voters who are young and unemployed.

The estimated youth unemployment rate in Angola was 18.52% in 2021.
Election experts said they expect a tight race and many will be watching to see if it is a free and fair one as the country’s ruling party faces one of its biggest challenges. However, opposition candidates rarely win in Angola and many citizens have said they do not trust the country’s national election commission, according to a survey by Afrobarometer.

Costa Junior, 60, said the MPLA’s grip on power is to blame for many of the nation’s problems, including poverty, inflation and corruption.

“There is a single party in power, a one-party regime, a big cancer this country needs to get rid of, a cancer that feeds on everything to continue to govern,” Costa Junior said.

“Today we can see everywhere that everyone is tired of this party, this single party that holds Angola hostage to its interests, this single party that does not allow Angola to be a democracy,” he added.
The MPLA and UNITA were on opposite sides of a civil war which began shortly after Angola became independent from Portugal in 1975 and ended 20 years ago.

But analysts say this election is less about the country’s history and more about the people who are struggling to get by and feel let down by their leaders.

More than 14 million Angolans are eligible to vote on Wednesday, less than half of the Southern African nation’s 35 million people.

The presidential poll will take place simultaneously with elections for Angola’s 220-member parliament.

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