By Jacey Fortin, ibtimes
One of Africa’s quietest dictators will be put to the test when the country of Angola goes to the polls on Friday.
There is little dispute about the expected outcome — for President Jose Eduardo dos Santos, this will most likely be an easy victory.
But within Angola, many critics of Dos Santos doubt whether the president should be entitled to another term. He has ruled the country for 33 years, and most of that was during Angola’s 27-year civil war.
The first free and fair peacetime elections did not take place until 2008; MPLA won a whopping 82 percent of the popular vote. This time around, a couple of things have changed.
For one, the country implemented a new constitution in 2010. It abolished direct election for the president — now, voters will choose the 220 members of the Angolan National Assembly, and the leader of the plurality-winning party will become the president.
Secondly — and more importantly — a growing opposition movement has emerged to challenge the authority of Dos Santos. This was motivated in part by the ‘Arab Spring’ revolutions that have swept through Egypt, Libya and Tunisia. It also has much to do with growing social inequality; Angola’s incredible oil wealth has not filtered down to benefit the general population.
Oil was Angola’s saving grace after it emerged from a brutal civil war — about 500,000 people had died over a period of 27 years. The violence goes back to colonial times, when the various groups that fought against Portuguese control also vied for dominance over one another.
When the country achieved independence in 1975, the internal violence was only just beginning.
The MPLA, then a Marxist group, emerged victorious after that decades-long struggle and set up what amounted to a one-party government. With stability, Angola was able to focus on forming international partnerships — mainly with China — to extract and export the country’s vast reserves of crude oil.
Over last decade, that oil has made Angola the second-largest producer of crude on the continent, after Nigeria. It also boasts the fifth-largest economy in Africa. Angola saw its GDP grow by double digits each year beginning in 2004, until the recession hit in 2008. Growth then slowed to the single-digit range, but seems to be picking up again.
Dos Santos himself deserves credit for the country’s economic liberalization over the years.
Still, poverty affects about half of Angola’s population. Hunger remains a major problem, and country-wide infrastructure — especially in rural areas — remains underdeveloped. In the face of increasingly bold criticism, the government has lately begun paying lip service to the amelioration of these problems, and some development projects are already underway.
But the heavy-handedness of the Dos Santos administration is no secret. The past few years have seen the increasing centralization of power in the executive branch, at the expense of the court system. Today, Dos Santos appoints all senior judges himself.