Every year I meet extraordinary people sometimes in extraordinary circumstances.
Now and then I can write a short story about them.
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Angola: Elections 2008
I spent August 2008 in Luanda, Angola’s capital. First participating in a seminar where we presented for civil society and politics the book Sociedade civil e política em Angola (edited by Justino Pinto de Andrade and Nuno Vidal, and with an article on Civil Society of David Sogge, René Roemersma and me). Later delivering two workshops on communication and presentation for small Civil Society Organizations and people from Development Workshop, an Angolan NGO of Canadian descent, that commissioned the workshops.
Downtown Luanda is booming: everywhere building of skyscrapers is going on, roads are repaired and traffic is a nightmare: I’ve seen more new 4x4’s than anywhere else.
The good news is indeed that even in the poorest parts of the city (the musseques) life is little by little becoming a bit better for people. The family I described in A family of the musseque (1996) and which I visited again, so many years later, has now after 20 year finally access to electricity in their neighborhood. Also 3 instead of 1 members now have jobs in the formal economy. See also ‘publications’ on this website.
A feudal, rather than a failing state…
The bad news is that Angola is still an (African) feudalist state, more resembling the Netherlands in the beginning of the 20th century than now. The centuries of the colonial and decades of Marxist (One-party-state) system have instilled a culture of fear, of ‘the winner takes all’ in all people, including those of the ruling party. The contrasts are unbearable:
·Economy is growing over 20% a year, but still 70% of the population live below the poverty line (2 US$/day) and 40% is barely surviving sub-nutrition.
·There is formal press freedom, but news does not reach beyond the capital’s centre: over 10 million people who live in the periphery of Luanda or in the rest of the country only receive government radio and television, with 90% propaganda for the ruling party.
·This week (5 September) the long expected elections will finally take place after 6 years of Peace and 16 years after the last elections. But people have only 1 main alternative: the ruling party.
·Although the tangible improvement in living conditions is real, people still have no say in anything.
I refer to the 19th century Europe because also then (as the German philosopher Habermas describes) democracy started to develop on the underground of the developing economy. Not by formal rules in the first place, but little by little because a space for debate was conquered by more and more people (first the liberals, later the socialists): in coffee houses, debate evenings, the starting media finally issues at stake were discussed and thus politics was influenced and the countries changed. After all universal suffrage in the Netherlands is not even 90 years old….
But after many wars, uprisings and backlashes we now live in a relatively stable democracy and wealth is distributed relatively fairly over the whole population.
You don’t know what you’re voting for…
Nothing of the kind in Angola yet: the oil income of the nation (roughly 20 billion US$/year) is firmly in the hands of the ruling party, who do (before elections!) now relatively many things ‘for the people, over the people, but certainly also without the people’ like water and electricity supply, roads, more jobs etc. Many times by hired Brazilian and Chinese enterprises, paid with oil backed loans. And remarkably enough the ruling party manages to use this to their benefit: many people are happy with a crumb of the cake, rather than realizing that meanwhile every year 1 billion US$ ‘leaks’ into the pockets of the powerful. Imaginable, but very sad…
At the same time you can – as a simple citizen – easily be thrown out of your plot of land with your shack on it, because new houses of 0,5 million US$ are going to be build there for the rich (Luanda Sul); you can be arrested with no grounds, because you have been critical of a provincial governor, who rule as kings in their provinces. Or your small civil organizations (and also political parties) are prohibited because you dare to advocate for autonomy of Cabinda. Or your broadcaster (like Radio Ecclesia) is – contrary to the law – refused access to the provinces, you can only work in Luanda, the capital: the provinces (with still 2/3 of the population) are considered hunting ground for the ruling party… Protest results in arrest or worse, if you haven’t been susceptible to blackmail and bribery before. Intimidation (on smaller and larger scale) is the order of the day.
MPLA is going to win…
Meanwhile a real good show is given by the ruling party, boasting in 90% of the TV and radio time on all the good they did and the fact that they will certainly win…. Internal MPLA polls indicate a 60% win for the party, they are mainly campaigning to get over a 2/3d majority, of which even a prominent party member, former prime minister told me that he sincerely hoped MPLA would not get a qualified majority: he feared that one party rule might come back then…
Meanwhile other political parties are fighting themselves into the system, knowing that they will certainly not win this time, but hoping on some seats in order to build upon for the future. Unita is still fighting against the ghost of Jonas Savimbi, many people see them still as murderers. FNLA has only supporters in the North (former Congo kingdom). New (more programme minded) parties like FpD and PAJOCA are too small to fight against the enormous campaigns of – mainly – MPLA. In which they are hindered in every possible way, starting with delay of government payments (every party has the right of access to funds for its campaign), outright making meetings impossible, arrests of political campaigners, etc, etc…. Also private media face all kinds of chicanes in their work, let alone more party orientated media like Radio Despertar (Unita), which was simply closed for technical infringements during the most important months of the elections.
A democracy without debate is no democracy, a country without a free and vibrant public space will never become a democracy: people simply do not know what they vote for, and that’s exactly what’s happening: the ruling party is going to win at least the majority: based on false arguments, on identification with the state, on some intimidation and very little violence, and where needed a bit of fraud. Everything in moderation, an excellent show…
Still, I’m an optimist…
Yes, I think this is a step in an irreversible process that will take decades at least. But (yes, Habermas again…) the 19th century Europe can teach us, that the changing economic basis will most certainly provide more openings in the system: internet cannot be prohibited anymore, information will flow more and more through the country (Angolan powers look with horror to Zimbabwe where the rulers ruined their own economy, including their own income…), contacts are growing with people outside the country, people are returning from everywhere with fresh experience of some democracy, finally people will get more time to learn, read, discuss and exchange with others, certainly now the roads are open again.
And there are other reasons to be optimistic: the pressure from outside is diminished for a while because of the unconditional loans of Chinese banks, but even these are part of the growing consent in the world that you need to be able to think and work in freedom in order to contribute to the wellbeing of all: in the first place the results of the work of the Chinese like electricity will liberate a lot of energy.
Support a culture of debate and responsiveness!
Finally the Civil society (in the broad sense, see article in ‘Media and public sphere on this website) is here to stay: Catholic universities, headmen’s (Souba’s) organizations, all kind of churches, small village papers, they are all contributing to the public space.
We, the writers of this article, plead for more investments in those groups and organizations that are willing to promote and push responsiveness of the rulers to citizens’ needs, for instance by expanding and making transparent the public arena including the media).
MPLA will win this elections, I bet on that, but democracy will not follow from these elections: it will have to be conquered after, in a public space where the issues at stake are debated and transparency and responsiveness can be demanded from ruling parties, whoever they are.