Following a tumultuous transition to independence from Portugal in 1975, the MPLA, one of Angola’s three armed liberation movements, declared independence and, with Cuban support, secured the capital city. Immediately thereafter, a civil war began in the newly independent country between the MPLA and the National Union for the Total Liberation of Angola (UNITA). While both movements had fought for independence and espoused varieties of socialism, their constituencies and leadership were very different. Whereas the MPLA’s early leaders came from a cosmopolitan, urban, mixed-race bourgeoisie, the UNITA tapped into the discontent of marginalized elites in the central highlands. During the Cold War, their political differences grew as the MPLA received backing from the Soviet Union and Cuba, and UNITA received both direct and indirect support from the South African apartheid regime, the United States and other Western powers. The third, oldest liberation movement, the National Front for the Liberation of Angola (FNLA) was defeated in post-independence confrontations and ceased to exist as an armed movement.
During the civil war, the MPLA brutally repressed internal dissidence, and wartime scarcity was compounded by the inefficiency of the planned economy and the dearth of a skilled labor force. Oil production off the coast brought the country some revenue, though this essentially made the party nomenklatura extremely wealthy as oil rentiers instead of improving socioeconomic conditions across the country.
By the late 1980s, a military stalemate had been reached. The MPLA’s socialist regime was crippled by mismanagement and debt, and both parties were forced to negotiate a settlement as their Cold War funding ran dry. The MPLA formally adopted multiparty democracy in 1990, and the 1991 Bicesse Accords envisaged the disarmament of the warring parties, followed by elections. The first democratic elections in 1992, however, were derailed by a return to civil war, as both parties in the conflict were unwilling to accept a power-sharing agreement and had maintained armed troops. Following bloody confrontations in Luanda, civil war erupted once again, resulting in much higher numbers of civilian deaths than the first phase of the civil war.
The MPLA government, now legitimized by elections, managed to co-opt parts of UNITA as UNITA Renovada into a Government of National Unity and Reconciliation (GURN). Initially, UNITA managed to capture strategic cities in the country’s interior but, depicted as the “greedy spoiler” of the peace process, it was subjected to ever-stricter sanctions. Although civil society and especially the churches actively lobbied for a negotiated end to the war, the conflict ended only after UNITA leader Jonas Savimbi was killed by government troops in February 2002.
In March 2002, the military command of a leaderless, demoralized, famished and militarily defeated UNITA signed the Luena Memorandum of Understanding with the Angolan Armed Forces, which ended the nearly 30 years of conflict. The memorandum, however, amounted to little more than a technical agreement for the cessation of hostilities, with President dos Santos supervising the process as if he were a neutral arbiter instead of a party to the conflict.
Since then, the MPLA government has successfully recast itself as the party of stability and peace and embarked on an ambitious reconstruction drive financed by growing oil revenues and oil-backed credit lines. This has transformed the face of the country, though the gap between rich and poor is growing, and a majority of the population subsists on less than $2 per day.
After repeated delays, the first postwar legislative elections were finally held in 2008. The MPLA made full use of the privileges of incumbency – access to state funds, media control, intimidation of the opposition and electoral manipulation – and successfully painted the specter of a return to war if the opposition were to win. Having won a crushing 82% of the popular vote and thus an absolute majority in parliament, in 2010 the MPLA pushed through a constitutional change that abolished presidential elections, replacing them with a system whereby the head of the majority party or coalition’s list of candidates was declared president.
This change further blurred the lines between the executive and legislature, and party and government. In the 2012 elections, despite a decline of the MPLA’s popular vote to 71%, President dos Santos was thus duly elected for the first time. This “parliamentary-presidential” system allowed him to consolidate his grip on power and led, in the post-2012 period, to an even more deliberate monopolization of economic assets by dos Santos’ children. This, however, also led to dissatisfaction among the population at large, as well as, increasingly, within the ruling party.
The dissatisfaction was compounded by the onset of a deep economic crisis in 2015, triggered by a fall in global oil prices in late 2014. The severity of the crisis was also increasingly seen as a result of dos Santos’ mismanagement of the economy and the system of frenzied asset-grabbing that he had installed.
Dos Santos by now had not only become the focal point of small but increasingly vocal and visible protests, he was also plagued by ill health. He hand-picked a successor of his choice, João Lourenço, to run as the MPLA’s candidate in the 2017 elections, while he himself would stay on as party leader. This, many suspected, would allow dos Santos to continue controlling the country from behind the scenes. However, Lourenço surprised many in the first two years of his mandate by moving decisively against the interests of the dos Santos family, thereby momentarily defusing some of the most pressing issues.
Nonetheless, the dominance of the MPLA continues, and Angola’s political economy remains dependent on oil revenues and is held hostage to entrenched politically connected private interests. Despite the introduction of austerity measures, Lourenço has made little headway in pulling the country out of its deep economic crisis, and a majority of the population faces dire economic prospects, resulting in growing discontentment that has the potential to spark confrontation.
As such, Angola has made formal progress toward multiparty democracy and a market economy since the transition from socialism in 1990. In practice, however, the ruling elite has consolidated its stranglehold on political and economic power through what are ultimately only formally democratic institutions and mechanisms.