Angola’s August Elections Come Under Scrutiny After Journalist Arrests

Photographer and date unknown.

Image by SIM USA

Rumblings are rife in Angola that something is afoot at the highest reaches of government. What may be in the offing? Everything from a top-level government shakeup to a full-fledged coup have been talked about. To keen observers of politics and conflict, it would not be surprising if people in power took sudden actions to disrupt the national elections now scheduled in August.

The biggest sign of discord so far has been the arrest of Rafael Marques de Morais, an award-winning journalist and long-time Angolan gadfly. Marques de Morais recently returned from Washington, D.C., where he received the prestigious Democracy Award of the National Endowment for Democracy. But soon after he got home, he was arrested and charged with “outrage to a body of sovereignty and injury against public authority.” Media reports say that the charges carry a maximum sentence of six years in prison and stem from an October 2016 article by Marques de Morais that alleged that Angola’s attorney general, General João Maria de Sousa, acquired land illegally.

The arrest was part of a larger crackdown on the media. Also charged was Mariano Bras Lourenco, who was arrested at the same time as Marques de Morais. Lourenco, who runs the weekly newspaper O Crime, republished Marques de Morais’s article, which had originally appeared in his internationally known anti-corruption blogsite, Maka Angola.

Marques de Morais asserts that the charges are a mere pretense used to arrest him. The Committee to Protect Journalists agrees. Its Africa Program Coordinator, Angela Quintal, called the charges “an absolute abuse of power, even for a government with little tolerance for dissent.” The Human Rights Foundation also condemned the June 20 indictment of the famous journalist. “Marques’ reporting has an immense influence on public opinion in Angola,” said Thor Halvorssen, president of the foundation. “His indictment, two months before the presidential election, promises that it will be nothing more than a façade.”

The August 23 election is certainly filled with controversy. After 38 years in power, President Jose Eduardo dos Santos, now 74, plans to retire. His party’s chosen successor is Defense Minister Joao Lorenco, aged 63. But Vice President Manuel Vicente is widely known to be unhappy with the defense minister’s rise. His discomfort has created tension and a lot of raw speculation.

One wildcard in this off-stage drama is the president’s cancer treatments, which take him away from Angola to Barcelona every so often. He has been getting treatments since at least 2013. His last visit to Spain was in May. The date of his next trip is unknown, but if it comes before the August elections officials have privately conceded that all sorts of mischief could be made.

One conjecture: Vice President Vicente and his allies could back a coup or grab enough power in the President’s absence to delay and perhaps change the shape of the elections. He could make himself the heir apparent, replacing Defense Minister Lorenco. All bets would be off for a peaceful transition of power. To be clear, this is supposition. No one is admitting anything and senior government aides deny any power-grabbing ambitions exist.

But the vice president does have incentive to act. In June, a Portuguese court ruled that Vicente should face trial over charges brought against him earlier this year for bribing a magistrate to shelve investigations into his dealings at Sonangol Group, the Angola state oil company he headed from 1999 to 2012. If he were to become president of Angola, he would have considerable immunity and protection from prosecution.

Regardless of what happens, Angola is going through a fragile, uncertain period. Its economic prospects are rising, but from a relatively low level. What’s more, rarely has there been a simple, easy switch to a new head of government in recent times.

The actions taken against the media and independent journalists, as well as the Angolan president’s regular absences, raise questions that only a smooth election can answer satisfactorily. If something other than that transpires, you read it here first.

Image courtesy of SIM USA

Eugen Iladi

About Eugen Iladi

Eugen Iladi is a freelance reporter based in Virginia who covers politics, conflict and development in emerging markets. He holds a journalism degree and wrote for several news agencies. As a freelances he has contributed to numerous publications, including the Gulf News, AlArab Online, Iraqi Business News, Taipei Times, Prime-Tass, Business New Europe, iAfrica, Cape Times, the Foreign Policy Journal, Real Clear Politics and many more.

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