Freedom House (Autor)
Angola held long-awaited legislative elections in September 2008, resulting in a sweeping victory for the ruling party. The elections were marred by serious irregularities, particularly in Luanda. Nonetheless, both domestic and international observers found that the results reflected the people’s will. Meanwhile, tensions remained raised between the government and factions of the secessionist Front for the Liberation of Cabinda (FLEC) group.
Angola was at war for nearly three decades following independence from Portugal in 1975. The 1991 Bicesse Accord temporarily ended fighting between the rebel National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) and the government, controlled by the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), a Marxist group. The accord disintegrated when UNITA leader Jonas Savimbi, having lost the first round of a UN-supervised presidential election in 1992, once again took up arms. The collapse of a 1994 peace agreement (the Lusaka Protocol), ineffective sanctions, and the shooting down of two UN planes caused the United Nations to end its peacekeeping mission in Angola in 1999. After a 2002 ceasefire between UNITA and the MPLA, spurred by Savimbi’s death earlier that year and formalized in the Luena Memorandum of Understanding, UNITA appeared committed to peace and subsequently transformed itself into Angola’s largest opposition party. About 80,000 former rebel soldiers were demobilized, and 5,000 were integrated into the armed forces and police.
The conflict claimed an estimated one million lives, displaced more than four million people, and forced over half a million to flee to neighboring countries; according to a 2007 estimate by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), some 410,000 Angolans had returned home in the previous four years, while about 190,000 continued to live outside the country. Many resettled people—particularly those in the peripheral provinces—remained without land, proper shelter and food, health care, jobs, education, or even identification documents. The resettlement process was slowed by the presence of an estimated 500,000 land mines and a war-ruined infrastructure, which continued to make large tracts of the country inaccessible to humanitarian aid. In 2007, the UNHCR formally concluded its voluntary repatriation program for Angolan refugees.
Legislative elections, delayed repeatedly since 1997, were finally held in September 2008. As expected, the ruling MPLA won a sweeping victory, taking 82 percent of the vote and 191 of 220 seats; UNITA placed second among 14 parties, with 10 percent of the vote and 16 seats. While both domestic and international observers found that the results reflected the people’s will, they were less than free and fair. The run-up to the election was marred by instances of political violence, pro-MPLA bias in the state media, and other problems, and many polling places in the capital failed to open on election day. UNITA accepted the outcome after an initial challenge of the Luanda vote was rejected by the electoral commission.
The government has been fighting secessionists in the northern exclave of Cabinda intermittently since 1975. Angola is Africa’s second-largest oil producer, although Cabinda accounts for 60 percent of Angola’s oil revenues. In 2006, the government signed a peace agreement with former Front for the Liberation of Cabinda (FLEC) leader Antonio Bento Bembe, the ostensible representative of an umbrella grouping of secessionists. However, several factions denounced the agreement and vowed to keep fighting, and while between 80 and 90 percent of FLEC fighters have reportedly either joined the army or demobilized, some violence has continued. In March 2008, a FLEC faction killed three Angolan soldiers and a foreign worker in separate attacks.
Angola’s economy has benefited from an oil boom in recent years. China has funded major projects to rehabilitate the country’s infrastructure, and in 2007 Angola cancelled negotiations with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), claiming it no longer needed the fund’s conditional support. Nevertheless, corruption and mismanagement have prevented the country’s wealth from reaching most residents. Eighty-five percent of the population engages in subsistence agriculture, and the United Nations estimates that 68 percent of the population lives on less than $1 a day. The oil boom has led to a significant reduction in donor funding for humanitarian programs.
Angola is not an electoral democracy. Long-delayed legislative elections held in September 2008, while largely reflective of the people’s will, were not free and fair. The National Assembly, whose members serve four-year terms, has little power, and 90 percent of legislation originates in the executive branch. The president, who is supposed to serve five-year terms, directly appoints the prime minister, cabinet, and provincial governors. Presidential elections, repeatedly delayed since 1997, are scheduled for 2009.
Over eight million voters were registered before the legislative elections, which were contested by 14 parties. However, the MPLA benefited from a highly advantageous electoral framework. The National Electoral Commission (CNE) is dominated by MPLA loyalists, and relied on resources provided by executive ministries. It denied opposition parties access to the voter registry and delayed accrediting domestic monitors not aligned with the government, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW). In addition, the government released state funding for opposition parties later than mandated, and the MPLA exploited additional state resources to fund its own campaign, including preelection handouts to voters, particularly in Cabinda.
On election day, voting in Luanda—home to between one-quarter and one-third of registered voters—was marred by serious irregularities. Late delivery of ballot papers forced polling to be extended by a day, and 320 polling stations failed to open. In addition, monitors reported that voter rolls were not widely accessible and were not used to check voter identities even when available. Observers from the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) declared the elections “transparent and credible,” while their counterparts from the African Union went so far as to call them “free and fair.” However, European Union observers, though classifying the polls as “an advance for democracy,” did not believe them to be free and fair, a judgment shared by some domestic monitoring groups and human rights organizations.
UNITA remains the most significant opposition party facing the ruling MPLA; only three other parties won seats in the National Assembly in 2008. While political violence has decreased significantly since 2002, UNITA leader Isaias Samakuva claims that 13 party members were killed for political reasons in 2006 and 2007, a claim the government denies. Violence increased in the run-up to the latest elections. According to HRW, suspected UNITA supporters in Huambo and Bie provinces were targeted. Local chiefs also faced occasionally violent pressure to prevent UNITA from gathering support. However, the government provided security for opposition rallies around the country.
Corruption and patronage are endemic in the government, and bribery often underpins business activity. In 2005, a World Bank survey found that outdated, poorly implemented, and corruption-prone regulations made Angola one of the world’s most hostile environments for microenterprise. A 2007 report by the Norway-based Chr. Michelsen Institute found extreme opacity and serious weaknesses in state budget-making, budget execution, and related institutions. In September 2008, UNITA claimed to have documents showing that the MPLA had used $42 million from the state-owned Angola Development Bank for its electoral campaign. The bank said the documents were forged. Angola was ranked 158 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2008 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Media restrictions became less stringent after 2002, but despite constitutional guarantees of freedom of expression, journalists remain subject to intimidation, dismissal, detention, and legal sanction by authorities; the result is self-censorship. Defamation of the president or his representatives and libel are criminal offenses, punishable by imprisonment or fines. In June 2008, the director of the independent weekly Semanario Angolense was sentenced to six months in prison for defaming a former justice minister. The 2006 Press Law ended the state monopoly on television broadcasting, called for the creation of a public broadcaster that ensures the “right of citizens to inform, seek information, and be informed,” and allowed journalists to use truth as a defense in libel and defamation trials. However, the law includes restrictive provisions concerning journalistic “duties,” journalists’ access to information, the right to practice journalism and to establish new media outlets, and the registration of both journalists and media outlets with the government.
The only daily newspaper, national radio station, and dominant television stations are state owned. In December 2008, however, the country’s first private television station, TV Zimbo, was launched. In the run-up to the 2008 elections, the state broadcaster covered the campaigns of all parties, but an outsized portion of regular news bulletins were dedicated to the MPLA’s campaign. The daily newspaper also ran pictures of the president on the front page nearly every day during the campaign period. Private media outlets are often denied access to official information and events, and they report problems with funding. In addition, officials pressure independent media to portray the government in a more favorable light. There are several independent weeklies and radio stations in Luanda that criticize the government, but the state dominates media elsewhere. As of 2008, authorities continued to prevent the outspoken Roman Catholic radio station Radio Ecclesia from broadcasting outside Luanda. In July, the government suspended Radio Despertar’s broadcasts for 180 days because the station was broadcasting beyond its licensed range of 50 kilometers outside Luanda. Internet access is limited to a small elite, as most citizens lack computers or even electricity.
Religious freedom is widely respected, despite colonial-era statutes that ban non-Christian religious groups. The educational system barely functions, suffering from underpaid and often corrupt teachers and severely damaged infrastructure. According to UNICEF, 47 percent of girls and 53 percent of boys attended primary school in 2006.
The constitution guarantees freedom of assembly and association. Increasingly, authorities are allowing opposition groups to hold demonstrations in Luanda, though crackdowns are common in the interior. The right to strike and form unions is provided by the constitution, but the MPLA dominates the labor movement and only a few independent unions exist. Hundreds of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and civic groups operate in Angola, many of them demanding political reform, government accountability, and human rights protections. Churches in particular have grown more outspoken. However, in 2007 the government accused several organizations of illegal activities and threatened to close them down. In April 2008, the government ordered the local office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to cease activities and leave the country by the end of May. Ahead of the elections, the government accused the local Association for Justice, Peace, and Democracy (AJPD) of having illegal statutes and threatened to close the organization; a court decision to that effect was pending at year’s end.
The judiciary is subject to extensive executive influence, though courts occasionally rule against the government. The government has yet to establish a Constitutional Court, as mandated by the constitution. Supreme Court judges are appointed to life terms by the president without legislative input or approval. Local courts rule on civil matters and petty crime in some areas, but a lack of training and infrastructure, a large backlog of cases, and corruption inhibit access to and functioning of the judiciary. Despite government efforts to train more municipal magistrates, municipal courts are rarely operational. As a result, traditional or informal courts are utilized.
Lengthy pretrial detention is common, and prisoners are subject to torture, severe overcrowding, sexual abuse, extortion, and a lack of basic services. Despite increased resources and human rights training, security forces continue to commit abuses with impunity. An estimated four million weapons in civilian hands threaten to contribute to lawlessness, and the diamond-mining industry is afflicted by murders and other abuses by government and private security personnel.The government created a national justice ombudsman’s office in 2005, but civil society groups objected to their exclusion from the process.
Accusations of severe rights abuses, including extrajudicial executions, have been leveled throughout the duration of the Cabinda conflict. In 2007, UN investigators reported that 15 civilians were being held incommunicado at military bases in Cabinda under charges of “crimes against the state”; according to HRW, they were tortured and held in inhumane conditions. One of the civilians, journalist Fernando Lelo, was sentenced along with four rebels to 12 years in prison in September 2008.
Eight provinces (about 50 percent of the country) contain areas that were heavily mined, restricting freedom of movement. At least 80,000 people have lost limbs to mines over the years.
Angolans have the right to own property, but it is very problematic in practice. Since 2003, forced evictions from informal settlements in and around Luanda—usually without adequate notice, compensation, or resettlement—have displaced 20,000 people and destroyed over 3,000 homes, according to Human Rights Watch and SOS Habitat. The government claims the residents are trespassing on state land that is needed for development purposes. Land laws passed in 2004, requiring the registration of ownership within three years, have generally been welcomed in rural areas and opposed in urban areas.
Women enjoy legal protections and occupy cabinet positions and National Assembly seats, but de facto discrimination and violence against women remain common, particularly in rural areas. Women are often killed or injured by land mines as they search for food and firewood. Child labor is a major problem, and there have been reports of trafficking in women and children for prostitution or forced labor. A recent study by the state’s National Children’s Institute and UNICEF found “a significant and growing” trend of abuse and abandonment of children accused of witchcraft after the death of a family member, usually from AIDS.