The country’s recent elections showed that business as usual is no longer an optionby Alex Vines / August 31, 2017 / Leave a comment
Joao Lourenco, Angola’s next president. Photo: Xu Kunpeng/Xinhua News Agency/PA Images Finally, change is coming to Angola. Multiparty elections in August saw Africa’s second longest-serving president, José Eduardo dos Santos, step down from the presidency after almost 38 years in power. João Lourenço will be sworn in soon—Angola’s third president since independence in 1975. The final results are yet to be announced, but preliminary numbers suggest that the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) has won 61.1 per cent of the vote (although this is being contested by the opposition). An impressive total by British standards, but if the figures are correct they show that while turnout was up 13 per cent on the last election in 2012, the MPLA’s vote share is significantly down. Business as usual is no longer an option for the party. Dos Santos’s resignation will not be enough to reassure Angola’s electorate. The country’s economy, which, after years of rapid growth, contracted 3.6 percent in 2016, has been badly hit by a fall in crude prices (they have halved since 2014), and Angola’s voters have punished the MPLA for excessive corruption and the weak economy. The next election in 2022 will be much closer—and the MPLA can no longer rely on its liberationist credentials. Angola has an increasingly youthful population made up of those who have only known independence, while many older Angolans are prioritising poverty reduction and economic growth. And here’s the thing: they are right to. The country faces deep structural challenges in the years ahead—and Britain has a role to play in ensuring the country gets back on track. Angola’s economy is dominated by oil. Today, it depends on the offshore petroleum industry which accounts for 50 per cent of GDP and 75 per cent of government revenue. As an OPEC member and Africa’s second largest oil producer, the country has over the last decade or so attracted increasing UK interest. Britain became more deeply engaged in Angola after its civil war ended in 2002 and Claire Short, former Secretary of State for International Development, regarded the country as important enough to open a DFID office (though this was closed in 2009). Recent Conservative governments have been less engaged than their Labour predecessors, however. They have introduced prime ministerial trade envoys, including one for Angola, but with the sharp decline in oil revenues, much of that job seems now focused on encouraging Angolan payment of outstanding bills. There are also plans for the current trade envoy, Liberal Democrat peer Baroness Northover, to double hat with a second southern African country. Not good. Labour politicians have a history of involvement with the country. Jeremy Corbyn has chaired the All Party Parliamentary Group on Angola along with other Labourites and Lib Dems. But finding a willing Conservative MP to commit to chair the APPG over the last decade has proved difficult—and the UK has missed several opportunities in recent years to gain greater diplomatic traction in Angola. The most dramatic missed opportunity was in 2014 when President dos Santos signalled he wanted to visit Britain as part of a European tour (he had only visited once in 1991 and met John Major as Prime Minister in No.10). No trip occurred due to then Prime Minister David Cameron being unable to find diary time to meet him (not helped by the Angolan Embassy in London proposing a UK Bank holiday as the day for the visit). Earlier this year Angolan president-elect Lourenço considered a London visit as part of an international tour (he visited France, Italy and the US) but once again the lack of interest from No 10 scuppered plans. With Lourenço the first new Angolan president in 38 years, this is the time for the UK to encourage reform and assist Angola’s thinking on how to diversify its economy away from oil and how to implement banking reform. Angola’s current oil projections are for production to peak in 2019 and then decline at 11 percent per year unless new investment is attracted into its off-shore oil business. In past years, Angolans have been taken to Scotland and up to Shetland to see what plans the UK has in place for confronting matured oil production and managing decline. These insights never seemed to have been heeded, but another push would be worthwhile. For regime stability, and to succeed in his plans, Lourenço needs new investment in the oil industry in the short term, in order to buy time to meaningfully adjust the country’s economy away from its oil addiction. The UK has expertise to share—and a successful and stable Angola would be in the UK’s interests too as it seeks new international markets and opportunities. It is time that the Conservative government thinks more deeply about Angola and does not leave that to political opponents.