The Washington Diplomat / November 2008
By Larry Luxner
It was far from perfect, but Angola's recent parliamentary elections offer proof that the oil-rich but war-ravaged country — nearly destroyed by 27 years of fighting that killed more than a million people — is pushing towarddemocracy.
At least that's the way Josefina Pitra Diakité, the country's ambassador to the United States, sees it.
"These general elections were very important for Angola," she said, "in terms of restoring constitutional normalcy, bringing back the legitimacy of power, deepening Angolan democracy and rehabilitating Angola's credibility in Africa and around the world."
Even if the ruling Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) won with 82 percent of the vote, in a landslide election observers say was marred by insignificant difficulties.
"This usually doesn't happen in democracies," Pitra Diakité acknowledged in a mid-October interview of the enormous margin of victory, "but I will tell you the MPLA is the biggest, oldest and best-organized party in Angola. It started preparing for elections five years ago, and at its 2005 congress defined its election strategies. Secondly, this is the party that gave peace back to the Angolan people. During this time, it has tried as much as possible to bring reconciliation and address the people's main concerns."
She added: "Even though people had to wait for hours, there was no violence. People were eager to vote. It was impossible to vote twice because there were delegates of every party at every polling station."
The widely anticipated election was Angola's first since 1992, and it "prompted a remarkable concession of defeat by the leading opposition party, which just six years ago was the government's enemy in a brutal 27-year civil war," noted the New York Times.
Indeed, Angola's main opposition party, the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA), accepted the results despite flaws in the voting process, particularly in Luanda, the capital. Final numbers show UNITA winning about 10 percent of the vote, with the remaining 8 percent divided among a dozen other parties and coalitions.
This gives the MPLA — which has dominated Angolan politics ever since the African country won independence from Portugal in 1975 — a legitimate mandate to rule, as well as the two-thirds legislative majority it needs to change the constitution and further entrench itself into the political system.
"The government worked hard to prepare for these elections, and the results speak for themselves," Diakité said. "The turnout of 87 percent was quite amazing, and they were absolutely free, fair and transparent."
Hardly, according to Human Rights Watch. The New York-based organization cited obstruction by the National Electoral Commission of accreditation for national electoral observers, its failure to respond to media bias in favor of the ruling party, and severe delays by the Angolan government in providing funds to opposition parties.
"With presidential elections due in 2009, Angola needs to reform the electoral commission so it isn't dominated by the ruling party and can respond effectively to election problems," said Georgette Gagnon, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "If the electoral commission isn't reformed, there's a risk that Angolans and international partners could lose confidence in the country's fledgling democratic process."
Still, at least this time around the country avoided the violence that plagued the previous election in 1992, when UNITA's leader Jonas Savimbi refused to accept his second-place loss and al already-devastating civil war continued for yet another decade. All told, at least one million people — maybe more — died in that brutal conflict, though no one knows for sure.
"This war was instigated from outside, during the Cold War, because of the decision Angola took to become a socialist country," said the ambassador. "So you can understand it was not a genuine Angolan war."
In the 1980s, UNITA — which controlled vast swaths of the interior — was backed by U.S. resourceds and South African troops. Similarly, tens of thousands of Cuban troops remained in support of the MPLA. A U.S.-brokered agreement resulted in the withdrawal of foreign troops in 1989 and led to an accord that spelled out an electoral process fora democratic Angola under the supervision of the United Nations.
But when the 1992 elections sparked renewed fighting, both sides tore the country apart for another 10 years. At one point in the early 1990s, the war was killing more than 1,000 people, mostly civilians, every day.
It wasn't until Savimbi's death in February 2002 and the subsequent Luena Memorandum of Understanding that the fighting finally stopped and UNITA became an opposition political party within the government headed by President José Eduardo dos Santos.
But Pitra Diakité defends her government for bringing UNITA back into the fold and helping the party accept its defeat.
"The war was so severe that it couldn't get any worse," she said. "But you can see that since the war's end, there hasnít been any kind of aggression or humiliation against UNITA. This is a major responsibility the Angolan people have on their shoulders."
As ambassador, Pitra Diakité oversees a staff of 14 at the Angolan Embassy fronting 16th Street. The country also maintains consulates in New York and Houston to serve business executives as well as the estimated 8,000 Angolans living in the United States ó many of them former members of UNITA and other opposition parties welcomed here during the Cold War.
Pitra Diakité points out that Angola has little to do with communism, despite the hammer and sickle that dominates its national flag.
"This is the flag Angola adopted since independence," she said. "If you take Portugal's example, they still have the same flag they had when they were oppressing the African people — even the same national anthem — but you can't say Portugal is the same Portugal as in the past. Likewise, Angola has made quite substantive changes from the past, adopting a multiparty system and a market economy."
Pitra Diakité concedes that prior to the elections, there was "some skepticism" on the part of foreign investors, especially Americans. "My biggest challenge now is to see more political involvement between our two countries, and also more U.S. investment," she said. "Angola is a post-conflict country, and there are lots of opportunities in agriculture, transportation, education and housing."
But the most lucrative opportunity seems to be in petroleum. In fact, the United States already buys more oil from Angola than from Kuwait; the African country now accounts for 7 percent of all U.S. crude oil imports. Angola would like to boost this to 10-15 percent of all imports over the next decade.
Angola has produced oil since 1955, with initial exploration success taking place onshore in the Kwanza area. In 1973 — at the height of the Arab oil embargo and two years before independence from Portugal — petroleum became Angola's principal export. Production reached 100,000 barrels a day in 1973, 359,000 b/d in 1987 and 450,000 b/d in 1993.
Angolan oil production now stands at 1.3 million b/d, making the country sub-Saharan Africa's second-largest oil producer (after Nigeria), and the ninth-largest supplier of crude oil to the United States.
Three times a week, a chartered World Airways MD-11 jumbo jet lifts off from Houston's George Bush Intercontinental Airport, ferrying 113 passengers nonstop to Luanda. The 15-hour flights from Texas to the Angolan capital — costing over $5,900 per round-trip business ticket — are a testament to the importance of the oil industry to Angola, which has attracted an estimated $4 billion in U.S. investment and will likely jump dramatically over the next few years as major oil discoveries come online.
Those oil discoveries have also given Angola one of the fastest-growing economies in the world, with GDP growth estimated at a staggering 21.1 percent for 2007, according to the State Department. Investments in the social sectors are contributing to improve people's lives.
The Mo Ibrahim Foundation, in its latest "rule of law, transparency and corruption index," gave Angola a score of 38.4 on a scale of zero to 100. This suggests Angola is one of the most corrupt countries in Africa; only the Democratic Republic of Congo, Cote d' Ivoire, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Somalia and Sudan ranked lower.
"Basically, this is unfair," complained the ambassador. "No matter what the Angolan government does, organizations like Mo Ibrahim and Transparency International still rank Angola at the same level they were ranking us years ago."