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DAILY MAVERICK INTERVIEW

Angolan opposition party Unita says it was robbed of victory in 2022 but will come back fighting even harder in 2027

Angolan opposition party Unita says it was robbed of victory in 2022 but will come back fighting even harder in 2027
epa10203840 The leader of the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA), Adalberto Costa Junior (2-R), speech's during a concentration before a march for the pacification of Angola, called by UNITA, in Luanda, Angola, 24 September 2022. The National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) promotes 24 September, one month after the Angolan elections, a march in defense of the democratic state and the rule of law and for the release of political prisoners. EPA-EFE/AMPE ROGERIO

Angolan opposition party Unita's dynamic new leader, Adalberto Costa Júnior, is gearing up for a better campaign next time, for a revived party with a very chequered history.

 Unita leader Adalberto Costa Júnior, like many observers, is convinced the ruling MPLA stole last year’s national elections in Angola. But undeterred, he intends returning to the campaign trail in the 2027 elections, but this time much better prepared, to beat the MPLA so badly it won’t be able to rig another fraudulent victory. 

Unita had been fighting and badly losing dubious elections against the MPLA since 1992 when multiparty democracy was introduced after 17 years of one-party MPLA rule and civil war. But the election of the dynamic young engineer and politician  Costa to Unita’s leadership in 2019 revitalised the party.

It came closer than ever before to beating the MPLA in last August’s elections. Even officially, Unita won 44% of the vote to the MPLA’s bare majority of 51% – a dramatic drop from its 61% landslide victory in 2017.

Unita had been drifting under indifferent leadership for years. But the MPLA took fright at Costa’s election as leader. President João Lourenço appointed a new president of the constitutional court a few months later. “And the first decision of this new president was to consider the Congress of Unita which had elected me,”  Costa told DM168 in an interview this week. “This was one of the biggest scandals we had in my country.” Unita nevertheless quickly organised another party congress which confirmed his election as leader by an even larger majority.

But that left Costa with just a few months to campaign which he nevertheless did successfully enough for Unita to win the capital Luanda as well as other major towns such as Benguela, Cabinda, M’Banzo Congo and Lobito – and also to come within 7% of the MPLA’s national vote.

“Everyone knows the MPLA lost the election. How does someone win all the biggest towns and lose the election?” Costa asked this week, when he was in South Africa participating in the Pan African Parliament. It bothers him that “all the embassies know this. It seems this is normal for them. People are only interested in business. And this is terrible for us.”

Unita had proof that the election was stolen, in the form of independent result forms from more than 90% of the polling stations which it presented to the constitutional court. The MPLA had mainly doctored the results by adding millions of ghost voters to its own tallies, he says – ghost voters being all the Angolans who had died over the past 25 years but remained on the voters’ roll – which the government never published. Unita even found that its founding leader, Jonas Savimbi, who was shot dead in a battle with government forces in 2002, had remained a registered voter. But the constitutional court simply refused to consider Unita’s evidence. 

“The South African judicial system works, even if it sometimes has problems. In Angola the judicial system doesn’t exist. They take orders from the president,” Costa says. He adds that all the institutions involved in elections, including the National Electoral Commission and the Supreme Court, are “absolutely partisan”.

Even before election day, the fix was in. Costa said that, for instance, he was not given a single interview on television or radio or in national papers. There was no public debate between him and MPLA leader Lourenço because Lourenço simply refused to debate.

The alleged theft of the elections presented real internal problems to  Costa.” I came under the strongest pressure, particularly from our youth. Some of them still point the finger at me. The youth called for fighting in the streets.”

But he was concerned that many would die if that happened. Just before the results were officially announced, “the government put a complete army on the streets. They put missiles, tanks, modern tanks. They put all kinds of arms. It seemed like Angola was at war.”

UNITA (National Union for the Total Independence of Angola) supporters during a political rally in Luanda, Angola, 22 August 2022. Angola will hold general elections on August 24, which will define the composition of parliament and the names of the President and Vice President of the Republic. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Paulo Novais)

Much better next time

Yet, why bother with fighting elections at all if you know MPLA will never relinquish power voluntarily, we asked Costa. A tough question for all oppositions fighting entrenched incumbents in many countries across the continent.

Costa’s response was that, with much more time to campaign next time, he and Unita would do much better. He has a refreshing and unusual attitude that it is he himself who must do better now. “I learned we must do our own work. We can’t wait for others to do it for us,” he says when asked if the international community should do more to help Angolans deal with the problem of a corrupt government.

Read more in Daily Maverick:Angola’s José Eduardo dos Santos was a ruthless manipulator who left no legacy

Nevertheless, part of doing better will be to present the world with incontrovertible evidence of how the 2022 election was rigged, he says. Because he doesn’t think others understand the scale of the problem. 

In the next two months he will publish “a fantastic document” with all the details of the election campaign and the rigging, which he will distribute locally and internationally. It will also include details about how most Unita members received notices just after the elections saying: “We know where you are.” This intimidation clearly came from the secret service, he said.

Costa says he has also visited all parts of the country to canvas the view of Unita supporters about how they can do better next time. One outcome is that the party will focus its campaigning on putting pressure on the MPLA government to hold local government elections. These are provided for in the constitution but have never been held .

The government had offered all sorts of excuses for not holding such elections but the real reason was that “they are afraid to lose control of everybody”, especially after last year’s national elections where Unita so clearly beat them in Luanda and many other cities and towns.. 

Costa says the MPLA seems to be following the example of its ally Frelimo in Mozambique which has also been reluctant to hold local government elections. Instead, he says, they should follow the example of another Portuguese-speaking African country, Cape Verde, which has successfully held local elections across all its islands. “And if you go there, you will see the results. They have dignity, development, everybody goes to school. They have buses. They have routes. They have services. And we haven’t.”

Jealously guarded power

The MPLA’s insistence on clinging so jealously to all the power is keeping the country poor and in fact aggravating poverty, he says. After last year’s elections, Costa said he went to the ruling party’s leadership to offer Unita’s help in rebuilding a better country. 

The jealous response from the MPLA was: “The government is mine!” He laughs. “Okay, that’s good, it’s yours. But it’s impossible to govern alone. And there are some very important common objectives we could realise together.” One was local government elections which would help the central government govern by decentralising responsibility. 

But the MPLA was unable to work with anyone else. “It governs for itself and this is Angola’s biggest problem.”

By contrast  Costa recalls that Unita did so well in the 2022 elections because it headed a large coalition of two large opposition formations  and civil society organisations – which he said would be maintained. This had sent a very strong message to the electorate that Unita and its allies were able to work with others to govern for the whole country. 

When Lourenço succeeded President Jose Eduardo dos Santos in 2017, he promised to root out the corruption which had become endemic, particularly in all the government positions and privileges Dos Santos gave to his own family.

But Da Costa says that in fact Lourenço is doing worse than Dos Santos in fighting corruption. Costa has produced a dossier compiling all the government contracts the Lourenço government has given to companies since he became president in 2017.

Not one of them went out to tender, he says. “He gave the contracts privately. This is one of the best ways to promote corruption. He gives the contracts to the companies of his friends, or companies that belong to MPLA. “

This corruption is continuing to hobble the economy which remains 80% dependent on oil with no diversification that could distribute income more equitably and reduce poverty.

Read more in Daily Maverick:The noose is closing on Angola’s Isabel dos Santos and stolen loot stashed away in other countries

Da Costa said Unita voted against the national budget in Parliament recently in part because half of it was going to repay debt. And much of the reason for that was that instead of borrowing money internationally at about 3%, the MPLA government was borrowing much of it locally, at 27% to 30% interest from local banks in which the MPLA has financial interests.

He notes that when Unita proposed legislation to try to recover stolen state money by allowing those who stole it to keep some of it – as long as they invested it in Angola – the MPLA voted against the bill. “We knew if we said people must return to Angola with all of the money and return it to the state, people would refuse to return and you would never recuperate the money.”

Instead the MPLA passed its own legislation “where all the stolen money remains in the pocket of the man who stole it from the state. It’s incredible.” 

“Joao Lourenço approved another law against corruption that they use against the sons and daughters of Dos Santos and the people near Dos Santos. But there are a lot of ministers, members of government who are also millionaires but nothing is done against them.

“There are many Isabels, even if we don’t know them,” he says referring to Lourenço’s highly publicised campaign against Dos Santos’s daughter Isabel dos Santos who grew fabulously rich from the government positions and privileges her father gave her. 

“And nothing happens to them when they are members of the families of the government today.” 

A party with a chequered history

Unita – the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (Portuguese: União Nacional para a Independência Total de Angola, abbr. Unita) – has had a very chequered history. It was founded in 1966 with Jonas Savimbi as its leader, to fight for Angola’s independence from the Portuguese colonial power. It was then backed militarily by China and professed Maoist doctrine. 

Just before independence in November 1975, Unita briefly participated in a transitional government of national unity with the two other main liberation movements, the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) and the Frente Nacional de Libertacao de Angola (FNLA). 

But fighting soon erupted between the MPLA on the one side and Unita and the FNLA on the other. The MPLA was backed by Soviet and Cuban military power and Unita and the FNLA by US military force. And then, most controversially, apartheid South African forces joined the battle on the side of the Unita-FNLA alliance.

With huge Cuban backing, the MPLA gained the upper hand and seized full control of the government of Angola when Portugal abruptly withdrew. For the next 17 years Unita, still backed by South Africa, engaged in a bitter civil war against the MPLA which was still supported by the USSR and a large Cuban army. 

Peace negotiations among the US, the USSR, Cuba, Angola and South Africa in 1988 ended the war and Unita contested Angola’s first democratic elections in 1992. It lost narrowly to the MPLA, Savimbi cried foul, fighting erupted in Luanda and Unita went back to the bush to fight again. It became a bipolar party since many of its MPs continued to sit in Parliament. 

The renewed civil war ended in 2002 after Savimbi was killed in battle and Unita became a purely conventional political party, participating in electoral politics. Isaias Samakuva succeeded Savimbi as leader and the party won 51 of 220 seats in the 2017 parliamentary election. Samakuva resigned as party leader in November 2019, to be replaced by Adalberto Costa Júnior.

He revitalised Unita which formed a multiparty coalition that won an official 43,95% of the national vote and 90 seats in the national assembly – an increase of 39 seats – in the August 2022 elections. It reduced the MPLA’s vote by 10% points to 51,17% and cut its seats by 26 to 124. It was widely believed that the MPLA had rigged the result. Significantly, Unita for the first time won large majorities in Luanda and other cities and big towns. 

From a largely rural party under Savimbi, mainly representing the largest ethnic group, the Ovimbundu, Unita has been transformed under Costa into the dominant urban party, poised to make further gains.

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.

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