By Eugen Iladi
Washington D.C. – Joao Lourenco was elected Angola’s new president in August in what election observers called a fair election process. The ethnic and tribal violence that has often marred other African elections was thankfully absent.
But that doesn’t mean that governing will be easy. The new chief executive will have to overcome challenges that range from economic stagnation to hypercriticism in the media.
Lourenco, the former defense minister under previous president Jose Eduardo dos Santos, continues to head dos Santos’ MPLA party and will likely maintain many of its policies.
Nevertheless, president-elect Lourenco will face several challenges.
First is the economy. Angola’s prospects are tied to oil. The country’s 2016 Gross Domestic Product growth slowed to 1.1 percent due to falling crude oil prices. Lourenco will have to work to diversify Angola’s economy away from petroleum to create new jobs.
He will also have to tame inflation. Inflation hit its recent peak of more than 40 percent at the end of 2016, though it has since been cut in half. Finance Minister Archer Mangueira has set an inflation target of 15.8 percent.
Lourenco hopes to increase foreign investment. But to do that he must reduce corruption and the impression that Angola’s systems are irreparably broken. Angola ranks No. 164 out of 176 countries in the Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index and 182nd out of 189 countries in the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business Index. After reaching $16.2 billion in 2015, foreign direct investment into Angola fell to $14.4 billion last year.
Lourenco must also revive Angola’s ability to feed itself by clearing his nation of landmines. Under Portuguese rule prior to independence in 1975, Angola was a food exporter and agriculturally self-sufficient. A 27-year-long civil war changed that by destroying the nation’s agriculture sector. Angola now cultivates only 8 percent of its arable land and imports more than half of its food.
Angola’s healthcare system for its 29 million people is badly in need of an overhaul. It suffers from shortages of doctors, nurses, medicine and healthcare workers. As a result, Angolans lack access to doctors; the ones they do see are too often substandard.
The new president is also facing committed political opposition on several fronts. Opposition party UNITA is contesting the August election before Angola’s constitutional court. It alleges, without having provided proof thus far, that election results in several of the nation’s provinces were not based on actual vote totals but on fictional numbers sent from the government’s election commission.
President-elect Lourenco must be able to communicate his vision to the people of Angola through the media. But the Angolan media is a mixed bag, to say the least. It is young and lacks resources and expertise; at the same time, it is taking full advantage of the internet’s ability to create and spread fake news.
A European Union delegation visiting Angola last year praised the progress of the nascent Angolan media, but it said the nation lacks established, independent media outlets. In developed countries, these institutions provide reasoned evaluation and criticism of the government. Just as importantly, they provide a standard of journalism that regularly rejects activist and partisan journalism that takes sides for political reasons. Into this vacuum, radical activists of the Angolan political opposition have rushed, sensing an opportunity to attack their opponents the guise of journalism.
One such particular example is Maka Angola, which bills itself as an investigative journalism site while promoting virulent anti-establishment political views. The site’s editor, Rafael Marques de Morais, was convicted of libel in 2015 and is currently facing fresh charges under Angola’s criminal code for publishing false articles. Marques and his defenders maintain these are heavy-handed attempts to silence him and deflect attention from governance flaws and corruption allegations. According to Angolan officials, the site’s coverage is serving the partisan interests of political opposition groups, using facts selectively and out of context.
These contradictory assertions leave readers and international observers equally baffled. The site and the editor have won international journalism awards and gathered powerful defenders from Western media and journalism protection bodies, making it increasingly difficult to distinguish reality from fiction or knowing where legitimate criticism of government actions stops and political activism starts.
Not everyone outside Angola is convinced that Marques is a journalist unfairly targeted and harassed by the authorities. As a backer of the opposition UNITA party, Marques was deemed to be a political activist by a Portuguese court when he brought, and lost, a libel case this year. “While begging to be an international journalist,” the Lisbon court ruled, Marques is “a political activist.”
Maka Angola’s other key contributor, lawyer and writer Rui Verde, was convicted of falsifying documents, forgery and tax fraud and sentenced to jail. He often writes under false names to avoid responsibility for his articles.
Democratic governments should expect a robust opposition political scene and fair criticism from the media. But in the case of Angola, this is not just any democratic government—it is a rather young and fragile democracy that has endured much heartache and dysfunctions during a prolonged civil-war and a mixed transition period. This makes it more vulnerable and sensitive to even one reckless internet site, because it can cause grievous damage.
Eugen Iladi Is a freelance reporter based in Virginia who covers politics, conflict, business and development in emerging markets. 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, Global Politics and many more.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent any institution or entity.
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