In the author acted as interpreter for a small party of British politicians who visited Angola. His own account of the expedition highlighted the then prominent questions of agriculture and rural development, of the empowerment of women in urban communities, of perceptions of national identity and the role of electoral politics. The effect of rising and falling oil wealth on legitimate investment and on corrupt embezzlement had to be delicately addressed as did the balance between presidential power and opposition newspapers. To many Angolans the thriving Pentecostal churches seemed as important in their daily lives as the non-governmental development agencies or the cash-strapped government ministries of health and education.
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In the author acted as interpreter for a small party of British politicians who visited Angola. His own account of the expedition highlighted the then prominent questions of agriculture and rural development, of the empowerment of women in urban communities, of perceptions of national identity and the role of electoral politics. The effect of rising and falling oil wealth on legitimate investment and on corrupt embezzlement had to be delicately addressed as did the balance between presidential power and opposition newspapers.
To many Angolans the thriving Pentecostal churches seemed as important in their daily lives as the non-governmental development agencies or the cash-strapped government ministries of health and education. Being politicians the visitors were naturally interested in elections. Their enthusiasm, as this paper hints, was not matched at the time by all Angolans, many of whom remembered the brutal urban warfare which broke out after the parliamentary and presidential elections of September Debate focussed at the time on two issues.
One was whether it was possible, in a country some of whose population lived in under-administered and inaccessible provinces, to honestly register voters in a comprehensive fashion. The other was whether the electoral commission should risk another winner-takes-all election for the presidency or whether it should limit the electoral exercise merely to the choosing of a new parliament. In the event the registration of voters appeared to be carried out with reasonable efficacy and probity.
On the other hand the decision was cautiously made, as anticipated, not to risk putting up for election a president who had been in post since and had been elected with a slightly less than absolute majority in A potential crisis such as that which broke out in Kenya, or in Zimbabwe, where electors attempted to change not only the composition of parliament but also the real holder of power in the presidential office, was averted in Angola.
Avoiding a winner-takes-all election with the presidency at stake lowered the electoral temperature while at the same time giving Angolans an opportunity to vote, to feel that they were real citizens, to begin to sense ownership of their society.
The most prominent leader of the defeated opposition accepted with equanimity the September election result which gave the government some 80 per cent of the votes. He reassured his followers that democracy would continue to grow in strength and that another opportunity to vote would occur at the next election. The scale of the parliamentary victory by the ruling party may even have encouraged the palace to think that a presidential election might not be as risky as the courtiers associated with the ruling dynasty had feared.
The technical answers come from a variety of foreign agencies anxious to facilitate the complex task of registering voters in a land without a census in which about four million people have had to flee from war, often leaving all forms of identity document to burn in their abandoned homes.
Creating a new register is supposed to be undertaken between November and May but as an opposition spokesman pointed out this was largely a rainy season in which most mud paths and tracks will be impassable. Debates about the election so far have had more to do with the hours of opening of polling stations than with the questions of substance such as should parliamentary and presidential elections be sequential as the government will probably decide or simultaneous as the opposition expects and prefers.
Elections in Angola generate fear. The one and only general election ever held in Angola, in September , was followed by terrible bloodshed and the half of the population old enough to remember that far off day still shudders. In the winners, rightly anticipating that the losers would go back to war in the restless provinces that had so long been economically neglected, had trained up an urban paramilitary force to root out and kill opposition sympathisers in the city.
The country exploded and two years of slaughter and destruction exceeded anything witnessed in either the colonial war of to or the war of international intervention of to The return of such violence after a new winner-takes-all election remains an anxiety down in the slums and up on the farms. The peace of Bicesse in was not a truly indigenous settlement between the two armed sets of economically ambitious bourgeois politicians of the highland and the coastland but rather a ceasefire imposed by Russia and America at the end of their Cold War.
It did not share out the political opportunities and the economic spoils equitably and was therefore never likely to last, though foreigners at the time did not perceive the weaknesses. The peace of Lusaka in was an equally foreign attempt to end the civil war but the leader of the opposition did not even turn up to sign the accord so ashamed he was of having to pause in his search for power through the barrel of a gun.
Surviving officers of the opposition were now able to join those who had changed sides five years earlier to seek fame and fortune in the cities of the oil-rich coast. They negotiated minimal resettlement grants of tools, utensils and small cash payments for their demobilised guerrillas. The restitution of lost assets, the psychiatric rehabilitation of child soldiers, the repair of broken communities, all need to be tackled. One civil society worker described the great fear as the fear of neglect.
Once the government has garnered the votes it might assume it has received a mandate to pursue existing policies with impunity. For those Angolans who have not yet seen the dividends of peace, elections could lead to quite dangerous disappointments. No dispassionate observer seems to think that an election would be likely to significantly alter this balance of power, but the government does seem reluctant to test the matter.
Wealth and influence depend on climbing aboard the establishment bandwagon and opposition parties have but a single declared platform, to oppose the personalities but not the policies of the current regime. Visitors could detect no policy differences between government and opposition parties, merely leadership differences and some regional bids for access to the central pork barrel.
One of the questions asked, but not answered, is whether the faithful who flock to the new Brazilian-run and American-funded Pentecostal churches mushrooming all over Luanda will take part in the election. On the Sunday before our visit the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God had rented both of the main city stadia for prayer meetings one holding 80, adherents and the other 20, while the Catholics had organised a pilgrimage in busses, cars and even helicopters to take 70, people to the shrine of Our Lady of Muxima in a seventeenth-century chapel on the far side of the Kwanza River.
Religious ceremonies, and their powers of healing, are of far great importance to ordinary men and women in the street that any election. In such an atmosphere it seems unlikely that the ordinary punter will flock to the polls as he and she did in Election advisory organisations in both the United States and South Africa do, however, already seem to have one toe on the ground in readiness to help.
The delegation was unable to meet the party president but we were cordially received in the small party headquarters up a dusty blind alley in one of the Luanda municipalities.
Unita is very proud of the fact that its new leader, Samakuva, was elected by a party congress whereas the MPLA leader has been in post unchallenged since We were shown one of the bunkers from which Jonas Savimbi commanded his platoons during the civil wars. The site is marked by a parked tank rusting in the grounds of the veterinary school. We drove past the city offices of Unita but they appeared very closed, perhaps because we had arrived on yet another bank holiday. Not everyone remembers Unita with much fondness, however, and one attempt at political mobilisation led to party militants being drummed out of town.
Nowhere on our travels did we meet much enthusiasm for another attempt at an election, particularly a first past the post, winner takes all, election. Unita, and to a lesser extent MPLA, is essentially an old fashioned single-platform liberation movement and when independence had been achieved the only issue was who was going to be the president replacing the plumed governor-general of colonial days. Elections in Africa tend to be beauty contests rather than debating forums.
In some ways Angola is very un-African and political culture tends rather to mimic Portugal and Brazil, but the cult of personality is nevertheless deeply entrenched and framed portraits of the president in his prime ornament every government office. The shiny multi-storey party headquarters in Luanda were allegedly given to the country by Tito of Yugoslavia.
The spokesperson who received us said that 1, people worked for the party there but on a part-time basis so that their salaries were paid for by other institutions and did not become a burden to the party itself. What all these people did was far from obvious and preparing for an imminent general election did not seem to be on the agenda. They naturally took a keen interest in the media scene in Angola.
The national government is so fearful that disaffection in underdeveloped rural provinces might once more lead to peasant wars such as those seen in the s, that it has effectively forbidden any broadcasting by independent radio stations. In the far south, at Lubango, beyond the range of the civil war, one local radio does operate, and another broadcasts to the ancient coastal city of Benguela. The most important independent radio, however, is the Roman Catholic Radio Ecclesia. Despite heavy investment in provincial studios and FM repeaters, for which the British government gave some financial help, the Angolan government has banned their use.
When Radio Ecclesia tried to experiment with its relay station in Huambo it was closed down by the police within a week, presumably on the orders of the presidential palace in Luanda. The content is fairly moralistic and the news tends to be family-oriented commune welcomes safe delivery of triplets to proud local mother but any news is so scarce that the bulletin is passed from hand to hand around the whole district and indeed beyond.
The independent but very expensive newspapers of Luanda, of which more below, do not reach the provinces and even the bi-monthly news magazine put out by the Catholic Church appears to have a limited rural distribution. By serendipitous good fortune one of the independent newspapers, the Angolense now in its seventh year of publication, carried a front page article on the day of our arrival which discussed the pecking order of the ten most influential female entrepreneurs in the country.
The top spot was held by Ana Paula dos Santos, the wife of the state president. More recently Isabel has been very active in the field of telecommunication investments. Third place is held by Albina Assis, a member of one of the grand old Luanda families. His daughter, although not a member of the thirteen families that have reigned over Angolan high society for the last dozen or so generations, is now a vice-minister is the Dos Santos government.
This seemed the ideal occasion for a media photo opportunity but the British delegation was eclipsed by a more important delegation from Equatorial Guinea which was visiting on the same day. Local people, deprived of their colonial wages and terrified of the insecurities of war, turned on the factories and warehouses and robbed them of their stock, their furniture, their plant, and any moveable items that might conceivably have a marketable value. Recovery was very slow and in the area was once more in the eye of the whirlwind.
A dismayed party of opposition, Unita, had been assured by the United States that if it laid down its arms and took part in an election supervised by the United Nations it was bound to win the power which its leader had craved ever since his student days in Switzerland.
The enraged psychopath took his revenge on the city of Huambo with heavy artillery during a third civil war. And still the people, served by their informal economy, survived. Never mind the struggling people, the daily shoppers, the war-time survivors, the market-garden retailers, the textile saleswomen, the children earning their school fees by selling sticks of chewing gum, the market was bulldozed and all that remained for the visitors to see was the occasional plume of smoke arising from the ashes.
Most of those participating in the microcredit project are women. Women came to shoulder heavy economic responsibilities as well as the family ones when caught up in the wars.
Their responsibilities seem not to have lessened and yet there remain many barriers hindering the participation of women in institutionalised political and economic life. Other women went into more traditional pursuits such as retail clothing, thriving on a credit system in which interest rates are a mere three per cent. But how, asked our MPs, is repayment guaranteed. Ah, was the reply, we belong to lodges of a dozen or so members each and the system is self regulating. None of us can afford to let a fellow member default and bring the system down.
It is good question. The advice we were given is that the next three years will be crucial in deciding if Angola comes out of its post-civil-war trauma with a vibrant and confident civil society or whether disillusion will creep in and political instability break out.
Development Workshop officers are optimistic and think that the microcredit schemes they have initiated are now ready to stand on their own feet. One KixiCredito microfinance group will be independent of international donor support by The photograph was an old colonial one, belonging to the days when Portugal hoped that one day Angola might become a tourist destination and its very rare antelope was the poster symbol of imperial pride.
It was long assumed that the last giant sable had been eaten during the fourth civil war of when the armies of each of the liberation movements which stand in lieu of political parties tried to starve out their opponents. Famished conscripts had survived on anything from bush meat to wild honey.
Since the war ended it is alleged that one baby sable has been seen, or even that a herd of thirty animals has been filmed by scholars associated with the Catholic University of Luanda. On a recent visit to London he laid out his vision for cities in which everything is neatly zoned, a bit like the pale, bloodless, soulless, city of Brasilia a thousand miles up-country from the vibrancy of Rio de Janeiro across the Atlantic waters from Luanda. People do not feature in the new Angolan plans and neither does economic reality.
The ministry does not recognise that Angola is almost the poorest country in the world, lying as it does at the bottom of the Human Development Index with a per thousand child mortality statistic. Angola can only survive the next decade by nurturing its wonderfully dynamic and flexible informal economy which has its own codes of conduct and rules of engagement.
We did not fail, however, to ask about the dramatic new phenomena which the Chinese arrival represented. In Huambo one of our British parliamentarians was temporarily taken ill and a Chinese fellow guest at the inn kindly suggested that we take him to the clinic.
In the nineteenth-century the French used Chinese workers to build the Congo railways to Brazzaville while the British preferred Indian labour to initiate the building of the Benguela railway to the Belgian copperbelt. Even more dramatically the Chinese civil engineers hope to rebuild the road network linking north and south and put in new bridges which can carry heavy-duty trucks.
The contracts specify that 70 per cent of the input of staff and capital shall be Chinese and only 30 per cent local. The matter, however, is not quite as simple as that.
La cábala y el poder de soñar (Despertar a una vida visionaria)
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