Expectations for the Angolan elections are very high. In many ways elections are seen to be the final culmination in Angola’s long path to a sustainable peace. It is, though, as Mr. Silfverstolpe correctly points out, but one small step in making the legal, structural, and attitudinal changes required for successful and continued progress.
Ultimately these are the processes that would allow Angolans to take the important steps toward democracy, free speech, the rule of law and improved human rights. Although there may be some similarities with the election process in neighbouring DRC there are also some important differences.
Elections in the DRC were financed, promoted, organized and administered by the International Community, mostly because elections are a convenient watershed for the International Community from which they can then arrange an exit strategy.
Angola had already experienced a similar process in 1992.
It is an experience that in many instances informs and clouds their current attitude. This is true as much for the Angolan authorities as for ordinary Angolans.
The elections in 2008 are far more fundamental and far more intimately an Angolan process. It will thus be important for the international community to step back and reflect on their role in the elections in 1992 before engaging this time with this process.
The end of the war in February 2002 brought with it very little of the euphoria and enthusiasm for elections that was so evident in 1992.
The initial promise in 2002 of early elections followed by continuous postponements, reflect in many ways the ambiguity that many Angolans, at all levels, and on all sides of the many political divides, feel towards the value of elections.
It perhaps also indicates an underlying fear that this time, yet again, elections may once again be the catalyst for renewed conflict. The very partisan manner in which the international community, led by the USA, approached the process in 1992, when the notion that UNITA would win the elections was assumed and widely promoted, are perceived by many Angolans to be the reason for the failure of that electoral process. It is believed that Jonas Savimbi felt - after loosing the elections - that he would be supported by the international community for his belligerent attitude and his eventual return to war. This time, approaching elections could reinforce attitudes of suspicion against NGO’s that for the first time may be engaged in the process.
There have in fact been indications of a hardening in government discourse towards advocacy NGO’s.
In June 2007 the authorities blamed specific organizations of interfering with local politics. Among them are three US-based NGO’s engaged in support for the elections (Open Society, the National Democratic Institute/NDI and the International Republican Institute / IRI).
It is vital that the Angolan election do not become bogged down in squabbles between the international community and the authorities. There are however aspects that will motivate the Angolan government to seek to engage actively with the international community: the government is obsessed with its international image, it aspires to be a respected member of the UN Human Rights Council and it wishes to strengthen its partnership with the United States, which have emphasized - in stark contrast to 1992 - the need for capacity building of civil society organizations and political parties in addition to state administration.
The long delay in having these elections realised may in hindsight prove to be a positive thing.
The mere size of the election role, 7.5 million citizens, stand as testimony of the extent to which Angolans have placed, or regained, their faith in the electoral process.
At the same time, the Trends in conflict and cooperation - FAST Update 3 May - June 2007, suggests that there are also indications that abstention rates might be substantially higher than in the elections of 1992: “A survey commissioned by the private weekly, Semanário Angolense, on general voter trends in Luanda pointed to an abstention level of 22.9%, an absolute majority for the ruling MPLA (59.1 %) and only 16.1 for (unspecified) opposition parties.”
In 1992 turnout was more than 90%. It can only be hoped that the last vestiges of cynicism on the part of Angolans will disappear before the elections take place. In the intervening years since 2002, Angola has made some important progress.
Economic growth has been as high as 7% although this has been largely on the back of the high oil prices and the conflict in Iraq.
In other words Angola has experienced massive growth by default, in many instances in spite of itself. Angola faces not only the transitions from war to peace and from a war-constrained polity to a more open political system, it also need to address pressing economic and social issues.
Development by the authorities has thus far not consisted of much more than window dressing – rehabilitating roads and building new buildings. Important as these are, it is nevertheless far more important to fundamentally reform and diversify the Angolan economy, rationalize the bloated state machinery, and to create the institutions that would funnel the benefits of Angola's oil and mineral wealth to the Angolan people. Anti-corruption and transparency are issues that must be squarely faced by all Angolans and resolved.
A government with a new mandate from the population, one can only hope, will have the confidence to tackle these issues with renewed energy. The international community, for its part, has not performed much better.
In early May 2007, the director of the Technical Coordination Unit for Humanitarian Assistance (UTCAH), Pedro Walipi, announced the government’s intention to purge national and international NGO’s who lack funding and “social impact” and fail to regularly deliver reports to and co-ordinate with the authorities.
Apart from a massive influx of Emergency Health Organisations after 2002 there has not been a fundamental shift in the way that international NGO’s operate that is consistent with the new demands created by the end of the war. NGO’s have mostly continued to do what they have always done and know –Emergency and Relief.
In practice “development” consists largely of changing their rhetoric to that of development, slipping the appropriate terms into the same project proposals with which they are familiar. At best development activities are but a few “add-ons” onto the existing habit of distributing seeds and tools, constructing a school or rehabilitating a clinic.
The will of the government to bring NGO’s under closer control should be considered as an inevitable and - approached maturely from both sides - positive long-term trend.
There are a number of international NGO’s, such as Oxfam, Catholic Relief Services and Save the Children, and some very important local NGO’s such as ADRA and Development Workshop that does operate effectively in Angola.
They do, however, often tend avoid addressing the issues of peace, reconciliation and ultimately development too strongly. Part of this hesitation may be the fear of alienating either the government or the UNITA authorities and, in turn, jeopardizing their ability to operate in the country and providing the more basic assistance in those areas where it is still needed.