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Angola: Why Covid-19 Can’t Be Blamed for Failure to Have Local Governance

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Angola is the only southern African nation that has not introduced a system of elected local government. This, 45 years after it made constitutional provisions for the establishment of this important tier of government.

In 2018, President João Lourenço recommended that local elections be held in 2020. This will no longer be the case. The government blames the COVID-19 health crisis for the failure. But the truth shows otherwise.

Even without the pandemic, local government elections would not have happened this year because Angola’s National Assembly has not approved the necessary legal framework. The framework, which was expected by mid-August this year, would have supported the gradual implementation of local government functions.

This, in my view, is part of a deliberate delaying strategy by the ruling party, the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), to maintain a system where the central government appoints all officials at sub-national levels. The introduction of local elections would see the ruling party lose its monopoly over local government for the first time since independence.

Angola’s system of governance

Angola has four levels of government – national, provincial, municipal and district (comuna). The last three enjoy little policy, budgetary or fiscal autonomy because of a rigid top-down relationship with the national government based in Luanda.

Central government effectively appoints all senior officials at the three lower levels. The president appoints the 18 provincial governors. They in turn appoint the 164 municipal administrators, who then appoint the 475 administrators of the districts.

Because officials at sub-national level are not elected by the people, they are politically and institutionally accountable to their hierarchical superiors, and, ultimately, to the president. Hence, sub-national government in Angola has always been remote from the people.

This governance system makes Angola one of the most politically and administratively centralised states in Africa. This heightens the zero-sum nature of national politics in Angola.

The party that wins the general elections gets to fill all executive offices with its own political appointees. These often also assume the chairmanship of the ruling party in their jurisdiction.

As a result, political parties that lose national elections can’t participate in local government. The People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola, which has been in power for decades, is the main beneficiary of this system. This practice will change once local elections are established.

Constitutional journey

Angola’s first post-colonial constitution referred to the concept of elected local government with administrative and fiscal autonomy. This constitution was enacted in 1975, the same year the country gained independence from Portugal.

Seventeen years later, a constitutional revision law postulated that state organisation at the local level should comprise two structures: elected local representative bodies (autarquias locais) and decentralised local units of the central government (órgãos administrativos locais).

The latest constitution of 2010 reaffirms the commitment to these principles. But it declares that the effective institutionalisation of local authorities will happen gradually.

A wide range of factors has hampered the implementation of these constitutional provisions. They include:

  • the 27 years of civil war between the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola and Jonas Savimbi’s party, Unita (1975- 2002);
  • the establishment of single-party rule by the ruling party along Marxist-Leninist lines, giving rise to a highly centralised and securitised state;
  • the institution of administrative de-concentration reforms. This means that the central government has the ability to transfer some of its responsibilities to local government units, without necessarily allowing for the establishment of elected representative bodies;
  • the introduction of the principle of gradualism in establishing a system of elected local representatives.
  • the use of delaying tactics to maintain the status quo.

Empty promises

The introduction of local elections would see the ruling party lose its monopoly over local government for the first time since independence. Thus, from a cost-benefit perspective, it can be argued that the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola does not have the incentive to implement locally elected government.

The party has delayed the implementation of a system of elected local representatives until the “conditions are right”. This would enable it to decentralise power without actually losing it.

For instance, in 2008, the Minister of Territorial Administration stated that local government elections would take place in 2011 after the constitutional changes of 2010. This never happened.

Similarly, in 2011 the ministry said that the country’s first local elections would be held by 2014, following a general election in 2012, and a population census in 2014. This too did not happen.

In 2016, the deputy president, Manuel Vicente, said local elections would possibly take place in 2021. Two years later President João Lourenço recommended that local elections be held in 2020. This came after consultations with the Council of the Republic (a constitutionally sanctioned body that advises the president on a wide range of issues).

The government announced that the local elections would start in selected municipalities, and spread to all municipalities by 2035. Opposition parties objected, and called for the simultaneous implementation of elected local government in all municipalities.

In August 2020, Parliament went into recess without completing the approval of the legal framework for the elections. The hope is that local elections will be held before the next general elections scheduled for 2022.

What next?

Angola has been in a severe economic crisis since 2014. The crunch is the combined result of a sudden decline in oil prices in international markets, a drop in domestic oil production, poor financial mismanagement, and massive corruption.

Consequently, the local currency has been devalued. This has raised public debt levels and external debt servicing costs. Meanwhile, foreign currency reserves continue to drop. This predicament could be used by the government to claim there is no money to hold local elections, further postponing the necessary development of local democracy.

For years, the ruling party has deployed delaying tactics to ensure that the central government appoints all officials at sub-national levels. The economy and current COVID-19 pandemic are simply the latest in a long series of excuses.

Albano Agostinho Troco, NRF/British Academy Postdoctoral Research Fellow under the SA-UK Bilateral Chair in Political Theory, University of the Witwatersrand

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