Building vibrant and tolerant democracies
Over a decade since the end of its long-running civil war, Angola remains a closed and repressive society, where a small political, military and business elite enjoys a lavish lifestyle while the vast majority of the population lives in acute poverty with little – or no – access to water, sanitation, health, shelter, education and other basic human rights. Elections, economic growth and a new constitution should have contributed to a more open and democratic society. But the opposite is the case. Instead of speeding up the transition towards genuine democracy, both the 2012 and 2008 elections saw the ruling MPLA party secure a super-majority and consolidate its control of the country (even though the MPLA's share of the vote did drop from 82% to 70%). The 2012 elections were also the first time that President Jose Eduardo dos Santos was directly elected – representing his first ‘genuine’ mandate after 32 years in office. And another 5 years in State House.
Meanwhile, years of impressive oil-based GDP growth – around 7% per annum – have not translated into gains for the poor and the marginalised but rather into super-profits for those in power and those with access to natural resources and public funds. Angola is one of the most unequal societies on earth, with 38 percent of the population still living below the poverty line. Angola has one of the highest child mortality rates – with almost 1 in 5 children dying before the age of 5. Maternal mortality is also extremely high. Overall, Angola is ranked 143rd out 182 countries in the UN’s Human Development Index.
The 2010 Constitution with its Bill of Rights promised a new era of social, political and economic rights but has actually delivered an even more powerful, unaccountable and unelected President – leaving Angola at the mercy of an un-checked executive. After decades of war and years of autocratic rule, Angolans have little understanding of their basic human rights. They are largely unaware of the obligations that the State has towards them and how the government should be promoting and protecting their rights. Instead, their rights continue to be violated by the whim of the powerful, who can afford to ignore the will of the people. The illegal demolition of slum houses and the forced eviction of tens of thousands of people are examples of how the authorities violate citizen’s rights – rights that many citizens are not even aware they have.
OSISA in Angola
The Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa (OSISA) has a wide network of partners in Angola working on issues of human rights and governance. Among many critical projects in recent years, OSISA provided a number of grants to boost awareness of human rights in Angola and to help develop a culture of openness. These projects included the introduction of a Human Rights Masters Programme in partnership with institutions in Brazil, a plan to establish human rights information centres, and a series of public debates broadcast on Radio Ecclesia on key human rights concepts and issues of national importance. In OSISA’s view, the Constitution does represent an advance in relation to human rights since they are clearly spelled out in the Bill of Rights. However, this theoretical advance has not yet been translated into practical changes on the ground. The police, in particular, still violate people’s rights with impunity.
Indeed, Angolan officials seem to view the human rights outlined in the Constitution not as inalienable rights but as favours that can be taken away any time citizens misbehave. It is also instructive to know that the budgets for security and defence are still the largest, even though the war ended nine years ago. Human rights also need to be understood by, and incorporated into the policies of, every ministry and government institution and not simply left up to a Ministry of Human Rights, which in reality has no political mandate to enforce them. Another major challenge is that considerable power and funds have been devolved to local government, which does not have the capacity to utilise it effectively. In addition, few local authorities understand human rights – or that they are constitutionally obliged to promote and protect them.
But the main problem remains the current exploitation of Angola’s oil wealth. Oil funds could help to transform society and provide many people with basic necessities. But too much of the money is siphoned off – into foreign company accounts or the pockets of corrupt elites. Raising awareness about human rights will necessarily lead to questions about where the funds from Angola’s natural resources end up – since human rights will only be protected in Angola if that money is used for the good of the people, rather than the good of a small, Luanda-based elite.