Can upcoming elections signal change in Angola?

Date: January 1, 1970
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2 September; Luanda. In just a few days Angolans will line up to cast their first vote in 16 years. Few forget that the 1992 elections pushed the country into 10 years of bloody civil war between the current government Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) and the former rebel movement National Union for the Total Independence of Angola. (UNITA).

Dubbed by many as the “richest poor country” in the world, Angola is the largest producer of oil on the African continent and one of the fastest growing economies. Yet protracted war also left the country with extremely high poverty and a poor human development record.
The United Nations estimates that almost 70% of Angolans live on less than two US dollars per day, and that one in four Angolan children do not reach  their fifth birthday. Life expectancy is very low, as is access to health care, education, clean water and adequate housing. The war destroyed much of the sanitation infrastructure, as well as the nation’s hospitals.
As usual, poverty hits women hardest. Deeply entrenched gender inequality means that society regards men as sole decision-makers and women as subordinate. Only a third of women are literate, compared to 69% of men. Migration and war-related deaths left a higher female population and women head about a third of households. Households headed by women are among the poorest and most vulnerable.
It is in this complex environment that candidates, especially from the two main contenders, the MPLA and opposition UNITA, spent August actively campaigning throughout the country to gain supporters. Angolans say they are ready for lasting peace, they want democracy, they want their entire country – not just the oil industry – to flourish.
Yet a recent wave of new projects initiated by the ruling MPLA has caused UNITA’s focus on rising inequalities and the privilege of the elite to lose some momentum. The state-owned media abounds with government announcements of a host of new projects involving the construction of schools, hospitals and even four new villages complete with health services, proper sanitation and water services, schools, and spaces for community leisure activities.
Earlier this year, the government announced plans for a “Water for All,” project that aims to increase access to clean water to 80% of the population by the year 2012. The project is set to get underway in April 2009, beginning in four provinces: Cabinda, Uíge, Bengo and Benguela.
Yet, Pedro Santa Maria of the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) Angola says that despite these widely publicised projects, only a very small percentage of oil money is actually benefiting the country. “No matter the latest development in the oil industry where it acknowledges that the Angolan economy is one of the most fast growing economies in the world, this achievement is not bringing any bread to the table of the majority of the Angolan people,” he says.
In a move to encourage the participation of women in these elections, the government brought in a 30% quota for women candidates in each party. Increasing the number of women up from the current 15% in parliament could help improve such things as basic services, which are usually more of a priority for women than men. Yet, while government should be applauded for instituting the quota, quotas alone will not solve problems of women’s participation or ensuring their priorities are still central to development plans after the campaign promises stop.
According to some, participation and pluralism, for example in the media, is limited.  “…the government is not advocating for giving room to the voiceless, is not advocating for giving room to the other stakeholders so we can have pluralism, so we can have diversity, and we can have a media which is independent from the political party,” contends Santa Maria.
Fernando Macedo, President of the Justice, Peace and Democracy Association adds that people who mainly benefit in the country tend to be those with personal connections to wealthy business people, often members of the ruling party. "In order to be successful – of course there are few people who are successful in certain areas, but they are exceptions – the rule here is that for you to succeed in a certain area, you must be a member of MPLA. They will make easier your way. If you are not, then you’re going to face a lot of problems.”
Such a deeply entrenched systemic favouritism is likely to make it even more difficult for women, regardless of party affiliation, to surpass the already strong cultural, social and systemic barriers that prevent them from becoming involved in politics or to be taken seriously as politicians. Gender inequality is linked with a whole range of other inequalities, and in reality without respect for pluralism and human rights, there s little room for true gender equality to flourish.
The building of roads, schools, and hospitals is certainly a positive move. Yet for a country with oil revenues in the billions of dollars (of which a Global Witness report states that 70% in pretty much unaccounted for) it is questionable whether this is enough. Unfortunately, the low literacy, and even lower political literacy, levels in the country make it difficult for an electorate to effectively analyse the situation. 
However, one thing is clear. Oil revenues alone won’t bring the country out of the grips of post-conflict problems. So regardless of whether it is MPLA or UNITA behind the wheel, improving the state of the country’s citizens had better be the force that drives the nation into the future.
Tonya Graham and Daniel Walter work with CMFD Productions, based in Johannesburg. This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service that provides fresh views on everyday news.

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