What’s at stake in Angola’s elections — and why it matters to America

This article originally appeared in The Hill.

This week’s general elections in Angola may be among the most consequential elections on the continent in some time. So, why have they attracted so little attention from the U.S. government?

While the Biden administration understandably has been focused on the volatile electoral contest in Kenya, many of the concerns raised by those elections — the potential for electoral violence, regional instability, foreign authoritarian influence, and economic considerations — are also at stake in Angola.

The upcoming elections are expected to be the most competitive in the country’s post-independence history, which has been dominated by the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA). Frustrations with incumbent President João Lourenço’s handling of key concerns such as the economic downturn and high levels of corruption have driven support for the newly-formed, UNITA-led opposition coalition, the United Patriotic Front (FPU) — particularly among youth. The MPLA has responded to this development by using its parliamentary supermajority to pass new electoral legislation that will significantly undermine electoral transparency and integrity.

In short, all the ingredients are present for election-related violence and instability no matter which side prevails.

Why should this matter to the United States? For the past few decades, America has relied on Angola to engage in security and peace operations in the Great Lakes region. Angola has been a neutral ground hosting several visits between Rwandan President Paul Kagame and Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) President Félix Tshisekedi to discuss the ongoing border conflict between Rwanda, Uganda and the DRC, and has led mediation efforts on this issue. The Luanda government has taken in thousands of refugees from the DRC over the years.

Given its reliance on Angola to play peacemaker in regional conflicts, Washington has been wary of publicly criticizing the Angolan government for missteps and treatment of opposition and democracy activists. Yet by holding back in this way, the U.S. inadvertently could contribute to post-election instability and thus undermine Angola’s ability to play a constructive role in the region.

Russia and China — both of which have historical ties to the MPLA — are poised to benefit from such political instability. As the National Security Council’s Strategy Toward Sub-Saharan Africa notes, “Democratic setbacks have widened openings for undue foreign influence” across the region. Notably, Angola was one of 17 African countries that abstained from the March 2022 United Nations General Assembly vote condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine, while China’s status as Angola’s largest trading partner and loan provider illustrates the necessity of maintaining that relationship. While the MPLA’s ties with Russia and China are not nearly as close as during the Cold War or the early 2000s respectively, President Lourenço could fall further into their orbit if his grip on power weakens and instability festers.

As America’s third largest Sub-Saharan trading partner and the second largest oil exporter in Africa, Angola’s stability is also relevant to our economic interests. American-owned telecom firm Africell, whose recent forays into the Angolan market were buoyed by a $100 million loan from the U.S. Development Finance Corporation, provides an example of U.S. foreign direct investment in the country and its geopolitical importance. Election-related instability could upend these positive economic developments and would put the progress made through U.S. development assistance at risk.

As Election Day approaches, the United States must be prepared to use its significant influence in Angola to press the government to hold free, fair and credible elections, and should be prepared to condemn any reports of irregularities, electoral violence or arbitrary arrests of political opponents. In the long term, the U.S. government should increase U.S. financial and technical support for democracy and governance capacity-building programs for institutions such as the National Election Commission (CNE) and the judiciary, and for civil society organizations, independent media and political parties.

When Angolans head to the polls this week, they should be able to do so with the confidence that every vote will count. America has a compelling moral and strategic interest in ensuring that this important partner does not slide toward instability and must be prepared to stand up for democracy in Angola.

Jenai Cox is the regional deputy director for Africa at the International Republican Institute, where Mike Brodo (@MikeBrodo) serves as a program associate for Southern Africa.

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