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Antigovernment activity increased in 2011, and in September, a number of small, loosely organized protests opposing the 32-year rule of President José Eduardo dos Santos took place in Luanda, leading to a ban on demonstrations in the city center. Throughout the year, speculation rose as to whether dos Santos would lead his party in the 2012 presidential elections. Violent deportations of migrants from the Democratic Republic of Congo by Angolan security forces continued in 2011.
Angola was racked by civil war for nearly three decades following independence from Portugal in 1975. José Eduardo dos Santos took over as president in 1979 after the death of Angola’s first post-independence leader, Agostinho Neto. Peace accords in 1991 and 1994 failed to end fighting between the rebel National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) and the government, controlled by dos Santos’s Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA). The death of UNITA leader Jonas Savimbi in 2002 helped to spur a successful ceasefire deal later that year, and UNITA subsequently transformed itself into Angola’s largest opposition party.
The conflict claimed an estimated one million lives, displaced more than four million people, and forced over half a million to flee to neighboring countries. Many resettled people have remained without land, basic resources, or even identification documents. The resettlement process was slowed by the presence of an estimated 500,000 landmines and a war-ruined infrastructure.
Legislative elections, delayed repeatedly since 1997, were finally held in September 2008. The ruling MPLA took 191 of 220 seats, and UNITA won 16 seats, placing second among 14 parties. While domestic and international observers found that the results reflected the people’s will, the campaign was marred by political violence and pro-MPLA bias by both the state media and the National Electoral Commission (CNE), which denied the opposition access to the voter registry and obstructed the accreditation of domestic monitors who were not aligned with the government. In addition, the government delayed releasing state funding for opposition parties, and the MPLA abused state resources. Voting in Luanda—home to between one-quarter and one-third of registered voters—was marred by serious irregularities, including the late delivery of ballot papers and the failure to open 320 polling stations. UNITA accepted the outcome after an initial challenge of the Luanda results was rejected by the CNE.
In 2010, the MPLA-dominated parliament approved a new constitution that abolished direct presidential elections, stipulating instead that the leader of the largest party in the parliament would become the president, starting with the next elections in 2012. The last presidential election had been held in 1992, and a vote due in 1997 had been repeatedly postponed. Throughout 2011, dos Santos refrained from stating if he would lead the MPLA in the 2012 elections, resulting in significant speculation about his successor; the MPLA is almost assured victory. In September, rumors abounded that Manuel Vicente, the chairman of the national oil company Sonangol, would top the MPLA slate in 2012.
Attempts in March to organize protests against dos Santos’s 32-year rule—said to be inspired by the early 2011 popular uprisings in the Arab world—were largely stifled by the government. In September, a series of small, loosely organized antigovernment protests took place in Luanda, marking a rare, if relatively minor, spate of open opposition to dos Santos’s rule. In several instances, groups of a few hundred people, including many youths, organized demonstrations by text message and social media. In response, the Luanda provincial government banned demonstrations in the city center, and security forces violently dispersed the protests and arrested dozens of demonstrators, 18 of whom were jailed for between 45 and 90 days by an emergency court. Later that month, the government organized a pro-MLPA rally in Luanda attended by tens of thousands of people. In October, the Supreme Court ordered the release of the jailed protesters.
Angola is not an electoral democracy. The long-delayed 2008 legislative elections, while largely reflective of the people’s will, were not free and fair. The 220-seat National Assembly, whose members serve four-year terms, has little power, and 90 percent of legislation originates in the executive branch. Under the 2010 constitution, the largest party in the National Assembly selects the head of state. The president is to serve a maximum of two five-year terms beginning in 2012, and directly appoints the vice president, cabinet, and provincial governors.
While five political parties are represented in the National Assembly, the ruling MPLA dominates Angola’s party system. UNITA is the largest opposition party.
Corruption and patronage are endemic in the government, and bribery often underpins business activity. In 2009, President José Eduardo dos Santos called for a crackdown on corruption, declaring that MPLA members had squandered large portions of the country’s oil revenues; the president himself is alleged to be one of the country’s richest men. A December 2011 International Monetary Fund report stated that $32 billion in government funds from 2007 to 2010, believed to be linked to Sonangol, could not be accounted for. Angola was ranked 168 out of 183 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2011 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Despite constitutional guarantees of freedom of expression, journalists are driven to self-censorship by the threat of dismissal, detention, and prosecution. The state owns the only daily newspaper and national radio station, as well as the main television stations, and private media are often denied access to official information and events. Libel and defamation are punishable by imprisonment and fines. Journalists endured harassment, attacks, and detentions by security forces in 2011. In October 2011, William Tonet, editor of the independent weekly Folha 8, was convicted of libel, given a suspended one-year jail sentence, and fined a massive 10 million kwanza ($105,000) for a series of 2008 stories alleging corruption in the acquisition of diamond mines by close dos Santos associates. In March 2011, the Committee to Protect Journalists reported that authorities were barring journalists from covering opposition activities, including hearings in parliament and UNITA party meetings; authorities also restricted journalists’ access to the August Southern African Development Community (SADC) summit in Luanda. Also in March, police detained journalists attempting to cover an antigovernment demonstration in Luanda, and security agents raided the printing presses and blocked the distribution of three independent weeklies that had run headlines about a scheduled protest. Authorities have consistently prevented the outspoken Roman Catholic radio station Radio Ecclesia from broadcasting outside the capital.
In May 2011, the government scrapped legislation that would have criminalized the electronic publication or distribution of information that could “destroy, alter, or subvert state institutions” or “damage national integrity or independence.” The legislation had drawn vociferous opposition from civil society organizations and local press outlets. The government announced plans to instead incorporate clauses about internet crimes into an ongoing reform of the penal code.
Religious freedom is widely respected, despite colonial-era statutes that ban non-Christian religious groups. The educational system barely functions, suffering from underpaid and often corrupt teachers and severely damaged infrastructure.
The constitution guarantees freedoms of assembly and association, although these rights are not respected in practice. In March 2011, authorities arrested several opposition leaders and members of civil society the night before a planned antigovernment protest, while using state media outlets to warn that participants would be prosecuted for inciting violence and division; the protest did not take place. According to Human Rights Watch, opposition politicians and human rights lawyers also received death threats in advance of the protest. The antigovernment protests that successfully went ahead in March and September were violently dispersed by security forces, and dozens of protesters were arrested. In May, between 15 and 20 activists were arrested while participating in an anti-poverty protest in Luanda organized by the Revolutionary Movement of Social Intervention on the social networking site Facebook.
Hundreds of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) operate in Angola, many of them advocating for political reform, government accountability, and human rights protections. However, the government has occasionally threatened organizations with closure. In August 2011, authorities restricted the activities of a number of local and international NGOs relating to the SADC summit, including refusing NGO activists from across southern Africa entry to Angola at the Luanda airport, and confiscating publications on the human rights situation in Zimbabwe. The right to strike and form unions is provided by the constitution, but the MPLA dominates the labor movement, and only a few independent unions exist. Some 85 percent of the population engages in subsistence agriculture.
The judiciary is subject to extensive political influence, particularly from the executive, though courts occasionally rule against the government. The president appoints Supreme Court judges to life terms without legislative input. The courts in general are hampered by a lack of training and infrastructure, a large backlog of cases, corruption, and conflicts of interest. While the government has sought to train more municipal magistrates, municipal courts are rarely operational, leading to the use of traditional or informal courts.
Lengthy pretrial detention is common, and prisoners are subject to torture, severe overcrowding, sexual abuse, extortion, and a lack of basic services, including food and water. However, in 2010, seven police officers were each sentenced to 24 years in prison for killing eight suspects in Luanda’s Sambizanga township, marking the first time a police officer had been convicted of an extrajudicial killing. According to Amnesty International, Angolan jails contain a number of political prisoners, mostly members of peaceful activist groups and advocates of regional autonomy. In March 2011, 30 political prisoners—activists for autonomy in the Lunda Tchokwe region—were released after being arrested and detained in 2009 and 2010.
An estimated four million weapons in civilian hands threaten to contribute to lawlessness, and both government and private security personnel have committed murders and other abuses in connection with the diamond-mining industry.
In 2006, the government signed a peace agreement with secessionists in the oil-rich northern exclave of Cabinda, hoping to end a conflict that had continued intermittently since 1975. While between 80 and 90 percent of the rebel fighters have reportedly joined the army or demobilized, some violence has continued. The military continues to arrest Cabindans for alleged state security crimes. Most of these detainees are allegedly denied basic due process rights and subjected to inhumane treatment. Citing continued attacks by rebels, the military restarted a counterinsurgency campaign in Cabinda in March 2011.
Minefields from the civil war continue to restrict freedom of movement, as does the country’s rigid system of entry and exit visas. Tension involving refugees and migrants along the Angolan-Congolese border have led to a series of tit-for-tat expulsions affecting tens of thousands of people. In October 2011, Angolan soldiers allegedly attacked a village of Congolese migrants near the border, forcing 3,400 people to return to their home country. Between April and October 2011, the International Committee for the Development of Peoples reported that over 38,000 Democratic Republic of Congo nationals had been deported from Angola, with several thousand alleging physical and sexual abuse at the hands of Angolan authorities.
Since 2001, security forces have evicted thousands of people from informal settlements in and around Luanda without adequate notice, compensation, or resettlement provisions, ostensibly for development purposes. In August 2011, authorities cancelled the planned evictions of some 750 families from the Arco Iris neighborhood in Lubango.
Women enjoy legal protections and occupy cabinet positions and 37 percent of National Assembly seats, but de facto discrimination and violence against women remain common, particularly in rural areas. A new law on domestic violence, which included a broader definition of sexual violence, took effect in July 2011. Child labor is a major problem, and there have been reports of trafficking in women and children for prostitution or forced labor. A recent study by Angola’s National Children’s Institute and UNICEF found “a significant and growing” trend of abuse and abandonment of children who are accused of witchcraft after the death of a family member, usually from AIDS.