Angola’s Catholic bishops emerge as fearless critics of ruling party

People outside a Catholic church in a village in Malanje province, Angola, in 2018 (Dreamstime/Nuno Almedia)

The southern African country Angola will hold elections later this year that could see the ruling Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola lose power for the first time in nearly five decades.

The August vote will take place as the country, a former Portuguese colony, faces a serious crisis as it suffers a fifth consecutive year of economic recession.

Although there is general dissatisfaction with the popular movement, known by the acronym MPLA, civic leaders, including a range of Catholic officials, have expressed concern that the vote could be manipulated to keep the ruling party in power.

In one Statement of February 7the conference of bishops of Angola and São Tomé declared that Angola is affected by “frightening poverty, loss of purchasing power, rampant unemployment, deterioration of habits, empty dialogue between the parties and the society and high levels of intolerance”.

The bishops also referred to the general belief that the MPLA will not allow the elections to be properly vetted for legitimacy. “A lot of reflection and dialogue is needed, and everything must be done so that the parties do not become more important than the nation,” the bishops said.

A few bishops have become increasingly outspoken about poor living conditions in Angola — and the MPLA’s responsibility for them — in recent years. Particularly since October 2021, when a new council was elected to lead the episcopal conference, the Angolan episcopate has taken on a more prophetic voice regarding politics and social issues, which has sometimes displeased the authorities.

“Many bishops have been outspoken in criticizing the situation in the country, and the regime is not comfortable with that,” Olívio N’Kilumbu, an Angolan political analyst and university professor, told NCR.

N’Kilumbu mentioned among the most intrepid social critics: Archbishop Saurimo José Manuel Imbamba (president of the conference), bishop Dundo Estanislau Chindecasse (vice-president of the conference) and bishop Caxito Mauricio Camuto (secretary general of the conference).

“They are relatively young bishops and have close contact with poor families and young people. They know how Angolans suffer,” said N’Kilumbu, who teaches at Óscar Ribas University in the capital Luanda.

Olívio N'Kilumbu, Angolan political analyst and university professor (Courtesy of Olívio N'Kilumbu)

Olívio N’Kilumbu, Angolan political analyst and university professor (Courtesy of Olívio N’Kilumbu)

The Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola and its main rival, the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA), were both originally organized as anti-colonial guerrilla movements during the Civil War. Angolan independence (1961-1974).

In 1975, the MPLA, which was originally communist, seized power after independence from Portugal, but a war against the anti-communist UNITA persisted until 2002. Since the introduction of a multi-party system in 1992, UNITA became the main opposition party, but the MPLA has kept power until now.

Analysts like N’Kilumbu argue that the younger generation of clergy have no personal history of attachment to one side or the other, and therefore tend to feel free to criticize politicians whenever they please. seems.

“They are pastors and feel the need to accompany their flock in difficult times. The church is present in areas where the state itself is absent. So it wants to free the country from suffering,” said Albino Pakisi, a former priest and political commentator at Radio Ecclesia, a church-run radio station.

This sentiment echoes a growing sense of rebellion among young people, especially the generation born after the war. While the general unemployment rate is around 33%, almost 60% young people are unemployed.

“Young people are suffering the effects of exclusion. But they are on social media and seeing how their generation is protesting all over the world. The political pressure is coming from them, and I don’t think they will back down,” said the father. Jacinto Pio Wacussanga, sociologist and leader of two non-governmental organizations who have spoken out about the hunger crisis in southern Angola since 2012.

People are seen after Sunday mass in Baía Farta, in the Angolan province of Benguela.  (Dreamstime/Igor Kiporuk)

People are seen after Sunday mass in Baía Farta, in the Angolan province of Benguela. (Dreamstime/Igor Kiporuk)

Wacussanga has tried to help hundreds of families who have been affected by a severe drought in the provinces of Huíla, Cunene and Namibe. He says he has repeatedly alerted the national government to the need for irrigation projects in the area, but nothing has been done. Now, he calls for the distribution of food kits to the most affected.

“There are people who are literally starving, but nothing has been done to help them. To make matters worse, government deniers have said there is no hunger in Angola and blame the poor for their poverty,” he told NCR.

Wacussanga and many church members have called on the government to declare a state of emergency in the region – which would allow Angola to receive international relief funds – but President João Lourenço has resisted. idea, fearing possible political consequences.

Franciscan Sr. Emiliana Bundo during a celebration of her 45th anniversary of consecrated life last year, with Archbishop Filomeno do Nascimento Vieira Dias of Luanda, Angola (Courtesy of Radio Ecclesia)

Franciscan Sr. Emiliana Bundo during a celebration of her 45th anniversary of consecrated life last year, with Archbishop Filomeno do Nascimento Vieira Dias of Luanda, Angola (Courtesy of Radio Ecclesia)

Sister Emiliana Bundo, a member of a Portuguese Franciscan congregation that cares for people in need across the capital, said she urged the government to take more action to increase national food production.

“Importing food will not solve the problem of hunger. People are starving both in the cities and in the countryside. Extreme poverty is gigantic,” she told NCR.

More than half of Angolans live below the poverty line and at least a third face extreme poverty, according to at the World Bank.

Pakisi, the former priest, said the ruling MPLA “had four decades to change this situation. But it prefers to give excuses.”

“Before 2002, they claimed that all the problems were the result of the civil war,” he said. “Twenty years later, things are even worse.”

Pakisi said most of Angola’s population of 31 million are tired of the same party and want political change. He argued that the church cannot speak out against misery and suffering without blaming the MPLA.

“The social doctrine of the church establishes that any government should put the poor first. But the MPLA is corrupt and has only increased poverty,” he said.

Bundo fears that the elections will increase social tensions and lead to conflict.

“We need electoral transparency. If things are not done transparently from the start, we will have problems,” she said.

Albino Pakisi, former priest and political commentator at Radio Ecclesia, a church-run radio station in Angola (Courtesy of Albino Pakisi)

Albino Pakisi, former priest and political commentator at Radio Ecclesia, a church-run radio station in Angola (Courtesy of Albino Pakisi)

At least two petitions were created in 2021 by journalists, activists, priests and other members of civil society calling for a fair and equitable composition of the electoral commission and asking for international observers to monitor the upcoming elections.

N’Kilumbu said the MPLA will have full control over the elections and there will not be a sufficient number of observers and monitors.

“The elections will not be transparent, free or fair,” he said.

Pakisi agrees. He believes that the MPLA will do everything possible to retain power.

“They can arrest protesters, political commentators and even priests, depending on the situation. This is precisely what the bishops are trying to avoid by alerting the government now,” he said.

Pakisi pointed out that there are devout Catholics in high government positions, and that criticizing bishops is also a way of trying to sensitize them to avoid chaos.

The teaching role of the church is also central to Angolan society as a whole, N’Kilumbu said.

“A recent survey showed that Angolans have much more trust in the church than in the government. The church has a stabilizing role. That is why its voice is so important when demanding free elections”, a- he declared.

Catholics who work with the most needy in society, like Bundo, hope that despite everything, something can change in the near future.

“People can’t deal with promises anymore. They want change,” she said.

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