Church Promoted Voting as Sacred "Must" Prior to Angola's Election
by Elliott Wright*
New York, NY, Oct. 7, 2008--The United Methodist Church in Angola played an active role in promoting citizen participation in the early September parliamentary election, the first since 1992 in the long-conflicted former Portuguese colony.
New members of Parliament were sworn in on October 1, and a day later President Jose Eduardo dos Santos, leader of the party that won 80 percent of the vote, named a 35-member cabinet, half of whom are new faces. A presidential election is set for 2009.
Last July, two active and two retired United Methodist bishops issued a public appeal to all men and women of voting age to register and to exercise the right to vote on September 5. "Voting is a sacred and patriotic must," they declared.
Even earlier, many pastors began appealing to their congregations on a weekly basis to become involved in the electoral process. The church took no partisan positions in the campaign that pitted the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), the party of President dos Santos, against its long-time opponent, Union of the Total Liberation of Angola (UNITA). There were a dozen parties and 5,000 candidates in the contest. UNITA won only 10 percent of the parliamentary seats.
Voice of the Church
"We make our voice heard at this hour ...," said the United Methodist bishops' appeal, "and we, the United Methodist people in Angola, are highly committed to Africa and the world, to participate in the second parliamentary election in our country.
Signers included Bishop Gaspar Joao Domingos of West Angola and Bishop Jose Quipungo of East Angola, along with retired Bishops Emilio J.M. de Carvalho and Bishop Moises D. Fernandes.
"Now, more than ever, let us chose calm and tranquility," they said, advocating a "fraternal spirit and same friendship" and a process of reconciliation symbolized by depositing votes in a ballot box. The church also used the public media to promote voter registration and balloting.
Some 88 percent of 8 million registered voters turned out on September 5 at 14,000 polling places. The country has slightly more than 13 million people.
Overcoming Civil War
After Angola gained independence from Portugal in 1975, MPLA and UNITA fought a devastating civil war for a total of 27 years, destroying the country's infrastructure and disrupting everyday life. MPLA won an election in 1992, but UNITA refused to accept the results and resumed the armed struggle. The conflict lasted until a truce was arranged in 2002. This time, UNITA has conceded its rejection at the polls.
Since 2002, Angolan United Methodists have worked to restore not only their own congregations and institutions but also to contribute to the rebuilding of the country as a whole. The 100-year-old Quéssua Mission in the East Angola Conference was reopened in 2006. It provides educational and some health services.
One major task has been the repatriation of thousands of persons who fled during the armed conflict. The United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) worked closely with the church in Angola in this process.
Angola is today second only to Nigeria in the production of oil on the African continent. The oil revenues have the potential of raising the social and economic conditions of the mostly poor population.
Missionaries from what is today The United Methodist Church arrived in Angola in 1884, and a strong network of churches and schools developed. In 1972, Bishop Emilio de Carvalho became the first indigenous bishop. The civil conflict that began in the mid-1960s destabilized the church. Today, statistics on membership and the number of congregations are difficult to confirm, but significant steps have been made in reopening congregations and reestablishing schools.
Despite its relatively small size, The United Methodist Church in Angola, through its educational institutions, has produced a significant number of professional and civic leaders in Angola.
Assessments differ as to whether the September 5 elections were fair. A headline in Africa Focus Bulletin said: "Election Free and Fair--Sort Of." There was no major international monitoring effort. Human Watch, an international agency, reported on September 15 that there were "numerous irregularities" and media bias on the side of MPLA. The organization recommended that the Angolan election commission be retooled before the presidential election next year.
While expressing relief that the election was peaceful, several analysts have warned that Angola might easily slip into a one-party state run by MPLA. However, other reports indicate that the strong showing of President dos Santos' party was in large measure the result of voter reaction to UNITA's recourse to war after the 1992 election.
*Elliott Wright is the information officer of the General Board of Global Ministries.
Date posted: Oct 07, 2008