Angola’s Dos Santos Will Not Go Quietly Into the Night

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Angolan President José Eduardo dos Santos during a visit to Brazil.  | Photo: Fabio Rodrigues Pozzebom/Agência Brasil via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 3.0 BR)
15 Mar 2016, 
published in
Financial Times

In the usually predictable world of African presidents-for-life, it doesn’t get more exciting than this. José Eduardo dos Santos, Angola’s president since 1979 and constitutionally allowed to stay in power until 2022, made the surprise announcement on Friday that he would leave active political life” in 2018. He did not give clues as to whether he would still head the ruling MPLA’s list for the 2017 elections; nor did he name his successor.

Public discontent caused by Angola’s economic crisis and the fact that he mentioned a date for his departure suggest he may mean what he says. But the 73-year-old Dos Santos is a resilient player. His coterie has built up globalized interests whose ultimate guarantor is their control over Africa’s third largest economy. They are not going to go quietly into the night.

Dos Santos’s rise followed the usual path of the greatly underestimated. A quiet and apparently middling MPLA official, he was chosen as a safe pair of hands after the premature death of Angola’s first president. It took years before party barons realized that he had turned the national oil company, Sonangol, into his private domain, controlled the means of coercion and amassed considerable discretionary power.

The 1990s turn to capitalism and the defeat of the Unita rebels in 2002 gave rise to an imperial presidency, circumventing formal institutions and facing no internal challenges. Those closest to the president’s shadow state, including his family, amassed large fortunes. Throughout, Dos Santos cultivated an elliptical style and rarely spoke to the media. Parsing out his decisions in search of a broader design is the Angolan equivalent of Kremlinology.

Dos Santos is a complex character and not entirely devoid of merit. His stewardship of the oil sector was capable and Angola has found peace and a degree of unity since 2002. In the words of Leonardo Sciascia, he is the sort of politician with the knack for making every innovation serve old purposes,” placing Marxism-Leninism, crony capitalism, war and peace at the service of perpetuating his rule.

But the result of his tenure is disappointing and will continue to define Angola long after he is gone. Dos Santos built a skewed political economy where the benefits of oil wealth accrued to an urban privileged class, especially a tiny constituency of oligarchs. Presented as capable entrepreneurs, they were mostly rentiers, living off state patronage and investing around the world, but not in Angola.

Reconstruction saw major public investment, but this is mostly visible in the Luanda skyline and white elephant infrastructure. Despite paying lip service to economic diversification and hundreds of billions in revenue, Angola remained dependent on petroleum.

Once the oil prices came tumbling down in 2014, resulting in a 60 per cent decrease in revenue, this edifice was shaken to the core. Contestation increased, with the regime reacting brutally; civil service salaries have gone unpaid, despite a borrowing spree to cover expenditure; prices for foodstuffs and transportation have shot up, hitting average Angolans.

Some measures to tackle the crisis have been positive. The government seems more serious about diversification and Dos Santos, who created the rentier oligarchs, is now asking them to commit to productive investment. But these measures address neither the depth of oil dependence nor the immediate crisis.

Jaded Angolans can be excused for being skeptical about Friday’s shock announcement. Some argue Dos Santos has no intention of relinquishing power. This is not the first time he has said he wants to leave: perhaps he is preparing the ground to run again in 2017, and could renege on the promise later on.

Others believe him and concentrate on the successor. Will it be José Filomeno, eldest son and head of the sovereign wealth fund, or a senior official such as Bornito de Sousa, João Lourenço or António Pitra? Surely, it can no longer be vice-president Manuel Vicente, the bruised former head of Sonangol who is reeling under new corruption allegations?

Or perhaps Dos Santos is engaging in crisis management as the economy falls apart, but has no long-term plan. In short, at this stage we do not know what path, if any, he is contemplating.

But we do know the matter that consumes him most and for which any succession strategy must provide an answer. This is something far more specific than the maintenance of political order or economic stability: Dos Santos wants to ensure the continuity of the system he established and protection for himself and his family.

His departure is a danger for them. This danger won’t come from the weak opposition but from inside. Even a trustworthy dauphin will be tempted to make a go for the family’s interests, and to blame their predecessor for the country’s problems. The ugly end of Libya’s Colonel Gadaffi, the judicial persecutions of former Portuguese prime minister José Sócrates and former Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva: these experiences of utmost vulnerability by the formerly all-powerful inform Dos Santos’ reluctance to leave.

For this reason, the oil crisis is a pretext to make changes that will sustain the status quo. Isabel dos Santos, the president’s daughter and Angola’s richest person, will sit on a commission aiming to privatize Sonangol assets; she will likely acquire the choice morsels. She has also been appointed to a commission that will oversee Luanda’s urban revamping.

Such political economy strategizing by Dos Santos, and the hardwiring of his people’s interests, is arguably as important as the flashier succession dynamics, and we should expect plenty of imaginative moves in the coming year to further this. That isn’t necessarily bad, if it secures an orderly exit.

Either way, talk of Dos Santos’s retirement is greatly exaggerated.

This commentary was originally published by the Financial Times on March 142016