Tuesday,21 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1287, (17 - 23 March 2016)
Tuesday,21 August, 2018
Issue 1287, (17 - 23 March 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Dos Santos to exit after four decades in power

The announcement by Angola’s José Eduardo dos Santos that he will retire from politics in 2018 raises questions about the oil-rich country’s future, writes Haytham Nuri

Al-Ahram Weekly

After four decades in power, Angolan President José Eduardo dos Santos has announced his intention to retire from politics in two years. If it happens, he will become the fifth major African despot to have stepped down since the Arab Spring of 2011.

The Arab Spring swept away Tunisian President Zine Al-Abidine Ben Ali, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, while its African equivalent removed Burkina Faso’s long-time ruler, Blaise Compaoré, from power.

Nevertheless, 16 autocratic rulers (including two kings) on the continent have been in power since 2000 or before. Several more have amended their countries’ constitutions, or are attempting to do so, so they can be elected to a third presidential term.

The 73-year-old Dos Santos, who came to power in August 1979, did not given any reason for his decision in his speech to members of the ruling party, the MPLA (the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola), and he did not name a successor.

Angola, a member of OPEC and the second largest oil producer in Africa after Nigeria, is suffering from low oil prices, with the commodity constituting 90 per cent of state revenues. Luanda is currently in talks with the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund for financial assistance.

Dos Santos’s decision sparked controversy among Angolans. Many wondered why the leader would step down in 2018 when elections are coming in 2017, meaning he would stay in power nearly a year and thus prevent the leader of the winning party from assuming office. Dos Santos’s supporters say that stepping down before elections could be interpreted as him fleeing the electoral battle, fearing he could lose — something that is unacceptable to the ruling party.

Aside from this new dispute, his opponents, who rarely speak freely given Dos Santos’s iron grip on the country, believe that the regime has mismanaged the country’s substantial oil wealth. According to Forbes, the president’s eldest child, Isabel dos Santos, is the richest woman in Africa, with a fortune of $3.3 billion in 2014.

She is an influential investor in Portugal and Brazil, owning governing shares of communications companies and financial institutions. According to the BBC, the president’s other children are influential figures in business and financial circles in the country and several other African states.

But his supporters believe Dos Santos did not actually rule the country until 2002, when the civil war ended. Before that, he had no real opportunity to foster development because of the destruction wrought by the long civil conflict.

The US-based anti-corruption organisation Transparency International classifies Angola as one of the most corrupt countries in the world, ranking it 163rd of 167 countries in 2015. At the same time, the World Bank has identified Angola as one of the fastest growing economies in the world, with an annual growth rate of 10 per cent.

Angola is still classified among countries with low human development factors, according to the UN. Nearly one-third of the population (25 million, according to the 2014 census) live in poverty, while one of every six children dies before the age of five.

Dos Santos is the second president of the country, which won its independence from Portugal in 1975, following the 1974 revolution against the fascist regime of Antonio Salazar, who ruled the country from 1932 to his death in 1970. The revolution brought on the collapse of the Portuguese colonial empire.

Early on, in 1961, Dos Santos became involved in the MPLA, at the time a Marxist-Leninst group. He left the country in the mid-1960s to enrol in the Chemical and Petroleum Engineering Institute in the Soviet republic of Azerbaijan, becoming a petroleum engineer in 1969. He resumed his activities with the MPLA upon returning to Angola in 1970, and went on to play a leading role in the party until independence in 1975.

In the first post-independence government, he assumed the foreign affairs portfolio, which he created, before moving into the Ministry of Planning and later the vice-president’s office.

When President Agostinho Neto died, Dos Santos took over the presidency and resumed the civil war that had begun with Angola’s independence. Over nearly three decades, the war and Dos Santos’s long tenure destroyed any chance for the country to benefit from its oil wealth.

In fact, Dos Santos was only elected twice in his 40-year rule, the first time in elections in September 1992 under a UN aegis, when he defeated his opponent, the leader of the UNITA rebel movement, Jonas Savimbi, and the second in the 2012 elections, the fairness of which has been questioned. Parliamentary elections have only been held sporadically during his long tenure, most importantly in 1992 and 2008.

Angola has not eluded international interventions. The apartheid regime of South Africa, prior to reconciliation in the late 1980s and early 1990s, supported UNITA against the pro-Soviet regime in Luanda. In turn, Cuban forces supported the government of Dos Santos, which complicated the situation in the late 1980s. When everyone was forced to sit at the table to resolve the crisis, Namibia won its independence from South Africa in exchange for the Cubans’ departure from Angola.

The Angolan president maintains strong ties with Brazil, thanks to their shared Portuguese language, as well as China, the main supporter of the regime in infrastructure projects in particular, in exchange for petroleum and metals. The regime’s abandonment of Marxism in the early 1990s led to stronger relations between Luanda and Washington, which sees the regime as one of its strongest, most stable allies in the tumultuous African continent.

Angola participated in the second war in Democratic Congo (1999-2003) with Namibia, Chad, Sudan and Zimbabwe in support of the government of Laurent Kabila, against Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi, which supported the Tutsi rebels in the eastern part of the country. At the time, UN committees accused the Angolan army of committing widespread crimes in the war, which claimed the lives of some five million people.

Western sources believe that Manuel Vicente, the vice-president, will likely assume the presidency if Dos Santos makes good on his promise. Vicente, the former chief executive officer of Sonangol, the state oil company, entered the vice-presidency during the elections of 2012, when it was rumoured that Dos Santos was seeking to step down in favour of his close friend.

Dos Santos feared he would suffer the fate of the former president of Zambia, Frederick Chiluba, who was prosecuted on corruption charges in his country (he was acquitted in 2009). But things may not be that simple. A report from Chatham House, the British think tank, suggests that Vicente is not popular among the ruling party leadership, which may complicate his staying power and, in turn, destabilise the country.

At the same time, however, other African experiences suggest that the popularity of a successor is not as important as in the West. Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn succeeded Meles Zenawi upon the latter’s death in 2012, but his weak popularity has had no effect on his survival in office.

Western, Asian and African financial circles fear instability in the third-largest economy in Africa, which could endanger investments in the country and have direct repercussions on the global energy industry.

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