Luanda, Angola | AFP |
Will he go, will he stay? Angola’s President Jose Eduardo dos Santos last week began his 38th year of largely unchallenged rule after promising to step down in 2018.
“I have decided to leave political life in 2018,” the 74-year-old leader told party officials of his People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) in a surprise announcement in March, while giving no reason for the decision.
But last month, dos Santos was re-elected head of the MPLA, which would automatically extend his mandate as Angola’s ruler by five years if the party wins an election in 2017, as expected.
And so strong is his hold on power that many do not believe he plans to quit politics.
On a continent where political longevity is common, dos Santos is a champion. Only President Teodoro Obiang Nguema of Equatorial Guinea beats him as longest serving ruler, and by just a month.
Dos Santos took office on 21 September 1979 in the former Portuguese colony following the death of Angola’s first president, Agostinho Neto, his predecessor as head of the MPLA.
The ex-independence fighter gradually took control of the major organs of a Marxist state still at war with right-wing rebels of the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA).
As elected president of the MPLA, he became commander in chief of the armed forces and the police, ran the government and appointed the top judges.
Dos Santos went on to entrust control of key institutions to close aides, including family. In a symbol of his grip on the southwest African nation, he in June placed his daughter Isabel in charge of Sonangol, the national oil firm.
‘An ugly dictatorship’
As one of Africa’s largest oil exporters, Angola is economically dependent on the resource.
The “princess”, as Isabel is known, is held to be Africa’s wealthiest woman with a personal fortune estimated at three billion euros ($3.36 billion) by US magazine Forbes.
Her homeland has meanwhile been rated by global institutions and human rights organisations as one of the poorest, most corrupt and repressive countries on the planet.
The latest “anniversary” evokes little more than a resigned shrug from those who dislike the regime.
“It’s an ugly dictatorship,” says Raul Danda, the vice-president of UNITA, which became the main opposition party after civil war ended in 2002.
William Tonnet, director of the opposition paper Folha 8, takes dos Santos’ pledge to quit for a hoax.
“How can a politician, one year ahead of the elections, announce that he’ll quit politics one year after the election?”
“He’s a true despot, a fake democrat,” said rapper MC Life Adao Bunga. “It’s just another con to keep the people of Angola asleep.”
In a 2013 interview for Brazilian television, Dos Santos declared that his rule had been “too long, too long,” but he added that 30 years of war “meant we couldn’t strengthen state institutions or even carry out the normal process of democratisation.”
“The constitution authorises him to take one more mandate,” until 2022, says MPLA lawmaker and law professor Joao Pinto.
Angola’s economy has been hit hard by the global fall in oil prices, while the departure of the head of state would also raise delicate succession issues.
Speculation has been rife since March, but foes of the regime largely anticipate a dynasty, where dos Santos would distance himself but protect his assets.
“He wants to leave the position to one of his sons so his family doesn’t lose power,” predicted Nelson Pestana Bonavena of the opposition Democratic Bloc party.
“The president doesn’t have confidence in anybody else… He’s already placed two of his sons on the central committee as possible successors and his daughter at the head of Sonangol, to maintain total control of the country’s economy,” he added.
“He could leave and hand over… a few months before the elections of 2022” to his son Zenu or his daughter Isabel, suggested political scientist Agostinho dos Santos.
“None of his children has the legal standing to take over,” counters Benjamin Auge, an associate researcher at the French Institute for International Relations.
“If he dies in power, I think it will rather be one of his brothers in arms from the MPLA who takes the reins.”