Can Dos Santos’s exit bring change?
ON FEBRUARY 3, Angola’s President José Eduardo dos Santos said he would be stepping down after almost 38 years as head of state. General João Lourenço, current Minister of Defence, will be the ruling MPLA’s presidential candidate in the country’s elections in August.
Hopes that Dos Santos’s exit will lead to a greater democratisation of Angola’s authoritarian political system and increased respect for human rights and civil liberties are, unfortunately, unlikely to be fulfilled.
The change in power at the top follows historical patterns of elite management of politics with little input from the larger population.
Lourenço, a party stalwart, is not interested in rocking the boat. Dos Santos’s departure might therefore mean little in practice. If those with greater democratic impulses cannot exploit the inevitable uncertainties and instabilities that emerge with a change in power after such a lengthy tenure, substantial political changes are unlikely.
Dos Santos’s exit takes place during Angola’s deepest economic crisis since the end of the civil war (1975 – 2002).
For decades, a small elite, centred on the presidency, has feasted on the country’s vast oil reserves. Luxury cars and designer clothes are the visible everyday signs of this system. These stand in sharp contrast to the electricity cuts and flooded roads that bear evidence of the state’s incapacity to provide basic services to the majority.
This system of elite enrichment reached a zenith between 2002 and 2015, when a sudden rise of the international price of oil, combined with the arrival of peace, resulted in a state-subsidised construction boom and double-digit economic growth.
Angola’s fortunes have since swiftly changed. The collapse of the international price of oil in 2015 has left it heavily indebted and running low on foreign reserves. The country is struggling to import basic goods. Inflation has seen the real value of salaries dramatically tumble in three years.
Angolans find themselves confronted with a collapsed public health-care system and few opportunities for advancement in the face of rampant corruption in the public and private sectors. The bust has worsened already unbearable socio-economic inequality.
Dos Santos is handing over the reins precisely when it has become most difficult for the MPLA to justify the existing situation of political repression and economic inequality. Although Angola is in theory a multi-party democracy, it is widely viewed as an authoritarian state, and the economic crisis has intersected with bubbling discontent with the current political system. This has found its most vocal outlet in small but ongoing protests.
The regime has increasingly turned to repression to control dissent. Critical journalists and human rights activists have been charged and jailed, and protesters have been met with brutality. Nevertheless, how much longer the cultivation of fear will work in the face of a growing frustration, especially among the youth of Luanda, remains a big question. Dos Santos might well be using his exit to shift the difficult questions of political and economic change on to someone else to make his successor, rather than himself, the focus of anger.
How much politics at the top of the Angolan political system will change depends on to what extent Dos Santos’s exit means to an actual relinquishment of power. Dos Santos continues as the president of the MPLA, so he will exercise considerable power for years to come. Given the entanglement of the MPLA with the official structures of the Angolan state, it remains to be seen whether a head of state or head of the ruling party exercises more power. In what ways Dos Santos’s exit will actually weaken him therefore is unclear. Another key issue is whether his family members will continue to occupy high positions. His oldest daughter, Isabel dos Santos, is head of Angola’s national oil company, Sonangol. Two other children, Welwitschia dos Santos and José Filomeno dos Santos are on the MPLA’s Central Committee, and the latter also heads the country’s oil sovereign fund.
Gastrow is a lecturer for the department of Anthropology and Development Studies, University of Johannesburg.