Can Dos San­tos’s exit bring change?

The Mercury - - BACKGROUND & ANALYSIS - Clau­dia Gas­trow

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.

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