Angola gets new president after 38 years, but the old one and his family still cling to power

Outgoing leader Jose Eduardo dos Santos has been granted immunity from prosecution, he remains leader of the ruling party, and all his senior security appointees will be retained until 2025

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 27 September, 2017, 1:57pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 27 September, 2017, 1:57pm

After 38 years as president of Angola, Jose Eduardo dos Santos left the nation’s highest office Tuesday, but not without making sure he and his family continue to maintain control.

Following an election last month, former defence minister Joao Lourenco was sworn into power, but only after dos Santos passed decrees shoring up his power and leaving doubts on how much room to manoeuvre the new president will have.

There was the special constitutional title dos Santos created for himself: “President of the Republic Emeritus Honorary,” which gives him and close family members immunity from prosecution.

There was the decree he signed freezing appointments of military, security and intelligence chiefs until 2025, ensuring his close circle of securocrat allies retain control. He also promoted 165 senior police commanders.

Not least was the fact he remains head of the ruling Movement for the Popular Liberation (MPLA), retaining the power to control the direction of the government.

Lourenco has said dos Santos will not wield power behind the scenes.

Under dos Santos, 74, oil-rich Angola has become known as a kleptocracy where for decades he used his sweeping power to enrich his own family and members of a tiny elite, while the country remains one of the least developed in the world.

Billions of dollars in oil revenue have gone missing without explanation, according to Human Rights Watch.

Angola’s ruling party “has historically mismanaged the country’s substantial oil revenues and used its control over oil wealth to insulate itself from public scrutiny,” according to the rights group. “The scale of corruption and mismanagement in Angola has been immense.”

The country is ranked as one of the most corrupt in the world, at 163 of 167 countries on the corruption perceptions index published by non-government corruption watchdog Transparency International.

Meanwhile, more than 36 per cent of the population live on less than US$2 a day, according to the World Bank.

Dos Santos’ children hold key positions and control large sectors of the economy including oil and gas, banking and mobile phone companies. His most famous daughter, the billionaire Isabel dos Santos, is head of the state oil company Sonangol and Africa’s richest woman.

His son Jose Filomeno dos Santos is chairman of Angola’s US$5 billion sovereign wealth fund, Fundo Soberano de Angola. Another daughter, Welwitschea Tchize dos Santos, is a member of the powerful MPLA central committee and has interests in the banking sector.

Although dos Santos has taken steps to cling to as much power as he can, things have not gone entirely his way.

Last year, it looked as if dos Santos was determined to stay in office. After he announced he would stand down at the end of 38 years in power, posters appeared around the Angolan capital Luanda, calling for him to stay on.

“Comrade President, please continue guiding the destiny of our country, asks the nation,” the posters said. But the campaign fizzled.

Dos Santos has been suffering from an undisclosed ailment and travelled to Spain twice this year for several weeks of treatment.

Speculation last year that a close dos Santos ally, former head of Sonangol, Manuel Vicente, would succeed as president faded, after Vicente was caught up in a corruption scandal in Portugal. He is now facing charges in Portugal over allegations he bribed Portuguese corruption investigators, accusations he has denied.

The MPLA won the majority of the vote in elections last month, although opposition parties protested irregularities. The country’s constitutional court, whose judges are appointed by the president, dismissed their objections.

Lourenco did not win a presidential election but became president when the MPLA won the majority of seats in parliament. A constitutional change in 2010 ended direct presidential elections.

He had campaigned on a promise to reduce poverty and corruption and to create development and jobs. Unemployment is at 26 per cent, and Angola’s economy has been shrinking in recent years because of low oil prices.

The nation’s gross domestic product fell from US$126.7 billion in 2014 to US$89.6 billion last year, according to the World Bank.