The Sun News

Dos Santos: Power behind the throne

• As world’s second-longest serving president bows out

By Emma Emeozor

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The ovation would have been loud if Jose Eduardo dos Santos, 74, outgoing president of Angola, had stepped down earlier than now. He is bowing out after 38 years in office, becoming the world’s second longest-serving president, one month short of Equatorial Guinea’s President Teodoro Obiang Nguema.

Until the elections that held on 23 August 2017, many observers of Africa affairs took his word with a pinch of salt when he said that he would quit office before the vote. He had on March 11, 2017, announced at a summit of the ruling Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) that his defense minister Joao Lourenco, 63, would be the party’s presidential candidate in the August elections. Expectedly, the electoral commission declared Lourenco winner following the over 61 per cent votes won by the MPLA. Interestingly, Santos chose to quit ‘Africa Club of Sit-Tight Presidents’ at a time when his health is deteriorating and the country’s economy is in doldrums. 

Missing Mandela’s legacy

Though dos Santos decision to quit was a bold step that could encourage other long-serving African leaders to have a rethink and step down, his decision to remain the chairman of the party raises questions as to his sincerity to relinquish power. He has therefore tactfully made himself the ‘power behind the throne.’ Government’s policies are determined and approved behind the scene by the party. This puts his anointed president under his firm grip. After 38 years of controlling both the party and government, Dos Santos should have followed the former South African President Mandela example of how to quit power.

Mandela’s decision to quit office was total. His anointed successor, former President Thambo Mbeki took over the control of both the government and the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party. He was not even waiting to have a second term in office as allowed by the constitution. Thus, he did not allow his image as a statesman to be rubbished through intra- and inter party squabble. He became a figure head in every sense of the word.

Since Mandela’s death, Africa has been looking forward to seeing another leader who would voluntarily quit as Mandela did. But it seems this may not happen soon.

Santos decision to remain at the helm of the party’s affairs supports the argument that his poor state of health and public outcry that he discloses his ailment forced him to quit. The thinking is was that he could no longer pretend to be healthy enough to continue in office. He has been travelling to Spain on medical tourism without the usual ‘siren.’   

But the question begging for an answer now is: after Santos, who’s the next long-serving African leader ready to quit power? This may be a hard nut to crack, considering the character of the remaining members of the ‘Africa Club of Sit-Tight Presidents.’ They include Equatorial Guinea’s President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo who have been in power for 37 years (one month ahead of Santos), 93-year-old Robert Mugabe who has been in power for 36 years, 84-year-old Paul Biya who has ruled Cameroon for 34 years and 73-year-old Dennis Sassou-Nguesso who has ruled the Republic of Congo for a total of 33 years.

Others are: Uganda President Yoweri Museveni, 73, who has been in power for 31 years, Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir, 73,  who has been on the seat of power for 26 years, Chad’s President Idriss Deby Itno, 65, who has ruled the country for 25 years, Eritrea’s founding   President Isaias Afewerki, 71,  who has remained in power for 24 years, Algeria’s President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, 80, who has ruled for 18 years, Djibouti President Ismaïl Omar Guelleh, 70, who have been in power since 1999, Rwanda’s President  Paul Kagame, 60, who has been in power since 2000, DR Congo President Joseph Kabila, 46, who took over power in 2001 after his father former President  Laurent-Désiré Kabila’s assassination, Burundi’s President Pierre Nkurunziza, 53, who has been in power since 1994 and Faure Gnassingbe, 51, who has remained Togo’s leader since 2005 after his father who died in office had ruled the country for 38 years. Ironically, all these leaders joined in paying glowing tributes to Mandela after he had passed through transition. All the countries mentioned are facing political crisis fuelled by struggle for power. Also, their economic base is nothing to write home about. The governments remain autocratic.

No real change of power yet

An analysis of the ruling party in Angola immediately reveals that, for now, there is no real change of power. There are unanswered questions. Who is Lourenco? Why Santos did anoint him as his successor? Why did the party succumb to the president’s will to anoint a successor as against party primaries to nominate a candidate? MPLA has long ago shred its communist cloak for multiparty democracy.

It is worrisome that anointing successors by outgoing African leaders has become a strategy that enables them to become the power behind the throne. Often such leaders return to snatch power from the incumbent or instigate crisis to remove a recalcitrant successor from power. It is hope this would not happen in Angola.

Lourenco is a trusted ally of Santos. He was a top member of the president’s kitchen cabinet. He is the current deputy leader of the party. He fought against Portuguese rule and the civil war that engulfed the country after independence in 1975 just like the outgoing president. Santos schooled in the former Soviet Union. Lourenco also schooled in the Soviet Union. So, both Santos and Lourenco have a lot in common. He is not only a strong ally of Santos but he is, indeed, an old horse. This should not make him to be blind to the consequences of continuing to promote the decayed ideas of his predecessor. While there is need for synergy, Lourenco should be seen to avoid the pitfalls of Santos administration that led to the economic plunge the country is currently facing. Put differently, the new government should come up with new ideas to revamp the economy and give hope to the people, particularly the rural population. At the moment there is fear that he may not do much due to the control Santos is likely to have over him through the party machineries.

London Guardian quoted Julia Westbury, an African analyst at West Stands Advisory, a United Kingdom-based consultancy as saying that “even if he wanted to, Lourenco may find it difficult to free himself from the Dos Santos. Large-scale political change is unlikely and long-awaited democratic reforms needed to turn around Angola’s struggling economy unlikely to materialize.”

The legacy of Santos

Santos took over the leadership of the country from former President Agostino Neto who died in 1979. He will be remembered for ending the country’s 27-year civil war. The MPLA and the Union for the Total Liberation of Angola (UNITE) led by former war lord, the late Jonas Savimbi fought a bitter civil war over who controls power. There is no doubt that Santos administration also propelled the country into economic boom at a point in time. But that boom was short-lived due t o massive corruption. According to Transparency International, Angola is world’s 18th most corrupt country. The international watchdog also accused the Santos family of being corrupt. Ironically, the outgoing president failed to curb corruption. And when crisis hit the oil market and oil prices plunged, Angolans became impoverished to the extent that the people became disenchanted with his administration.

Angola is Africa’s third largest economy after Nigeria and South Africa and second-largest oil producer after Nigeria. Santos has been described as very extravagant. He has been accused of giving his children juicy positions in government. His son, Jose Filomeno Santos who was once flaunted as a possible successor is the head of the country’s Sovereign Wealth Fund and his daughter, Isabel dos Santos is in charge of the country’s oil company. Media reports quoting United States Forbes magazine say Isabel dos Santos is Africa’s richest woman, with an estimated fortune of $3.5bn. At the age of 43, she is also the richest figure of her generation across Africa. 

“After journalist and activist Rafael Marques de Morais published an article in Forbes in 2013 about how she built her fortune, Santos bought Forbes publishing rights for Portugal and Angola,” reports said. 

Challenges facing Lourenco

For the first time, Angola is now in a real process of transition. It is hope that the country witnesses a peaceful transition that will bring about political stability and economic development. This can only be achieved if the new president and his cabinet are able to exercise the will power to move the country forward. More importantly, Lourenco would have to re-define himself and exercise his independence in decision making and implementation. 

Already, he knows that he is inheriting a corrupt system and battered economy. While Santos had the challenge of bringing the country together after the civil war and providing the platform for economic development and growth, the new president has the onerous task of correcting the misrule that eventually characterized the Santos administration.

Every sector of the economy, from health to education, is in a state of decay. Lourenco has promised to fight corruption and address the economic problems facing the country. “Talking to a group of students at Luanda Norte in the north east of the country, Lourenço criticised the collection of bribe especially from companies wishing to set up their businesses in Angola. He equally stressed on the point during a visit to Huila in the south east where he promised amelioration in the health and agriculture sectors,” Africanews reported

His campaign promises should not end up as political rhetoric. The people have accused the party of failing to fulfill its 2012 campaign promise, reminding it of its slogan at the time: “Grow more to distribute better.”

Santos was accused of being autocratic. Will Lourenco emulate his successor or allow true multiparty democracy to thrive and rights groups and the opposition allowed to comment on the nation’s affairs without fear of arrest. Time will tell how Lourenco would reshape the country.


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