On July 8, José Eduardo do Santos, Angola’s strongman who ruled the country for 38 years, died in self-exile in a hospital in Barcelona, reportedly of cardiac arrest. His death has come at a trying time for his country, Angola, and the party he dedicated his life to and led for almost four decades – the Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA). Angola’s economy had been in decline for five years starting in 2015 and was compounded by the Covid-19 pandemic that saw a record GDP decline in 2020 of 9.9 percent. Although the economy is recovering, it is doing that at one of the slowest paces, growing just 0.2 percent in 2021. Naturally, economic and living conditions have worsened and there is wide dissatisfaction with the government.
Also, on August 24, Angolans go to the polls to elect their members of parliament – and going by the provisions of the constitution amended by Dos Santos and the MPLA in 2008, the leader of the party that wins most seats becomes the president of the country. Results of a June poll by Mudei Civic Movement, an election monitoring group based in Luanda, show that the MPLA is trailing behind the main opposition party, the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) by a whopping 19 points, sending alarm bells across the party.
For context, the MPLA has been in power in Angola since its independence from Portugal in 1975. Unlike other countries where colonial powers successfully negotiated a handover of power, Portugal hurriedly left Angola when its army could not keep up with the bitter battles against three freedom-fighting groups. Portugal’s unceremonious exit set the stage for the brutal civil war between the MPLA and UNITA over the control of the country. The MPLA, a Russian-style communist movement, which was in the capital before Portugal’s exit, was supported by the defunct USSR, Cuba, and other socialist states while UNITA employed the help of the South African apartheid government, and later the United States and other western countries.
Nigerians will fondly remember, how, in 1976, Murtala Mohammed’s “Africa has come of age” speech at the Organisation of Africa’s Unity conference in Addis Ababa decidedly shifted African support for and recognition of the MPLA as the legitimate government of Angola. Mohammed was particularly irked by the attempt by the then United States president, Gerard Ford, to force African countries to support UNITA instead. He not only saw Ford’s attempt as a contemptuous gesture, but he also released Ford’s letter to him (the same letter was sent to most African leaders too) to the press, told America to “go to hell” and in Addis Ababa, railed against the “Pretoria-Lisbon-Salisbury” axis and the forces of neo-colonialism and imperialism interested only in maintaining “white supremacist minority regimes” in Africa. Notably, just three months after the speech, Mohammed was dead.
But that is beside the point. Regardless of the OAU’s recognition of the MPLA as the legitimate government of Angola, the bitter civil war continued which saw the involvement of Cuban and the Apartheid South African military in the conflict.
Dos Santos, a Moscow-trained Petroleum Engineer, took over leadership of the MPLA and Angola in 1979 after the death of Agostinho Neto in 1979. He immediately showed his pragmatism and flexibility by not only improving relations with the West and the United States but was also genuinely interested in ending the war, signing a series of peace agreements with UNITA including one to hold multiparty elections in 1992. In the United Nation’s supervised elections, the MPLA’s Dos Santos won 49.56 of the votes against Jonas Savimbi’s 40.7.
But nothing short of winning the presidency will assuage Savimbi and he continued the war until he was eventually killed in battle in 2002. Dos Santos’ highest point came after the killing of Savimbi. He deftly moved to unite the country without humiliating the vanquished enemy. He signed a peace deal with UNITA, integrated their fighters into the Angolan armed forces, allowed them to operate as a genuine opposition political party, and never arrested or harassed their leaders.
His popularity was at its highest. He had finally ended the destructive war, united the country, and set it on a strong footing for rapid economic growth. Better still, he could leave the stage for a new peacetime leader to focus on resuscitating and growing the battered economy. Indeed, Dos Santos spoke several times about leaving, but alas, the allure of power and the newfound wealth in oil and minerals was just too strong to resist. Corruption not only became rampant, but he also began enriching his children, putting them in charge of lucrative state enterprises.
Many analysts were sure he was preparing one of his children to take over from him. But in a surprise move in 2016 however, he named João Lourenço, a longtime MPLA apparatchik, vice president, and defence minister, his successor. Lourenco became president in 2017 after the MPLA again won a majority in the elections.
However, since coming to power, and following the collapse of oil prices, the Angolan economy has been in a tailspin. With the pressure on Lourenco, he had deftly sought to blame Dos Santos for his woes. Immediately after he came to power, he began prosecuting Dos Santo’s many children for corruption, with a number of them going into exile with arrest warrants hanging over their heads. So distraught was Dos Santos with Lourenco’s vendetta that he quickly relinquished the leadership of his party, which he held onto even in retirement, and went into self-exile in Spain. An attempt at rapprochement last year, when Dos Santos was invited back to the country for the first time since leaving, fell apart after his son, José Filomeno, was sentenced to five years for embezzlement and the government planned to remove Dos Santos’ face from Angola’s currency.
However, with the MPLA trailing UNITA just weeks before the elections, João Lourenço’s government needed all the help they could get from their once popular leader, even in death. The government is planning to bring his body back to Angola for a state burial and, with Dos Santos still popular in the country, the party believed it would help them at the polls. But Dos Santo’s children are vehemently opposed to bringing their father’s remains home and want him buried in Spain where they could visit his grave since most of them have arrest warrants on their heads in Angola.
It is sad one of Angola’s iconic leaders is departing in such circumstances. He had all the opportunity to write his name in gold. He could have ensured that democracy and the rule of law flourished; but he chose autocracy, personal rule, and corrupt enrichment. Now, even in death, he remained a victim of the very system he perpetrated.