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Angola's new 'president in waiting'

Johannes Beck
February 3, 2017

Angola's Defense Minister Joao Lourenco has been named as the presidential candidate of the country's ruling party. President Jose Eduardo dos Santos has said that he will not seek re-election after 37 years in power.

Angola Defense Minister Joao Manuel Goncalves Lourenco during a visit to Germany
Image: picture alliance/dpa/R.Jensen

For the first time in 37 years, Angolan President Jose Eduardo dos Santos will not lead his party into the upcoming elections. "The party approved the name of the candidate heading the list in the August elections as Joao Manuel Goncalves Lourenco (pictured above)," dos Santos stated. Dos Santos is the second-longest serving leader on the African continent. Only Teodoro Obiang Nguema, president of Equatorial Guinea, has been in power longer than Angola's head of state.

Dos Santos has been president of Angola since September 20, 1979. The country has only had one other president, Agostinho Neto, under whom the country gained independence from Portugal in 1975. Dos Santos has been dogged by health problems and they have worsened in recent years. His public appearances have become more infrequent, his speeches shorter and his holidays in the Spanish metropolis of Barcelona longer. He has also been undergoing medical treatment in Spain for increasingly prolonged periods. Rumors that he wanted to leave office have intensified over the last few months.

Isabel dos Santos
Isabel dos Santos was sworn in as CEO of Sonangol in June 2016Image: Reuters/E. Cropley

No successor from the family

Angolans have been speculating for years whom dos Santos and the Central Committee of the popular ruling Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) would choose as a successor. Many had expected a member of the dos Santos dynasty. They include the president's son Jose Filomeno dos Santos, who heads the country's $5 billion (4.7 billion euro) sovereign wealth fund. This was a position bestowed on him by his father. Two other perceived potential candidates were the president's daughter Isabel dos Santos, who runs Angola's state-owned oil company Sonangol, and the deputy president, Manuel Vicente, who has close ties to the dos Santos family.

But it has now been decided that Defense Minister Joao Lourenco is to be the MPLA's lead candidate for the next elections. This was initially announced by the party's central committee on December 10 and took many by surprise. Yet it displays a desire for continuity - numerous generals have wielded political influence over Angola in the past. This is part of the dos Santos style of government.

Angolan opposition activist Nuno Dala is critical of Lourenco's nomination. "Power in the country will remain in the hands of the military because Lourenco is a general," he said. Dala has experienced firsthand what it means to be on the opposing side of Angola's ruling elites. He spent a year in jail with 16 other members of the opposition because of alleged involvement in a coup. He was released in June.

Joao Lourenco was born in Benguela in southern Angola in 1954. He has been associated with the military throughout his career. He did his military training in the artillery and then became a political officer whose duties included the indoctrination of Angolan soldiers. He received more military training and studied history and related subjects from 1978 to 1982 in what was then the Soviet Union. Equipped with the rank of general, he turned to politics, becoming leader of the MPLA in parliament and then deputy president of parliament. He is currently defense minister.

A cleaner candidate

Anti-corruption watchdogs such as Transparency International accuse the dos Santos family of having amassed their fortune corruptly. Joao Lourenco does not face such allegations. He is one of the few Angolan generals and politicians who is free of suspected involvement in major corruption scandals.

"That is certainly to his advantage, because one has the sense that the new president could form an administration which is rather less corrupt," said Dala. "But that doesn't mean that corruption in Angola will disappear."

William Tonet publishes the newspaper Folha 8. He is also one of Angola's best-known journalists and doesn't expect big changes.

Lourenco, he believes, has always been a true son of the party and he won't alter anything, either because he has compromised himself or he is simply afraid. "So nothing is going to change," Tonet said.

José Eduardo Dos Santos step off a plane
The 74-year-old leader has repeatedly denied rumors of ill healthImage: picture alliance/dpa/A.Ernesto

Parliamentary elections are expected in Angola in mid-2017. Following an amendment to the constitution in 2010, Angolans no longer choose their head of state in a presidential election. The lead candidate of the party that polls the most votes in the parliamentary elections automatically becomes the head of state.

At the last elections in 2012, the MPLA garnered 71.9 percent. International observers maintained, however, that the opposition suffered from disadvantages during the poll.

Could the opposition force the MPLA out of office? Is a repeat of the events in The Gambia earlier this month conceivable? "That does not seem possible, though, of course, in principle, everything is possible if the desire and the need for fundamental change is there," said Eugenio Costa Almeida, who lectures in political science in Lisbon and Luanda.

"But somebody epitomizing this desire for change would have to step forward," he added. That person would also have to be a force for political unity. Relations between Angola's two main opposition parties UNITA and CASA-CE are fractious.

Even though Jose Eduardo dos Santos is stepping down as president, he is not quitting politics. He will remain head of the MPLA up to and beyond the 2017 elections. After all, his family's not inconsiderable fortune is at stake.                                         

Manuel Luamba in Luanda and Guilherme Correia da Silva contributed to this report.

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