an unlikely leader known for his “judicious” use of violence
José Eduardo dos Santos, the former Angolan president who died on July 8, 2022 five years after leaving power, was an unlikely leader.
His 38-year tenure did not stem from a knack for mobilizing popular support. Instead, he retained power through his ability to work behind the scenes and turn seemingly adverse circumstances to his advantage.
He was born in Sambizanga, Luanda in 1942, the son of impoverished immigrants from São Tomé – a detail that has been used by his detractors to claim that he was not really Angolan. He was educated at the most prestigious public high school in Luanda, the Liceu Salvador Correia. At the time, Portuguese policy ensured that only a handful of black learners qualified for these institutions. In 1961, when the colonial order was shaken by a prison break in Luanda and uprisings in the northern plantations, Dos Santos was in his late teens. Like many educated black Angolans of his generation, he left the country.
He studied in Baku in the then Soviet Union, where he met his first wife, Tatiana Kukanova, the mother of his eldest daughter Isabel. He served for a time in the communications of the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) guerrillas in Cabinda, as well as in its diplomatic branch in various capitals. This equipped him for his role as foreign minister in the first independent government from 1975. When the founding president of a free Angola, Agostinho Neto, died in 1979, the MPLA appointed Dos Santos, then aged 36 years old, at the head of the party. This automatically makes him the head of state.
The reign of Dos Santos
At the time, Angola was waging a civil war (1975-2002) against Jonas Savimbi’s National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (Unita). This merged with a war of aggression from apartheid South Africa.
His party was also in crisis. Years of internal division erupted in 1977 with an uprising led by a former government minister, Nito Alves, backed by many poor Luanda residents and radical intellectuals within the MPLA.
The MPLA leadership responded by turning the organization into an instrument of control rather than political participation. It was an environment where the ability to mobilize people was less important than the ability to manage the intricacies of intra-party politics.
State security depended on crucial relations with Cuba and the Soviet Union. In the late 1980s, as the Soviet Union narrowed its international interests, the United States pushed for a peace accord that tied the withdrawal of Cuban forces from Angola to Namibia’s independence from vis-à-vis South Africa and possible multi-party elections. The United States assumed that this plan would result in the loss of power of the MPLA like other Soviet-backed regimes. He assumed wrongly.
Residents of Angola’s coastal towns were suspicious of Savimbi. This, along with the MPLA’s control of state resources to fund its campaign, led the party to an outright victory in the National Assembly in the 1992 elections. Dos Santos came within 1% of an outright victory in the presidential vote.
The government largely complied with demands to disarm its armed forces, but civilian militias remained loyal to the MPLA and were supplemented by a new partisan special police force. Despite its own substantial army, Unita had no chance of seizing power while contesting the election result.
The election results enabled Dos Santos to claim moral superiority over Unita. And a return to war from 1993 covered political repression. Dos Santos benefited from aspects of the 1992 constitution that suited him, such as privileging the presidency over the party. He ignored those that didn’t – like civil liberties and parliamentary oversight. The family members were spoiled. Army generals were supported by the awarding of military and civilian state contracts.
In 2001, as Dos Santos approached 60 after more than 20 years in power, he hinted that he might step down. The question of succession has always been taboo. When party secretary general João Lourenço indicated his availability as the next leader, he was quickly sidelined. When, in February 2002, the Angolan armed forces tracked down and killed Savimbi, and the surviving Unita leaders accepted peace on government terms, Dos Santos relaunched his presidential career under the moniker of “the architect of the peace”.
Exponential growth in oil revenues and opportunities for state spending in the name of reconstruction allowed the presidency to divert even more funds to Dos Santos’ relatives and allies. The tide began to turn in 2011; Angolans have publicly protested the president’s seemingly endless tenure. The regime responded by imprisoning 15 activists without trial for a year in 2015-2016.
In 2016, Dos Santos was spending long periods in Spain and it was said he was being treated for cancer. This is probably what forced the outcome of the succession. But who to support? His political allies were securocrats with no ambition for the top spot. The party would never have endorsed a relative of Dos Santos as his presidential heir.
Dos Santos’ least bad option was to rehabilitate João Lourenço, hoping that the party and the security establishment would trust the man – and, above all, that Lourenço would not interfere with Dos’ corrupt empire. Santos.
But when Lourenço won the 2017 elections as an MPLA candidate and took office amid a deepening economic crisis, he realized his only path to public approval was to distance himself from his predecessor. He removed those close to Dos Santos from their leadership positions and investigated their financial affairs. Dos Santos himself returned to Spain. Apart from a home visit in 2021, he remained there until his death.
Some obituaries have called for a more generous remembrance of Dos Santos, highlighting Angola’s support for the struggle against South African apartheid. Yet it is doubtful how much of that legacy Dos Santos could have justly claimed as his own, other than by virtue of the political sleight of hand that secured his position as head of state.
For the Angolan writer Sousa Jamba, Dos Santos’ ability lies in his “judicious use of violence”, and he left “no vision or philosophy”.
Luaty Beirão, imprisoned for his criticism of the regime, hailed the death of the former president with these words:
Zero pity, zero emotion, he is completely indifferent to me. Excuse me, I have the Wimbledon semi-final to watch.