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Dos Santos maintains the status quo while suggesting change in Angola

High-rise buildings amid shacks in Luanda. President Dos Santo has announced plans to retire amid growing unease among Angolans over deepening poverty despite a recent oil boom. Reuters/Siphiwe Sibeko

This article is a foundation essay. These are longer than usual and take a wider look at a key issue affecting society.

On March 11 2016 Angola’s President José Eduardo dos Santos, in power since 1979, announced his intention to step down in 2018. The statement was unexpected and no further explanation has been forthcoming.

Dos Santos has previously indicated his intentions to step down. In 2001 he made a similar announcement but remained firmly in power. There is no particular reason to think that his current statement is more genuine. He might relinquish his position, but he will not relinquish power.

The key political factors in his manoeuvring are not only Angola’s elites but, more importantly, the general population.

The country is in the midst of its worst economic crisis in years, which is taking a heavy toll on ordinary people. Oil accounts for 75% of Angola’s fiscal revenue and 95% of its exports. The crash of the international oil price since 2014 has pushed the country into crisis. Lower oil profits, the 2013 “de-dollarisation” legislation, and international banks’ refusal to sell dollars to Angola until it improves the regulation of its banking sector have led to a critical shortage of foreign reserves.

Angola is highly dependent on imports, even for basic goods, and the lack of foreign exchange has resulted in food and medicine shortages. Concurrently, inflation is increasing and the country’s currency, the kwanza, has rapidly devalued. Private companies have retrenched thousands of workers. To top it all off, Luanda’s weak public health system is struggling to cope with a yellow fever epidemic. The crisis has forced Angola, historically averse to loans with conditions attached, to open funding negotiations with the World Bank.

Although the Angolan elite, whose financial interests are global, will most likely not be significantly affected, poor and middle-class Angolans have already seen the real value of their salaries plunge, and they will begin to feel the pinch of shortages and unemployment. About 43.4% of the population lives below the income poverty line and, of those working, 56.4% are classified as “working poor”. The country has a 26% unemployment rate. For those people already struggling, the economic situation is introducing even further strain.

Since the end of civil war in 2002, the state has walked a political tightrope between repression and managing popular demands for greater political and economic opportunities. Dos Santos’s announcement should therefore be understood in a context where it has become increasingly difficult to balance popular demands with his personal interests.

Signs of departure are questionable

The effects of Dos Santos’s possible retirement are difficult to predict. There is no clear succession plan. It was previously suggested that Vice President Manuel Vicente, former CEO of national oil company Sonangol, was Dos Santos’s preferred successor. But party opposition to Vicente and a recent corruption scandal in Portugal seem to have ruled him out. It has also been speculated that Dos Santos might try to install his son, José Filomeno dos Santos, also known as “Zenú”. But the extent of Zenú’s support within the ruling People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) is questionable.

Nevertheless, Dos Santos is 73 years old and, despite official denials, independent news sources suggest he is ill.

Angolan President Jose Eduardo dos Santos and his wife Ana Paula dos Santos. Reuters/Siphiwe Sibeko

But his departure will not involve a simple handover of power. He needs to protect his family’s deeply entrenched interests in Angola’s patronage system. Angola is considered to be one of the most corrupt countries in the world, ranking 163 out of 167 countries on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index. Much corruption in the elite ranks of society is believed to be linked to the presidential clique and family, who are involved in significant local and international business ventures.

Dos Santos’s oldest daughter, Isabel Dos Santos, was named Africa’s first female billionaire. A subsequent investigation revealed that this was largely a result of questionable business practices. She is part of the team restructuring Sonangol. Her company, Urbinveste, will lead the implementation of the Luanda Metropolitan Master Plan. This long-awaited project, the guideline for the redevelopment of the country’s capital, will no doubt be a source of lucrative contracts.

Zenú is head of Angola’s Sovereign Fund. The fund was established to provide a safety net in case of turbulence in the oil market. Yet it seems to have been largely absent from discussions of how to manage Angola’s economic crisis. Dos Santos’s other children have significant interests in media and public relations, among other sectors.

The MPLA has a conflicted relationship with the president. Though many members may be indebted to him for access to patronage opportunities, his long tenure has meant that he has necessarily developed enemies. Dos Santos has steadily eroded the power of the MPLA through centralising functions in the presidency, which has also not built good will towards him. This means that immunity from prosecution and the protection of his interests are in no way guaranteed if he steps down.

Dos Santos’s exit also seems questionable given, as Angolan news site MakaAngola highlighted, that he is the MPLA’s only nominee for party president at its upcoming congress. His party mandate will be renewed for another five years, making him the MPLA’s presidential nominee for the 2017 elections. To retire in 2018, after presumably winning the vote in 2017, seems a strange move.

More than an actual commitment to stepping down, his statement and its timing are a product of the embattled position of Dos Santos and the MPLA.

The pressures of the majority

The question of credibility and public anger at the president and the MPLA need to be taken into account to understand the game Dos Santos is playing, and why any genuine exit seems unlikely. Since the end of the civil war the MPLA has tried to manage a number of opposing currents. Political repression has increased over the past year, with the show trial of 17 youth activists, the imprisonment of activist Marcos Mavunga, and the case of criminal defamation against investigative reporter Rafael Marques de Morais.

Angolan journalist Rafael Marques de Morais. Reuters/Herculano Coroado

The government argues that it accommodates dissent, highlighting the fact that it holds national elections. But it has endlessly delayed local elections. Rampant corruption exists alongside claims that the state is investing in infrastructure and social services.

Angola’s economic collapse has made managing these contradictory demands near impossible. In the process, anger at the MPLA and Dos Santos is growing, and the lack of political reform has become a flash-point for a population that believes it has been cheated of the fruits of the oil boom.

Dos Santos is buying time to manage a rapidly unfolding situation rather than ushering in a new dispensation. His promise to step down should be read as an attempt to diffuse growing political tensions. The MPLA can argue that change is coming, even as repression continues.

But the existence of popular anger indicates why Dos Santos’s statement is disingenuous. His financial interests would be put at risk if he were to step down. Given this, is it feasible to imagine that he will simply relinquish power? An easy exit for Dos Santos is not a real option. His announcement is an attempt to maintain the economic and political status quo, even as pressures on it are rising. Neither greater democratisation nor a more equitable distribution of resources are on the horizon. Rather, a swing to increased repression is more likely.

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