5 Reasons why Dos Santos will Continue to Exert Control over Angola Even After he Leaves
Over the course of the past 33 years, Angolan president José Eduardo dos Santos has been able to consolidate his hold on power within the MPLA, to the point where the party has become a hostage of his whims, his will, and his calculated manipulations. Perhaps the greatest example of this was the way dos Santos was able to insert Sonangol’s ex-CEO Manuel Vicente into the number 2 position within the MPLA hierarchy during the country’s latest polls, thus empowering Vicente as Angola’s vice president. Dos Santos went ahead with his plan even faced with vigorous opposition from the party’s senior members. He simply ignored them and imposed his will, going so far as to create a new, custom-made ministerial post for Manuel Vicente as a stepping stone to his imminent vice-presidency. The post was swiftly extinguished after the August elections.
Long term Angola observers will note, however, that dos Santos isn’t simply interested in power for power’s sake. Dos Santos has also presided over the enrichment of one of the most corrupt governments not just in Africa but the world, a government in which the president’s most loyal stalwarts have become fabulously wealthy in an increasing rate since as far back as the early 1980’s; a government whose military generals directly profited from the country’s armed conflict; a government who has been repeatedly accused of siphoning off billions of dollars from the State coffers while the rest of the country stagnates with social development indicators well below its economic reality, completely at odds with the status as a major oil exporter.
Business executives looking for opportunity in Angola, as well as Angola’s own business community, have noted that the country possesses an extensive and pervasive patronage system that benefits a small and well-connected elite. At the center of this elite are the President and his family. Such an inherently unfair and unjust business climate has several important ramifications in a developing country: it stifles economic competition, exacerbates the gulf between the haves and the have-nots, inhibits social mobility, continues to enrich those who already benefit from a very cozy relationship with the opaque state apparatus, and, most importantly, enables the government’s policy of corruption through enrichment. In a society like Angola’s, there is nothing like a hundred thousand dollars in cash and a car or two to silence discontent and buy consciences.
Dos Santos and his friends are aware of this and have made sure to integrate themselves into the very fabric of Angola’s economy, with stakes in areas that range from oil to media to cement to wholesale distribution of food. Thus, even when Dos Santos finally leaves power, he will continue to exert considerable influence, if not outright control, in key areas of Angola’s economy and society. Below are 5 reasons why:
1) His children control key aspects of Angolan media
Semba Comunicações is responsible for virtually all of the content on TPA2, one of two state television channels. Both are unashamedly and at times fanatically pro-government. TPA2 is also notorious for its less than desirable programming. The country’s only “private” television channel, TV Zimbo, is owned by a holding company headed by dos Santos ally General Kopelipa and…Manuel Vicente, Vice President. This same holding also owns the weekly newspaper O País, which enjoys strong circulation numbers in the capital.
2) His daughter Isabel has a stake in most important sectors of the Angolan and Portuguese economy
Substantial interests in the banking, media, telecommunications, diamonds, oil, energy, hospitality, retail, and finance sectors make Isabel the strongest player in the Angolan economy and an increasingly important and influential investor in the Portuguese economy. In effect, dos Santos can now expand his influence not just in Angola but also in the European Union, by way of Portugal. It will be interesting to see the policial and economic ramifications of Isabel’s involvement in these economies in the years to come.
3) His son Zenu is a board member of Angola’s $5 billion sovereign wealth fund
Angola’s brand new sovereign wealth fund has José Filomeno dos Santos as one of its board members. Despite the assurances of Zenu, as he is commonly known, that he will uphold the rule of law and is clearly aware that he is now a “public servant”, the move is another clear case of nepotism in Angola’s economic affairs and another indication that dos Santos really does not care much for the Angolan people’s position on the matter, nor for the concept of “conflict of interests.” Angolans are counting on the sovereign wealth fund to invest in the country’s infrastructure, among other sectors, but its first investment was a luxurious office complex in London’s Savile Row.
4) His trusted associate Manuel Vicente, with whom Dos Santos shares key business interests, will most likely succeed him as president
Dos Santos, some of his children, and Vicente share many business interests and it is no surprise that he picked the latter to possibly succeed him as president. To Angola watchers who are aware of the country’s intricate business and economic reality (and who read Maka Angola), this could not have been much of a surprise: Manuel Vicente seemed like the perfect choice. For all his perceived managerial acumen, he ensured that Sonangol continued its opaque handling of Angola’s fabulous oil wealth with little financial transparency, is himself involved in an international corruption case involving Cobalt Energy and Nazaki Oil & Gas, which he formed with General Kopelipa, and demonstrated complete loyalty to dos Santos. It will ensure that politically as well as economically, Angola’s socio-economic and political reality will stay the same, and the patronage system at the base of it all will be safeguarded.
5) He continues to exert complete control over the MPLA, which in turn exerts complete control over all aspects of society
Ask anyone in MPLA’s powerful Central Committee: what do they think of Manuel Vicente? Dos Santos brazenly handpicked the ex-Sonangol CEO to be his number two on the electoral list to the detriment of several of MPLA’s senior figures, who besides having participated in the fight for independence, also stood by him through Angola’s communist years and now the country’s capitalist reincarnation. That they felt slighted is putting it mildly. But that dos Santos was able to do as he pleased highlights just how much power he has within the MPLA. And by controlling the MPLA, he controls all aspects of Angola’s society: sharp observers of Angola’s latest election will have seen how the Party implanted itself not just in political affairs but also in religion, music, schools, sport, etc. The specter of the Party at the center of daily life remains strong in Angola, and the cult of personality surrounding President dos Santos was very much in evidence throughout the last months and weeks of campaigning.
“33 é muito”, yes, but now we need to figure out how to ensure that after dos Santos leaves, we are able to take back control of our country, as Angolans and for the benefit of all Angolans.