José dos Santos, who led Marxist Angola to crony capitalism, dies

He was president of Angola from 1979 to 2017, then retired from public life to a Spanish mansion afterwards.

Former Angolan President Jose Eduardo dos Santos addresses party supporters in Camama, outside the capital, Luanda
Former Angolan President Jose Eduardo dos Santos addresses party supporters in Camama, outside the capital, Luanda, in this file picture taken August 29, 2012 [File: Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters]

Angola’s longest-serving leader, Jose Eduardo dos Santos has died at the age of 79 in a Barcelona clinic, according to a statement on Facebook by the country’s presidency.

He died at 11:10am Spanish time (10:10 GMT) on Friday at the Barcelona Teknon clinic after a prolonged illness, the post said.

A dominant and influential figure in Angolan and African politics for more than 30 years, dos Santos was the country’s second president. His 38-year-old stint in power left a legacy that continues to divide opinions inside and outside Angola.

Zé Dú, as he affectionately came to be known throughout his long presidential term, had been in exile in Barcelona since late 2017, when he formally retired from political life, leaving power to his successor, the current president of Angola, Mr João Lourenço.

Although there has never been an official statement about the extent of dos Santos’ health problems, he made regular visits abroad for medical assistance – even during his presidency, leading to speculation that he had cancer.

Other details about his death remain unknown.

From grass to grace

Behind the power and public life, the man who was born in 1942 to a mason in a humble neighbourhood on the outskirts of Luanda, was an enigma of sorts.

A quiet man who rarely gave speeches or interviews, he never spoke much publicly.

Like many of his generation, Mr dos Santos joined the struggle for Angola’s liberation from Portuguese colonial rule early. As a 19-year-old student, he joined The People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), Angola’s ruling party.

By 1961, he became an official member of the MPLA and was chosen by the movement to study petroleum engineering in Moscow. The former Soviet Union – and Cuba – supported many independence movements in Africa, creating many subplots in the long-running Cold War.

A decade on, he returned home having graduated, to serve in the armed movement of his party for the Angolan liberation struggle.

From Angola’s independence proclamation in November 1975, dos Santos held important positions in the government and in his party. Between 1975-76, he held the role of the country’s first foreign minister.

But it was three years later following the death of Angola’s first president, Antonio Agostinho Neto that dos Santos took a leap to the big stage.

He was nominated by the MPLA to take over the reins of a country mourning the premature departure of one of its founding fathers.

Securing the peace

“It’s not an easy replacement, nor does it seem like a possible replacement to me, it’s just a necessary replacement,” he said of his predecessor in his inaugural national speech in September 1979.

And it was clear why.

The new president had inherited a country that, despite being independent, had unresolved problems with itself.

The most pressing one at the time was the civil war between the national liberation movements: dos Santos’ MPLA, the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA), and the National Liberation Front of Angola (FNLA).

The MPLA was essentially running a one-party state so the other movements continued to stage attacks

In 1991, a peace agreement was reached between the MPLA led by dos Santos and UNITA, headed by Jonas Savimbi. But the following year, Savimbi did not accept election results that showed the MPLA winning, so war erupted again.

It was not until after Savimbi was killed in a clash with government troops in February 2002, that a second peace agreement was made.

Oppression, repression and corruption

During his time as president, Angola came to be the continent’s second-largest oil producer and third-largest producer of diamonds. So dos Santos was seen as a key stabilising influence in the country and in southern Africa but in the same period, the country became known for enduring corruption and concerning undemocratic practices.

In January 2010, a new constitution strengthened his power and extended his rule.

But long before then, he had steered the country away from its Marxist leanings to a more capitalistic bent. Investors came from China and elsewhere to explore Angolan oil and with that came crony capitalism, as MPLA members and dos Santos allies were reportedly enriched from dealings in the sector.

Most of the population still lives in poverty, a sharp contrast to the luxurious lifestyle of the Angolan elite, mostly formed during the dos Santos’ era.  His eldest daughter Isabel came to be Africa’s richest woman with an estimated fortune of $3.5bn, according to a Forbes’ 201 evaluation.

Critics say under his rule anyone who dared to criticise him or his family could either be persecuted or arrested at the time, including journalists, activists and other dissidents.

One of the cases that came to represent the violation of human rights was the 2015 arrest of young activists for reading a book on democracy.

Lourenco, dos Santos’s defence minister who came to power in September 2017, launched an anti-corruption crackdown after his mentor’s exit from power.

But things became turbo-charged in 2020 after Luanda Leaks, an investigation carried out by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists exposed how Isabel dos Santos allegedly embezzled public money from Angola to build her billion-dollar empire.

The state charged her with money laundering, forgery and other financial crimes relating to her time in charge of Angola’s national oil company, Sonangol – a role she was appointed to by her father. Her assets were seized and another sibling was sentenced to five years in prison for embezzling up to $500m during his tenure as head of Angola’s sovereign wealth fund.

An enigma in life and in death

After leaving office, the older dos Santos went into exile to a Barcelona mansion. He barely commented on matters of state publicly.

And during his last days, there was a public battle of wits between the former president’s family and the state on how his health should be managed. Welwitschea José dos Santos, one his daughters, even made public accusations saying there were clear intentions to “hasten the death” of her father.

His death on Friday comes at a particularly sensitive time for Angolan democracy, as the country prepares for its upcoming elections in August 2022. Elements loyal to dos Santos are working to unseat Lourenco, who is seen as singling out the former first family.

So far it is unclear what impact his death could have on this process, nor how and where his funeral will take place – given the current hostile relationship between his older children – some in exile in Europe – and the Angolan state.

In life as in death, dos Santos remains an enigma.

Source: Al Jazeera