An Empty Promise in Angola

Angola’s president, José Eduardo dos Santos, dropped a bombshell on Friday when he announced his intentions to retire from politics in 2018. As Africa’s second longest ruling leader–he took office only a month after Equatorial Guinea’s Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo in 1979–his exit would mark a departure from what appears to be a trend of African leaders attempting to extend their tenures. But while the exit of an entrenched leader may seem promising for a country crippled by corruption, it is unlikely that his retirement would solve any of the systemic problems facing Angola’s political system.

While dos Santos has ruled Angola since 1979, it has only been in this millennium that has consolidated his control over the entire country. Angola, located along the southwest coast of Africa, was once a colony of Portugal. After its independence in 1975, the groups that had been fighting against Portugal turned against each other to fight for control of the country. It was the marxist People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) that formed Angola’s government, but it failed to stamp out the civil war driven by the various other armed groups. Eventually morphing into a proxy of the cold war involving the United States, Soviet Union, Cuba, South Africa, and others, the war did not end until 2002 when the main rebel group, UNITA, demobilized its armed forces following the death of its leader. The 27 years of civil war ravaged the Angola, leaving millions of internally displaced persons and destroying crucial infrastructure built by the Portuguese.

Angola's location in Africa
Angola’s location in Africa

Since then, the country has been transformed. Rich in natural resources, its oil-driven economy has taken off and its GDP has grown immensely. Yet little of the economic progress has translated into higher living standards. Instead, it has translated to billions of dollars in the pockets of Angola’s leaders. Dos Santos is Africa’s richest leader, with an estimated wealth of 20 billion dollars. His daughter, with extensive business interests and a net worth of 3.8 billion dollars, is Africa’s richest woman and the world’s richest black woman. Thus Angola is one of the most corrupt countries in the world, and its corruption has been a significant hindrance to development. Its are clear considering the vast gap between wealth of Angola’s leaders and the abject poverty of the majority of the population. And although a new leader may seem like a possible remedy to this problem, any change is unlikely to be revolutionary.

Dos Santos has shown himself to be an absolute ruler rather than a president. Angola has not held multiparty elections since it moved away from communism in 1992, and elections scheduled for 2014 were postponed to 2017 on the orders of dos Santos. As president, he is the head of the executive branch of government and the military. The legislature is weak and opposition parties even weaker. Dos Santos also appoints the country’s judges. His daughter, Isabel dos Santos, is one of the Angola’s most influential investors. The country’s largest oil company, Sonangol Group, is state-owned. As a result, dos Santos and his family control most aspects of Angola’s political and business establishment.

Because he has such far reaching power and interests, dos Santos’ is unlikely to go gently into the night come 2018. His promise to retire is hardly a promise to bring an end to Angola’s crushing corruption. The fact that he has already promised to exit the political scene before–in 2001–brings into question whether he will even live up to this promise. But even if he does, the transition will likely install one of dos Santos’ family members or close aides in power. In a country where there is no new guard to replace the old, it is nearly inevitable that the locus of power will simply shift from one member of the corrupt elite to another.


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