MPLA revives Eduardo dos Santos’s deep state ahead of August polls
Even if opposition United Patriotic Front triumphs, it will inherit forces that has been keeping democracy in check in Angola
Next month Angola will hold what are expected to be its most hotly contested elections since the end of the civil war 20 years ago — a war in which SA was deeply embroiled.
Yet Angola remains the most secretive country in Southern Africa, a shadowy security state built by former president José Eduardo dos Santos, who died last week at 79 amid fears of foul play expressed by his daughter, Isabel dos Santos. Africa’s richest woman with wealth estimated by Forbes at $3.5bn, she is now facing charges of embezzling much of it from the state petroleum company she headed.
Dos Santos ruled Angola as his family’s private fiefdom for 38 years after the death in 1979 of Angola’s first president, the poet-intellectual Agostinho Neto, four years after the country achieved a fractious independence from Portugal. Unlike fellow Portuguese colony Mozambique, where three liberation movements combined to form what became the governing Frelimo, in Angola three liberation movements descended into fratricidal warfare, from which Neto’s MPLA emerged the victor.
This was despite apartheid SA almost seizing the laurel in a desperate 3,159km dash in 33 days by armoured battle groups that came within sight of the capital, Luanda, in 1976 in the hope of preventing a communist government coming to power on the border of its South West African colony. For the next 23 years Angola became a hot theatre of the Cold War as the US and its allies backed SA’s absorption of Angolan FNLA rebels and its support for Unita rebels against the MPLA’s Soviet-bloc and Cuban allies.
The September 1987 the Battle of the Lomba River, the largest armoured clash in Africa since World War 2, resulted in an SA victory, but its forces’ inability to capture the town of Cuito Cuanevale lead to a stalemate that took all sides (except for Unita and the Namibians) to the peace table — and cut the Gordian knot that allowed for Namibian independence. Though enabled by glasnost and perestroika in the USSR, this has to be seen as a key positive achievement of Eduardo dos Santos’s implacable character.
The New York Times noted in its obituary that between Dos Santos’s ascension and when he stepped down in 2017 in favour of handpicked defence minister João Lourenço, his long decades in power had allowed him to manoeuvre “family members into positions of staggering economic clout, and Angola, rich in diamonds and oil, had become infamous for its startling inequality”. Though SA rates as the world’s most unequal country in terms of its Gini coefficient — 12 places ahead of Angola — still about 70% of Angolans eke out a marginal living on less than $2 a day.
She argues that the contingencies of the civil war enabled Dos Santos to entrench a securocrat state with a sort of hypercabinet of security ministers reporting solely to himself, rendering their cabinet colleagues and parliament irrelevant
Abandoning the governing party’s Cold War Marxist-Leninism for a supposedly freewheeling capitalism with the fall of communism in Eastern Europe in 1991, Dos Santos, who had been trained in the USSR’s Azerbaijan republic as a petro-engineer in the 1960s, built the country into the continent’s second-largest oil producer after Nigeria. The peace dividend that came at the end of the civil war in 2002 with the death of arch-rival Unita’s Jonas Savimbi, caused growth sometimes to soar as high as 23% annually.
An influx of Chinese investment on an oil-for-construction basis caused a ring of five new satellite cities built around Luanda for $5.5bn from 2008. But Stalinist command economy habits die hard, and the sites were at risk of becoming “ghost cities” as few could afford to live there — until the president forced rent-to-own prices down in 2013, thereby creating a new middle class overnight in a country that still has to develop a housing bond market.
But the governing clique has signally failed to diversify the economy from its reliance on oil and diamonds; about 98% of income is still derived from the extractives sector. In 2016 an oil price slump — combined with a forex shortage as US banks withheld dollars, distrusting the probity of Angolan banking — led to long supermarket queues reminiscent of the war era, while the wealthy had to fly bread in daily from Lisbon.
In the colonial era Angola had been a top coffee exporter, but those lands have lain fallow for decades as the regime dragged its heels on clearing its minefields. The comparable war-torn state of Mozambique announced in 2015 that it had fully demined all known minefields, despite being the world’s 121st poorest state by GDP per capita (Angola is 67th). But Angola is only expected to be fully demined by end-2025 — and the Mine Action Review’s latest report notes that the chance of it meeting its clearance target is low.
A mere four days before the former president’s death Angolan independent researcher Paula Cristina Roque, who has worked for the International Crisis Group, launched her study of the state built by Dos Santos, Governing in the Shadows: Angola’s Securitised State, at the Royal African Society in London.
She argues that the contingencies of the civil war enabled Dos Santos to entrench a securocrat state with a sort of hypercabinet of security ministers reporting solely to himself, rendering their cabinet colleagues and parliament irrelevant. It is instructive that apartheid SA had just such an untouchable group — the State Security Council — that reported directly to PW Botha.
But Roque not only warns that the MPLA has retained and reactivated this deep state, but that even if the newly formed opposition United Patriotic Front — with a core built around Unita — wins the August 24 elections against all odds, it will inherit precisely the forces that kept full democracy in check in Angola for the past five decades.
Gilson Lázaro and Jon Schubert signalled in academic journal The Conversation that an opposition win is unlikely as the “MPLA is reverting to old authoritarian reflexes — legal-administrative obstacles, harassment and intimidation, physical violence, arbitrary detention, extralegal killings, media manipulation, judicial bias and electoral fraud — to thwart any possible opposition threat to its dominance.”
Dos Santos’s lasting legacy may be that despite his centralised power he was unable, indeed unwilling, to shift the ruling elites of any party from their Cold War mentality and thus unlock the full potential of one of the richest economies on the continent.
• Schmidt is a veteran journalist and author.
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