Outgoing Angolan President Jose Eduardo dos Santos greets crowds at the ruling MPLA party's final election rally in Luanda, Angola. Picture: REUTERS
Outgoing Angolan President Jose Eduardo dos Santos greets crowds at the ruling MPLA party's final election rally in Luanda, Angola. Picture: REUTERS

Luanda — When Angolan President Jose Eduardo dos Santos steps down and his successor is chosen in Wednesday’s elections, it will bring to an end a 38-year reign dominated by his unrelenting authoritarian style.

Although seldom seen in public, he has been a looming presence in daily life for as long as most Angolans can remember, maintaining fierce control over the country throughout its devastating civil war and recent oil boom.

Now aged 74 and reportedly in poor health, Dos Santos became president in 1979, making him Africa’s second-longest-serving leader — one month shy of Equatorial Guinea’s Teodoro Obiang Nguema.

Until the 27-year civil war ended in 2002, Dos Santos presided over a country torn apart by conflict as his People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) government fought rebels led by the Unita group under Jonas Savimbi.

He has been credited for leading Angola out of the war, moving away from hardline Marxism and fostering a post-war oil boom and foreign investment surge that transformed central Luanda.

But his rule has also been criticised as secretive and corrupt, with Angola’s citizens suffering abject poverty as Dos Santos’s family and the elite enriched themselves.

He is "an accomplished and shrewd economic and political dealmaker with an instinct for political survival", according to UK think-tank Chatham House.

Married to the glamorous former air hostess Ana Paula, who is 18 years his junior, his children include Isabel, who is head of the state-owned Sonangol oil company and reputed to be Africa’s richest woman — worth $3bn.

From humble beginnings as the son of a bricklayer, Dos Santos joined the MPLA as a teenager and rose quickly through party ranks as a fighter during Angola’s struggle for independence from Portugal.

After stints in Kinshasa and Brazzaville, he went to Azerbaijan to study petroleum engineering, returning fluent in Russian and French, in addition to his mother-tongue Portuguese.

In 1979, following the sudden death from cancer of Angola’s liberation president, Agostinho Neto, Dos Santos was sworn in as president.

A presidential election in 1992 was aborted before a second-round vote when his battlefield rival Savimbi claimed the vote was rigged. The civil war reignited until Savimbi was killed in 2002.

During the 2012 election campaign, Dos Santos made a series of unexpected appearances at public rallies, wearing colourful T-shirts and promising better universities and jobs for young people. But his policies remained little changed.

As head of the military, police and cabinet, the president operates with few constraints. He chooses senior judges and had MPLA allies in all public agencies including the supposedly independent electoral commission. The state keeps a firm hand on the media, and his picture often appeared on the front pages of newspapers as well as on countless billboards.

Angola has become a major supplier of oil to China, and Dos Santos built close ties with the Asian powerhouse.

But while he sought to present himself as a rock of stability, rights activists and opposition members accuse him of systematic repression.

In a 2013 interview for Brazilian television, he said that his rule had been "too long, too long", but added that decades of war "meant we couldn’t strengthen state institutions or even carry out the normal process of democratisation".

Always immaculately dressed, he has split his time between his presidential palace in Luanda and a second residence south of the capital.

AFP


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