Joao Lourenco, the ruling MPLA party’s presidential candidate, is set to take office as a provisional vote count puts his party ahead of Unita. Picture: REUTERS
Joao Lourenco, the ruling MPLA party’s presidential candidate, is set to take office as a provisional vote count puts his party ahead of Unita. Picture: REUTERS

Lisbon/Luanda — As Joao Lourenco stands on the brink of realising his 16-year ambition to become Angola’s president, many of his fellow citizens wonder whether he can bring about change in one of the world’s most unequal countries.

Lourenco, commonly known as J-Lo, first signalled his desire to hold the southern African nation’s top office in 2001 when Jose Eduardo dos Santos hinted he was ready to step down, and then changed his mind.

Now with the electoral commission showing the ruling Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) winning Wednesday’s election, its candidate, Lourenco, is set to move into the presidential palace overlooking the bay of Luanda, the capital.

A former deputy parliamentary speaker and an army general, Lourenco, 63, is a familiar face to most Angolans.

He has vowed to fight corruption and poverty in a country where more than a third of the population of 27-million lives on less than $2 a day, according to the World Bank.

Yet with Dos Santos in power for 38 years and some of his children having amassed billions of dollars, many discount chances of a radical policy shift in Africa’s second-biggest oil producer.

"The only thing that will change is the face of the president," said Silvio Marques, a 30-year-old engineer as he looked up toward a slum in Luanda known as Bela Vista, which means beautiful view. "The rest will remain the same."

Family wealth

Dos Santos’s eldest daughter, Isabel, was appointed chairwoman of the state-owned oil company Sonangol last year. She’s also Africa’s richest woman, with an estimated wealth of $2.3bn, according to the Bloomberg billionaires index.

Her brother Jose Filomeno heads Angola’s $5bn wealth fund.

Transparency International has ranked Angola among the world’s 20 most corrupt nations for the past three years.

"The legacy of the last decades, the economic crisis, and the desire of many in the elite to have a less powerful president mean that he won’t be able to change everything overnight," Ricardo Soares de Oliveira, the author of a study on postwar Angola, said in an interview.

The MPLA was leading the main opposition party, Unita, by 61% to 27% with almost 98% of provisional results reported, the nation’s electoral commission said Friday.

Unita said the count wasn’t "real".

During the campaign, Lourenco rejected allegations that he’d be constrained by the Dos Santos family if elected.

"I’ll have all the power," Lourenco told reporters in Luanda. "I wouldn’t if the country had two presidents, but that’s not the case."

Economic crisis

But Lourenco’s power will be limited by the ruling party, which Dos Santos continues to head until at least next year, and by the Dos Santos family’s grip on the economy, according to political analyst Paula Roque.

"Every governing policy that he will sign in his tenure will have to go through the MPLA," Roque said from Johannesburg.

"The second impediment is you need money to govern a country and the economy is in the stranglehold of the family.

"This will be some constraint on the new president’s ability to maneuver and to determine his own economic policy for the country, which desperately needs diversification," she said.

The government is trying to polish its image in a bid to attract fresh investment and reverse an acute economic crisis that’s resulted in the departure of tens of thousands of Chinese and Portuguese workers, an inflation rate of 30% and a shortage of dollars.

Angola’s central bank, for example, says it wants to restore the credibility of commercial lenders. The advocacy group Financial Action Task Force removed Angola from its blacklist last year, citing significant progress in the fight against money laundering.

Business deals

Unlike some other top government officials, Lourenco isn’t known to have used his position to obtain business deals, apart from owning a 5.4% stake in the lender Banco Sol.

One of his assets may be his wife, Ana Dias Lourenco, who has worked at the World Bank and served in the government, according to Ricardo Gazel, a former senior World Bank economist for Angola and Mozambique.

"She is intelligent, determined and with a solid experience inside and outside Angola," said Gazel, who worked with Ana Dias Lourenco when she was planning minister.

Lourenco fought against Portuguese colonial rule and served in the civil war that erupted after independence between the Marxist MPLA government and the Unita rebel group, which was backed by then US President Ronald Reagan and SA.

He received military training in the former Soviet Union and returned with a degree in history in 1982.

As secretary-general of the MPLA from 1998 to 2003, he briefly fell out with Dos Santos after suggesting publicly that Dos Santos should keep his word after saying he would retire as president.

But his surprise appointment as defence minister in 2014 was a signal that the party considered him a suitable candidate to succeed Dos Santos.

"One wishes that this election will amount to a sea change," said Soares de Oliveira, "but reality is more complicated."


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