A sure thing: José Eduardo dos Santos and  Joao Lourenço August 19, 2017 shows Angolan President and The People's Movement for the Liberation of Angola President Jose Eduardo dos Santos and MPLA candidate to the presidency Joao Lourenco holding hands during the closing campaign rally in LuandaGallo Images / AFP / Marco Longari
A sure thing: José Eduardo dos Santos and Joao Lourenço August 19, 2017 shows Angolan President and The People's Movement for the Liberation of Angola President Jose Eduardo dos Santos and MPLA candidate to the presidency Joao Lourenco holding hands during the closing campaign rally in LuandaGallo Images / AFP / Marco Longari

In a carefully stage-managed process, Angola’s ruling Movement for the Popular Liberation of Angola (MPLA) has passed the presidential baton from José Eduardo dos Santos to former army general Joao Lourenço in an election marked by low turnout in even its Luanda stronghold.

After early provisional results showed strong gains by two of the main opposition parties, the Nacional Elections Centre (CNE) stopped providing regular updates and the website of the Casa-CE coalition crashed under heavy traffic, never to recover.

By the time CNE announced the final results last Friday, even die-hard ruling party supporters found it hard to muster much more than just a sigh of relief and the odd loud self-congratulatory car convoy. The results were announced under heavy security and in empty streets.

No-one expected the MPLA not to win, but the margins — 150 parliamentary seats for MPLA, 51 seats to Unita, 16 seats for Casa-CE, two for the PRSA and one to the FNLA — raised more than a few eyebrows.

Reports from Luanda during voting said queues were short while those from opposition strongholds like Huambo said voting took several hours because of long queues. Opposition claims of rigging were dismissed by the CNE and the constitutional court, whose functionaries and judges are hand-picked by the ruling party.

As a result, Angola will have its first new president since 1979, with Lourenço automatically assuming the position under constitutional changes — pushed through parliament in 2010 under Dos Santos — that eliminated the direct election of the Angolan president by voters.

The former defence minister’s rise marked a subtle shift of power within the MPLA, from its political to its military wing. It was, however, a negotiated exit from the stage, but not from power, for the Dos Santos clan, who control all the economy’s commanding heights.

Lourenço was not Dos Santos’s first choice as successor. He favoured Manuel Vicente, former CEO of national oil company Sonangol and MPLA vice-president, or his own billionaire daughter Isabel, who replaced Vicente as Sonangol CEO in 2015.

Dos Santos, 75 years old and in failing health, will remain on as party president and in near-total power: under a series of presidential decrees issued two months ago, he froze any new top appointments to any of the military, security and intelligence services until 2025.

The 63-year-old Lourenço, a struggle stalwart and former Soviet-trained artillery general who was elected as MPLA secretary-general in 1998, was something of a surprise choice, having fallen out of favour in 2001 when he openly expressed ambitions to succeed Dos Santos and was forced out of office shortly afterwards.

Following rebel leader Jonas Savimbi’s death in a hail of bullets in 2002 and the resurgence of the post-war Angolan economy, Lourenço served as one of two vice-presidents in the national assembly from 2003 to 2014. He was appointed defence minister in late 2014. As a native of the central port town of Lobito, and later governor of the remote Mexico province (both strongholds of Unita), Lourenço does not have a real political constituency of his own.

And it was not until 2014, as far as could be established, that he became a member of the so-called Casa Militar, the permanent para-military adjunct to the office of the president that serves as a type of super-cabinet in allocating national funds. Its members are hand-picked by Dos Santos.

During the campaign he promised to diversify the economy away from its oil dependency, tackle corruption and restart an economy that has contracted by 3.6% over the past year.

Lourenço’s most pressing priority will be to solve the acute foreign-exchange liquidity crisis. Most foreign banks were unwilling to lend more US dollars to Luanda because most of its oil income is pledged to China in an oil-for-infrastructure deal, said Alex Vines of Chatham House.

With Isabel dos Santos (44) holding the national purse strings as Sonangol CEO, and Lourenço surrounded by securocrats he cannot dismiss or otherwise remove (and with a parliament packed by his predecessor’s loyalists), his options for imposing his own stamp on the MPLA appear limited.

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