Africa’s second longest serving leader is stepping down

Image: Reuters/Hugo Correia
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For the first time in 38 years, Angolans will have a new president.

Jose Eduardo dos Santos, the country’s long-time leader, announced in December 2016, that he would not seek re-election and, in his place, João Lourenço, Angola’s defense minister, has been chosen by the ruling People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) to seek the presidency on Aug. 23. Dos Santos, 74, is said to have health issues. In May, after a prolonged absence, the government confirmed dos Santos was in Spain for one of his “regular health checks” and his daughter later was forced to deny reports of his death.

Given the MLPA’s dominance in Angolan politics—the party has ruled Angola since its independence from Portugal in 1975—Lourenço is expected to win the parliamentary elections.

But for the first time in decades, opposition parties believe they’ve got an outside shot at power. A poll commissioned by the presidency predicts the ruling party will only secure 38% of the votes while National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA), the main opposition party, will receive 32%. CASA-CE, another party, is projected to win 26%. More damning, 91% of the more than 9,000 poll respondents said MPLA’s current leadership does not act in the best interest of Angolans.  In 2012, the MPLA received 72% of the vote; in 2008, it received 82% of the the total votes.

Whoever wins, dos Santos and his family are is likely to retain significant power.

Last month, the government passed new laws which prevent the next president from firing the military, police, and intelligence chiefs. Dos Santos will continue as leader of the MPLA while his daughter Isabel will stay in charge of Sonangol, the state oil company, after being appointed in June 2016, and Jose Filomeno, dos Santos’ son, will remain in charge of Angola’s $5 billion sovereign wealth fund. In June, Dos Santos was granted a seat on the Council of the Republic, a presidential advisory body whose members enjoy immunity from prosecution.

Lourenço has campaigned on anti-corruption measures in line with his hardline stance. In the late 1980s, as governor of Benguela province, Lourenço jailed some members of his own party for corruption.

The winning party will need to defuse anger at what is perceived to be large-scale corruption among Angola’s elite. Despite its vast oil wealth—Angola is Africa’s second largest oil producer—inequality remains high. Much of Angola’s development is concentrated in Luanda, its capital city, which is so littered with lush hotels and apartments that it is considered to be the most expensive city in the world for expatriates. Meanwhile, infrastructure in the rest of the country is poor.

The 2016 Africa Prosperity Report by the Legatum Institute found that Angola has been “under-delivering” prosperity to its citizens. That reality has gotten worse over the past two years as oil prices have dipped, slowing the country’s growth. To cope with the fall in revenue, the government cut essential services including waste collection services. A deadly yellow fever outbreak which killed more than 400 people (pdf) has been cited as a costly fallout of that decision.

Opposition parties are working to boost an unlikely victory. To ensure transparency at the polls, CASA-CE hopes to leverage technology by using a computer program to calculate results based on data from party delegates at polling stations and minimize rigging. But MPLA is not standing by idly either. Citing security concerns, government authorities have banned protests and demonstrations by groups not contesting the elections.