On 23rd August, João Lourenço led the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) to victory in Angola’s legislative elections, thereby winning the presidency for himself.
The 38-year rule of José Eduardo dos Santos was over. The peaceful handover of power by Africa’s second longest-serving president is significant, but the question is just how real a transfer it will be.
Although dos Santos takes his leave, the ageing leader made sure to entrench his power base before departing, and Lourenço inherits an office and a body politic that has been completely crafted in dos Santos’s image. That said, chinks in the ex-president’s armour are starting to appear, and whether or not Lourenço will exercise power freely depends on dos Santos’s popularity within the MPLA and the party’s popularity within Angola.
Having considered stepping down before, dos Santos was well prepared to set up exit strategies. The national assembly has passed a bill making him “president emeritus”, a position that will give him immunity from prosecution for any abuse of office. In addition, he will remain president of the ruling MPLA and hence will continue to choose candidates for the national assembly and exert wide influence on government.
Weeks before stepping down he pushed a law through parliament blocking Lourenço from appointing any new chiefs of military, police and intelligence services for eight years and instead promoted 165 senior police officers of his own choice to key security positions.
Checked and balanced
In this manner, Lourenço is being thoroughly checked and balanced – even his vice-president, Bornito de Sousa, is known to have a good relationship with dos Santos and will undoubtedly be keeping his interests at play in the new administration.
Finally, dos Santos has spread his power base by appointing members of his family to high-level business positions in the country. His daughter Isabel dos Santos is chair of the state oil firm, Sonagol, and his son José Filomeno dos Santos is the chairman of the country’s sovereign wealth fund.
While it is clear that dos Santos has done his best to remain in control, signs are emerging that the political elite are growing tired of the old regime, and in a country not unaccustomed to rancorous infighting the balance remains delicate.
Lourenço has never been a member of dos Santos’s inner circle. Despite election posters showing a united MPLA front, they are not close. In 2001, Lourenço, at the time secretary-general of the MPLA, expressed his interest in the presidency as dos Santos toyed with the idea of retiring. When dos Santos changed his mind, Lourenço was seen as a threat and relegated to the sidelines for the next decade. But he kept his head down and slowly rose to become defence minister in 2014.
Analysts still do not know what to expect from Lourenço as president. Zenaida Machado, Angola and Mozambique researcher at Human Rights Watch, says: “We don’t know much about him. As dos Santos remains party leader, we are yet to see whether he [Lourenço] will be able to implement governance of his own.”
Dr Claudia Gastrow, Angola expert at the University of Johannesburg, argues that while a power struggle is not imminent, its emergence is inevitable. “My guess is that we’re going to have to wait 18 months to two years to tell what is going on,” she says. “I would be very surprised if there were any moves to be antagonistic before then, but I think we are going to see a standoff at some point.”
The split, she suspects, will materialise as a struggle between control over the party by dos Santos as the continued party leader, and control over the executive and presidency by Lourenço.
MPLA’s power wanes
The recent election results also signalled a waning of MPLA hegemony, which, if it continues, could further debase dos Santos’s grip on power and swing the scales in favour of Lourenço. For the first time ever, the MPLA lost its majority in the capital, Luanda, taking a comparatively meagre 48% of the vote.
Luanda has traditionally been a base for the MPLA and dos Santos cadres, and the decline in its power and influence there is significant. “I think Angola has been tired of dos Santos’s regime for a while,” says Dr Gastrow. “I think the MPLA is more difficult to call, because I’m sure there are some in the party that are tired of dos Santos, but at the same time there is a significant part of the party who are deeply indebted to the system that dos Santos has built, and so the question becomes, where do people stand to gain the most?”
A further factor affecting dos Santos’s grip on power is the state of his health. It is widely held in Angola – although never explicitly stated – that he is ill. He has visited Barcelona multiple times for treatment and many believe this is the reason why he decided to stand down.
Dr Gastrow concludes: “At the moment everyone is holding their breath to see when a split between Lourenço and dos Santos will happen.”