Angola is at the edge of a new era. Legislative elections Aug. 23 will formally consecrate the transfer of power from the oil-rich country's longtime ruler, President Jose Eduardo dos Santos, to Defense Minister Joao Lourenco, marking the first leadership change in Angola since 1979. The vote will close the first phase of the transition, which dos Santos and the ruling Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) have tried to conduct as smoothly as possible. But as Lourenco prepares to take the reins, the next phase of the transition could be a bumpier ride.
The End of the Beginning
The political leadership of Angola, a former Portuguese colony, favors consensus and stability above all else
. With these goals in mind, the MPLA selected Lourenco to head the party and, by extension, the country in dos Santos' wake. His experience working in the MPLA and serving as defense minister made Lourenco an obvious, and uncontroversial, choice for the ruling party. His relationship with the outgoing president, however, is harder to assess. Lourenco is a consensus candidate — not the president's handpicked successor. As Angola makes the transition from decades under dos Santos, who is credited with leading the country to recovery after 27 years of civil war, that distinction could help determine the course of its future.
Dos Santos has already started paving the way for a comfortable retirement. Angola's parliament approved a package June 27 that entitles retiring presidents to 90 percent of their former salary and a retinue of bodyguards, among other privileges. Perhaps the most telling provision of the bill, however, stipulates that former presidents may be charged only for crimes unrelated to their official duties. The condition offers insight into dos Santos' thinking as the end of his term approaches: Should the political winds change one day, safeguards must be in place.
His preparations notwithstanding, though, dos Santos will still play an influential role in Angola's politics following his retirement. The 74-year-old president, after all, will retain his post as MPLA chairman at least until 2018, when he previously has said he would retire from "active politics." As party chair, dos Santos will be able to slow or halt Lourenco's proposals
as he sees fit — namely over matters that could threaten his family's interests.
Thicker Than Water
Following in their father's footsteps, dos Santos' children have risen to prominent positions in Angola's economic and political order. The president's son Jose Filomeno dos Santos, for example, manages the country's $5 billion sovereign wealth fund and sits, alongside his sister Welwitschia, on the MPLA Central Committee. His eldest daughter, Isabel dos Santos, occupies a far more powerful post as the nonexecutive director of state-owned oil and natural gas company Sonangol.
Oil is critical to Angola, accounting for nearly 50 percent of the country's gross domestic product, 75 percent of government revenue and 90 percent of exports. At the helm of Angola's economic engine, Isabel dos Santos — Africa's first female billionaire — represents a potential rival power base for her father's successor. Lourenco has made fighting corruption a centerpiece of his campaign, calling it a "great sickness." (A corruption probe took dos Santos' vice president, Manuel Vicente, out of the running for the presidency.) Though his platform may not be aimed at the president's children, the MPLA overall opposes the establishment of a dos Santos political dynasty, a position that could cause rifts in the party in the future.
A Push for Change
Meanwhile, the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) — the MPLA's principal rival and former civil war adversary — is trying to draw attention to the matter to pressure the ruling party. UNITA candidate Isaias Samakuva said in an interview Aug. 16 that if elected, he would remove Isabel dos Santos from her position at Sonangol, because her nomination was not made ethically. Samakuva, whose party has never held power in Angola, intended his comments to portray Lourenco as the status quo candidate during a time of financial weakness for the country.
Lourenco will have to speak out about the dos Santos children's role in Angola sooner or later, not only to satisfy factions in the MPLA but also to set his administration apart from that of his predecessor. The end of dos Santos' 38-year reign will open a new chapter in Angola's history. Whether it will be smooth or bumpy depends on how well the MPLA's leaders manage the road ahead.