Longtime Angolan President Jose Eduardo dos Santos has announced that he will remain chairman of the ruling Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA). The move suggests dos Santos, who said in March that he would retire from "active politics" in 2018, will stand for re-election in Angola's next presidential election, though he might not serve a full term.
The announcement comes amid lingering economic weakness in Angola. Inflation has continued to climb to new heights, reportedly reaching 31.8 percent in June, outstripping African oil producer Nigeria by almost 15 percent. To make matters worse, over the past year, Angola's currency has lost 35 percent of its value compared with the dollar, while foreign reserves have decreased by about $10 billion to around $22 billion.
The country has acknowledged its financial predicament, disclosing that it has halved its projected growth forecast from 3 percent down to 1.3 percent. The government also announced that it will cut its budget by $6 billion down to $24 billion and will decrease its 2016 budget oil benchmark by $4 per barrel down to $45 per barrel.
These disclosures were probably meant to reassure the private investors — including Gemcorp Capital LLP — that Angola began courting for loan deals after walking away from negotiations with the International Monetary Fund for a loan. With the announcement, the party likely means to convey that it takes the economic downturn and the associated crises it faces seriously. Angola wants $500 million in loans to finance imports of food, medicine and related items.
The difficult economic situation in which Africa's largest oil producer finds itself appears to have slowed dos Santos' succession plans. Economic uncertainty makes sticking with an experienced leader — in this case, dos Santos — seem more appealing: None of dos Santos' potential successors have the governing skills the president has honed over his many decades in office. Defense Minister Joao Lourenco is a powerful figure within the MPLA, often representing the country abroad. Yet while he might have been a good candidate in ordinary times, he lacks experience, a critical deficiency in a time of recession. By contrast, Vice President Manuel Vicente has experience in the oil sector, having headed state energy company Sonangol. But an international corruption investigation into his practices and broader questions about his leadership of Sonangol make him an unsafe choice at an uncertain time.
Meanwhile, much speculation has focused on dos Santos' daughter, Isabel, and the possibility that dos Santos could choose her to take his place, following the lead of other African leaders who have tried to pass power to their children. Dos Santos recently named Isabel non-executive administrator and president of the board of directors of Sonangol. During her time there, she has overseen an overhaul of the company meant to increase the president's authority over it and to promote efficiency in the country's most lucrative industry. But though she has gained prominence through her business acumen and handling of economic affairs, her political inexperience would make her a risky — and therefore unlikely — choice to be president at this time.
Angola's economic uncertainty and the MPLA's eagerness to protect the status quo ultimately means dos Santos will remain president and party chief for a few more years. Though his potential successor may in fact emerge from August's party congress, it probably will be some time before anyone is able to take his place.