Angola's ruling party has had nearly a year to plan for dos Santos' retirement. (The president first quietly warned the MPLA in July 2015 of his impending exit.) However, his recent public confirmation of those plans has placed the succession battle that is sure to come squarely in the international limelight. The move has led some to question whether dos Santos had ulterior motives in making the seemingly sudden announcement. Others have wondered whether Angola's stability will be compromised when the country's veteran leader relinquishes his post. And some in the West have suggested that if even dos Santos does follow through with his promise to leave office, he may simply install one of his own family members — perhaps his son, Jose Filomeno dos Santos, or his daughter, Isabel dos Santos — in his place.
Keep the Oil (Revenue) Flowing
Despite the fact that Angola's political structure can be rather opaque, there are some clues as to how the presidential succession process might play out. Foremost is the tremendous and mounting pressure for a stable, well-managed political transition that preserves the current government and its ties to international oil companies. The Angolan oil industry underwrites the ruling party's control over the country, and any new president will have to be able to competently maneuver within the lucrative system of oil-driven politics and security imperatives that has defined Angola since independence. Doing so will ensure that the ruling party has access to the cash flow it needs to retain its tight and pervasive hold over governing institutions, and that the Angolan security apparatus remains highly responsive to party interests.
Sonangol, Angola's national oil and natural gas company, will be an important factor in the next president's ability to fulfill these party objectives. Sonangol is the glue that binds Angola's political structure. Its production and relationships with international oil companies guarantee a steady stream of energy revenue that politicians can use to buy political power and loyalty among their constituents. Sonangol is Angola's only major reliable moneymaker, and there are few other sizable financial resources upon which the MPLA can depend. Moreover, as the country's most competent entity, Sonangol has filled the void left by many of the state's inadequate institutions with its own subsidiaries. For example, the company controls Angola's national airline, TAAG Angola Airlines.
Coupled with the close overlap between Sonangol and state leadership, the company's extensive reach throughout Angolan society has created an elite class — one that extends beyond any single person — with a vested interest in minimizing political change. Indeed, the MPLA itself is structured with consistency in mind, designed to mitigate the effect of any particular person or event on the party's hold over Angolan politics. Because dos Santos gave the party ample notice of his resignation, MPLA officials will be able to complete the proper protocols for choosing his successor in the lead-up to the party congress, slated for Aug. 17-20. This will in turn give the next candidate time to solidify his or her position, reducing the chances of a surprise contender emerging and disrupting the ruling government's stability.
Even if the internal selection process leads to grandstanding and bickering among politicians jockeying for the final nomination, those who fail to secure it will almost certainly fall in line once the decision is made. To keep turf battles in check, the ruling party grants high-ranking members wide autonomy, and many of its potential candidates for the presidency have served together under dos Santos for decades. Their camaraderie, loyalty and shared ownership of the party system, which yields significant benefits for those within its ranks, will safeguard the MPLA from fracturing under the pressure of the succession process. Anyone who attempts to operate outside the bounds of the ruling party's strict regulations will quickly be marginalized.
External events will not have much of an effect on the party's succession process, either. Over the past year, the Angolan government has proved surprisingly resilient to the collapse of global energy prices. Since Angola is Africa's second-largest exporter of oil, and oil exports account for about 95 percent of Angola's GDP, many expected low prices to wreak havoc on the country's economy. However, Luanda's technocratic government has shown that it is still able to enact tough policies in the name of long-term economic health, even earning the praise of the International Monetary Fund for its subsidy reforms and austerity measures. Meanwhile, Angola's streets have been relatively free of protests, signaling that the government faces no real threat to its power. Even the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola, the MPLA's main political rival, lacks the domestic support and foreign funding needed to mobilize against the ruling party.
The Ideal Candidate
Since dos Santos announced his plans for resignation, many names of potential successors have been floated, and many more are likely to come as the MPLA ramps up its search. Though it is too early to predict who will emerge the victor, some of the candidate's characteristics have already been made clear by the constraints inherent in Angolan politics.
For starters, viable candidates will have to be able to protect the current political system. To do so, they will need to have experience serving in it and know how to operate it. One way to gain such experience would be through a high-level position at Sonangol, since the company is a quasi-sovereign body in its own right. For instance Manuel Vicente, Sonangol's former CEO and Angola's current vice president, had in the past been considered a prime candidate to succeed dos Santos, though he has been all but sidelined by an international corruption scandal. Several other Sonangol officials have demonstrated effective leadership over the years, and some have built ties with important allies, including Chinese politicians. That said, Sonangol is not a political entity, despite its crucial role as a mechanism for political patronage. Its corporate leaders therefore might not have the political clout to secure the presidency.
Alternatively, military or security experience could provide the necessary qualifications for leading the country. Angola's military and security apparatuses play a central role in the survival of the MPLA government, whose primary support base is the Mbundu minority. Consequently, Angolan Defense Minister Joao Lourenco could become the front-runner for the next presidency. Lourenco's prominent position overseeing the Angolan military has brought him international recognition, and his proven ability to represent his country abroad is an important prerequisite for any candidate. The fact that he has not held a position at Sonangol may even prove to be an advantage, since other government institutions are beginning to push back against Sonangol's widespread dominance.
Of course, it is possible that dos Santos will try to prioritize familial ties over experience. Nepotism is a powerful force within both the dos Santos family and Angola. If Jose Eduardo does attempt to engineer another dos Santos presidency, he will have two options to choose from: his son, Jose Filomeno, current chairman of the state's multibillion-dollar sovereign wealth fund, and his daughter, Isabel, a businesswoman worth over $3 billion. However, it is unlikely that either will take over for their father. Both are relatively inexperienced in politics, and bypassing the MPLA's old guard to install one of them in the presidency would generate considerable party backlash. Moreover, neither of the dos Santos children has shown much desire to hold political office, though Jose Filomeno has taken on a few small responsibilities within the MPLA.
The search for dos Santos' successor is undoubtedly unfolding outside the public eye, and it is not yet clear whom the party will choose as its next presidential candidate. Yet the odds of an unexpected nominee who would herald significant change are slim. Much is at stake for Luanda's elite, who want nothing but more of the same, and they will do everything in their power to make sure that as the person within the presidency changes, the political system around the office does not.