Picture: AFP – Angolan President Jose Eduardo dos Santos, left, and his wife Ana Paula gesture during the final election campaign rally on August 29, 2012, in Kilamba Kaixi.
By Chad Williams
The man accused of creating one of the most corrupt regimes in Africa is as chaotic in death as he was in life. José Eduardo dos Santos died in a Barcelona hospital almost two weeks ago, and his family’s skeletons are starting to emerge from the closet.
Preliminary autopsy results show his death was due to natural causes, a Spanish court said on Monday while ordering further examination. Dos Santos, who ruled the oil-rich African nation with an iron first between 1979 and 2017, died in Barcelona on July 8 at the age of 79 after suffering a cardiac arrest, AFP reported.
Since then, the question of when and where he will be buried has pitted the Angolan government and his widow, Ana Paula, against some of his adult children.
This week, Isabel dos Santos, his daughter – who was once Africa’s richest woman – along with some of her siblings, have decided to allow Dos Santos’s remains to be returned to Angola for a state funeral, but only after the elections there on August 24, to avoid an “unacceptable political use” of the event Portuguese news agency Lusa and Reuters reported earlier this week.
Dos Santos made history by becoming president of Angola at the age of 37, and leaving the seat in 2017, 38 years later, and dying recently at the age of 79.
He frequently described himself as an accidental president, taking the reins after Angola’s first leader, Agostinho Neto, died during cancer surgery in 1979. With Neto having served for only four years and the 37-year-old Dos Santos regarded as a relatively weak outside candidate, few could have imagined he would go on to rule for just shy of four decades.
Dos Santos proved an extremely astute politician. A master-manipulator, he was skilled at exposing rivals and forcing them into line. In 2003, Dos Santos banished his party’s secretary general to a junior position for appearing a little too eager to replace him. João Lourenço would have to wait 14 years to finally get his wish to become Angola’s next president.
“He humiliated people,” Alves da Rocha, a senior economist who worked for many years at the ministry of planning told Reuters. “That’s one of the reasons support for him collapsed once he left office.”
With allegations of rampant corruption during his tenure and with mounting evidence pointing towards his children who have benefited from their father for most of their adult lives, things are starting to get more and more uncomfortable for the Dos Santos offspring. The family have squabbled with Angolan authorities on whether he should be buried in Angola or Barcelona, where he has been living for a number of years. The family had earlier said their father wished to be buried in Spain.
As he lies in a mortuary in Europe, and until a Spanish court decides whether his mortal remains will be buried in Luanda or in Spain, his children are fighting battles that their father can no longer protect them from, hence the call to be pardoned for their sins.
Five of dos Santos’s children have recently signed a letter, saying they agree to a state funeral in Angola for their father. They also said “consolidating the political heritage” of the former president should involve adopting a “amnesty law” and “ending legal proceedings” against “numerous Angolans”.
Since taking over the reins in 2017, President Lourenço has unleashed an anti-corruption drive that has targeted the Dos Santos family. Isabel was fired as the chairperson of the state-owned oil company, Sonangol and had her accounts and assets in Angola and Portugal frozen. Her half-brother, Jose Filomeno, was prosecuted on charges of taking part in an illegal $500 million transfer abroad toward the end of his father’s 38-year rule. They deny wrongdoing.
Following a large number of legal proceedings filed against the family of the former president, the government of Lourenço has asked a dozen countries to freeze the assets of the Dos Santos family, in particular those of Isabel. Many of the countries see this request as a golden opportunity to forge closer ties with Angola, writes Africa Intelligence.
Following a trial that lasted several months, in 2020, Angolan courts sentenced José Filomeno “Zenu” dos Santos, a son of Dos Santos, to five years in prison for fraud, money laundering and influence peddling.
As Angolans go to the polls next month, the irony is that in death, Dos Santos still has the power to sway the electorate, before his burial in his home country.
Lourenço, at the helm of Africa’s second-biggest oil producer, vowed to clamp down on corruption and authorities targeted Dos Santos’s family and close allies. The president is running for a second term and a state funeral for Dos Santos before the vote could help bolster support for the ruling party, a Bloomberg report revealed this week. – Additional reporting from AFP and Reuters
Chad Williams is a multi-media journalist.