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Eduardo dos Santos: Kingpin of Angola’s Political Elite

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Picture: Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters Eduardo dos Santos’s legacy should be a lesson to other leaders that prioritising looting and personal accumulation only creates an impoverished and dysfunctional country, says the writer.

By David Monyae

Eduardo dos Santos, the long-serving former Angolan president died in Barcelona, Spain, earlier this month after battling a long-term illness. He served as the second president of independent Angola with his reign stretching from 1979 when he took over from Augustinho Neto until he retired in 2017 bringing to an end his 38-year stay in power.

His first 23 years in power were marked by a vicious civil war between his party, the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) and the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (Unita) led by Jonas Savimbi. The civil war is reported to have killed 500,000 people and left over 3 million people displaced, while damaging public infrastructure.

The MPLA came out victorious in 2002 when its soldiers killed Savimbi leading to the disintegration and eventual surrender of the Unita rebels.

While Dos Santos has been credited for ending the civil war and bringing peace to Angola, his rule was characterised by co-operation, patronage, nepotism, and human rights abuses.

He was the kingpin of the Angolan political elite who personalised the country’s immense wealth in natural resources at the expense of millions of Angolan people who wallowed in abject poverty.

Angola is an oil-rich state with an estimated 9 billion barrels of oil reserves and 11 trillion cubic feet of natural gas reserves. It is currently Africa’s biggest oil producer pumping 1.16 million barrels per day and 17,904 million cubic feet of natural gas.

Not surprisingly, oil dominates Angola’s economy accounting for more than 90 percent of the country’s export earnings and 50 percent of the country’s GDP. Between 2004 and 2014, oil made up 80 percent of the government’s revenues.

Angola is also one of the world’s major diamond producers with over $1.2 billion in annual production. Yet, as a result of Dos Santos’ legacy of corruption and mismanagement, the Angolan people have not benefited from their country’s massive wealth.

The Dos Santos regime failed to use the oil money to transform and grow Angola’s economy. The political elite used the oil money for personal enrichment instead. About 41percent of Angola’s population is classified as poor, earning less than $21 (about R358) per month.

The poverty rate is over 57 percent in the rural areas where about 38 percent of the population lives. Angola is one of the world’s most unequal countries with a Gini index of 0.55. The richest 20 percent of Angola’s population bag 59 percent of all the income while the bottom 20 percent get only 3 percent of the income.

This is borne out in the capital, Luanda’s rather dramatic spatial variations with a sea of shanty towns surrounding the sleek glass skyscrapers that have become the elusive symbol of success for the country’s elite. The shanty towns that house the vast majority of the city’s population lack basic necessities such as water, sanitation and electricity.

In 2021, Angola failed to graduate from the world’s group of least developed countries (LDCs) due to falling oil prices which saw the GDP growth rate plummet from a high of almost 9 percent in 2012 to below 0 percent (negative) in 2019.

This is due to the unsustainable dependency on oil. According to the United Nations, Angola has failed to expand its productive capacities, which have seen it produce little goods and services.

In an irony that is common to most oil-rich states in Sub-Saharan Africa, Angola imports 80 percent of its requirements for petroleum products despite being a major oil producer. The country’s refinery capabilities can only satisfy 20 percent of its local demand.

This begs the question of where the oil wealth has gone. The honest answer is that it disappeared to corruption and Dos Santos was at the centre of it all. The country’s state oil company, Sonangol, which was founded in 1976, is responsible for exploring, producing, manufacturing, distributing and marketing the country’s oil and other hydrocarbons.

However, while it rakes in billions of dollars from oil exports, it has been mired in corruption. Most of the earnings from oil exports have not come through the country’s central banks and have disappeared into thin air.

According to Human Rights Watch, about $4 billion went missing from the country’s oil revenues. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) estimated that almost $32 billion of oil revenues disappeared from the government’s budget between 2007 and 2010.

Manuel Domingos Vicente, who served as Dos Santos’ deputy between 2012 and 2017, was found to have accumulated a personal fortune of over $1 billion in a court filing in Switzerland. In what many have interpreted as nepotism, Dos Santos appointed his children to influential positions.

His son, Jose Filomeno was appointed the chairperson of the country’s $5 billion sovereign wealth fund which was established to diversify the economy. He was sentenced to jail for five years by an Angolan court after he was found to have transferred $500 million from the Angolan national bank to a bank account in the United Kingdom.

Dos Santos’ daughter, Isabel, was made the chair of Sonangol. She quickly rose to become Africa’s richest woman with expansive business interests in telecoms, retailing, cement, and finance.

However, she was fired as Sonangol chair in 2017 by her father’s successor, Joao Lourenco. In 2019, her assets in Angola were frozen on account of corrupt practices. The former president’s own personal fortune was estimated at $20 billion.

His close associates both in government and the military also raked in hundreds of millions of dollars in personal fortunes. As such, Dos Santos will leave a legacy of having been at the centre of a cartel that became incredibly rich at the expense of millions of Angolans.

As with all cartels that occupy the corridors of power, suppression and repression became the modus operandi of the Dos Santos regime. Dos Santos was always eager to use his security forces to clamp down on critics.

Unlawful killings, enforced disappearances and abductions, detention without trial targeting of the press, academics and activists and impunity for security personnel accused of using excessive force became a fundamental part of Dos Santos’ governance model.

He built a security state that thwarted any opposition forces and ensured that the MPLA went into elections with no formidable challengers. This left the ruling party with ample room to loot the country’s resources with impunity.

The story of Dos Santos and his MPLA in Angola is eerily similar to that of liberation movements and their leaders in countries such as Tanzania, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Cameroon, Uganda, Kenya and even South Africa. Like Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, Dos Santos died seeking medical help in a foreign land.

Yet with all the money generated from oil sales, he could have built a world-class health system in Angola. Instead, he went for luxuries and offshore bank accounts for himself and his cronies. He leaves Angola in economic ruin and political decay.

His legacy should be a lesson to other leaders that prioritising looting and personal accumulation only creates an impoverished and dysfunctional country that will force them to go through the indignity of running to foreign hospitals where they pay huge sums of money to save their lives, in most cases unsuccessfully.

David Monyae is an Associate Professor of International Relations and Political Science and Director of the Centre for Africa-China Studies at the University of Johannesburg

This article is original to the The African. To republish, see terms and conditions.