Angola: Dos Santos's era of absolute power ends

Daniel GARELO PENSADOR
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Angola's Jose Eduardo dos Santos, shown here voting in last year's election won by Joao Lourenco, says he wants to be remembered for his dignified exit from the office he held since 1979

Ex-president Jose Eduardo dos Santos will bow out from Angolan politics which he dominated for nearly four decades when he hands leadership of the ruling party to President Joao Lourenco on Saturday.

The passing of the baton between the two men will be the climax of a handover marked by barely disguised friction and new policies challenging Dos Santos's legacy.

As his rule came to an end, Dos Santos said he wanted to be remembered for his dignified exit from the office he held since 1979.

The 76-year-old liberation war veteran did not seek re-election in the August 2017 polls and handed the reins of power to his defence minister Lourenco, 64.

But he remained at the helm of the oil-rich country's People's Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) party, where real power is seen to be vested.

On Saturday "Comrade Number One" will relinquish control of the MPLA to Lourenco at an extraordinary party meeting, underlining the shift of power in the southern African nation of 28 million people.

"The stepping down of Jose Eduardo Dos Santos as MPLA president is an important watershed moment," said Alex Vines, an Angola expert at the Chatham House think-tank in London.

"It's been a bumpy transition with a bit of tug-of-war over power between (them)."

By choosing a successor from within his own regime, Dos Santos had thought he would be assured a peaceful handover.

He had earlier given control of strategic sectors of the economy to close confidants -- including the state oil giant to his daughter Isabel.

Dos Santos also appointed loyalists to head the country's security forces.

- Purge of the old guard -

But Lourenco quickly moved to assert his authority after being elected president last year, beginning to dismantle his predecessor's empire.

On the premise of rebooting the listless economy, Lourenco deposed Isabel from the top job at Sonangol as well as her half-brother Jose "Zenu" Filomeno from the leadership of Angola's sovereign wealth fund.

Filomeno has since been charged with misappropriating public funds while Isabel faces several graft investigations.

Many of Dos Santos's acolytes have been purged from the highest echelons of Angolan public life including the army and police chiefs as well as executives at state-owned companies.

The clear-out created ructions at the top of the state and the party, drawing comment from the former president himself.

"The changes are necessary but shouldn't be too radical," Dos Santos said in December.

In recent months, the two men and their staffs have been seeking to make amends and smoothe the way to the final handover.

"Everything is going normally, there hasn't been any turbulence," said Luzia Ingles, secretary general of the party's women's league.

But the fissure between the two men had come close to breaking point.

- 'For the good of the country'? -

Dos Santos had originally proposed stepping down from the party leadership by April 2019 -- but Lourenco insisted it must be Saturday.

"Lourenco is already entirely autonomous as shown by his sacking of the Dos Santos children -- all of the country's sectors have been purged," said Benjamin Auge, an analyst at the French Institute for International Relations.

Marcolino Moco, who was prime minister between 1992 and 1996 and the MPLA's former secretary general, backed the changes.

"The measures undertaken by Lourenco are encouraging -- he hasn't taken them to cement his power, but for the good of the country."

Since his election, Lourenco -- dubbed "JLo" -- has enacted sweeping reforms of the oil sector, the country's leading source of revenue, with the aim of reassuring investors.

But the task facing the president is daunting: chronic unemployment, sluggish growth and alarming deficits have dogged Africa's second-largest producer of crude.

Highlighting the impending storm, Angola has said it will seek a $4.5 billion (3.87 billion euro) loan from the International Monetary Fund.

"Lourenco will hopefully turn to longer-term structural reforms," Vines said.

He added that breaking the country's "economic addiction to oil" would be key to progress along with "creating jobs as Lourenco prepares for elections in 2022".