This is a guest post by Claudia Generoso de Almeida – Researcher at the Center for International Studies of the University Institute of Lisbon (CEI-IUL) – and Benja Satula – Law Professor and Coordinator of the Center for Research in Law at the
Catholic University of Angola (UCAN)
Since the legislative elections on 23 August 2017, Angola has been experiencing a new political era. Power transferred from the incumbent President José Eduardo dos Santos (JES), the second-longest serving president in Africa, to Joao Lourenço (JLO), the former defense minister.
For the first time since independence, the two sources of power – the presidency and the MPLA party – are not controlled by the same person, as JES still holds the ruling party leadership. This watershed moment in the country’s political history has stimulated the debate on the so-called dual power (poder bicéfalo) and on the cohabitation of these two strong men. However, this “two strong men” situation will not last long. JES will no longer be the MPLA leader after the party’s Extraordinary Congress, which is already scheduled for September of this year. The process of leadership transition in Angola shows us the puzzling relationship between strong presidents and strong parties in presidential and dominant party systems in Africa.
Angola’s two sources of power: the party and the presidency
Angola is ruled by the MPLA, a former liberation movement which has been shaping the political trajectory of this oil-rich country since its independence in 1975. The MPLA was able to consolidate its hegemonic power with “uncompromising mastery” and with a close symbiosis between the party and the state, despite the long civil war (1975-1991; 1993-2002). Today, the country has a dominant party system, as the MPLA has won every election since the end of civil war in 2002 with more than 60% of the votes.
The country not only has historically dominant party, but also a president with reinforced powers. Until 2017, the two leaderships (party and presidency) have only known two names: Agostinho Neto and, after his death in 1979, JES. The end of the war through MPLA’s military victory combined with an economic boom based on oil prices allowed JES to create a parallel neopatrimonial state gravitating around his presidency and Sonangol, the state-own oil company. This gave the president the power to control and distribute state resources and revenues to his entourage, in particular his family members. Nevertheless, this Big Manruler still needed the party to ensure and strengthen his power, which happened in 2010.
The presidential power boost: the 2010 constitution
On 21 January 2010 the National Assembly, which was dominated by the MPLA, passed – with the boycott of the main opposition party (UNITA) and subject to severe criticisms – a new constitution, which extended the president’s formal powers. Angola no longer has a semi-presidential system, but rather a presidential one. The president is now not only the head of state and the commander-in-chief of the Angolan Armed Forces, but also the head of the executive, as the post of prime minister was abolished.Moreover, this constitution allowed JES to legally remain head of state until 2022.
One of the great changes within this constitution is that the president is no longer directly elected. Instead, the person that heads the list of the party or coalition of parties that receives the most votes in the general election will automatically become president.Although the president “controls everything“, there is one very important detail to keep in mind: the president depends on the support of the majority party which selects him as the head of the party list, and consequently owes obedience to the party and to the party’s leader. In short, the party leadership is very important to the state leadership.
The presidency plus the party: the superpower formula or the only way to govern?
Under the current MPLA statutes, the party has a great influence on the executive. In fact, it is the party that establishes and is responsible for guiding and monitoring the government programme. Also, the composition of the president’s executive team and the appointment to other positions in the state administration need the endorsement of the party’s Political Bureau, which is chaired by the party’s president.
As the MPLA has itself acknowledged, the party is experiencing an unprecedented and historic moment: a leadership transition while the current party president is still alive. According to some anonymous sources, this transition has been anything but smooth: 1) JLO was not JES’ first choice as a successor, 2) JES attempted to revert to the MPLA candidates’ list for the 2017 elections, 3) JES was almost absent during JLO’s electoral campaign, 4) JES’ last acts of governance, in particular to control the security sector, 5) JES tried to interfere with the composition of the new executive team and with the appointment of provincial governors by the new president, and finally 6) JES intended to postpone the Extraordinary Congress to April 2019 to supposedly supervise the preparation of the local elections, which caused discomfort within the party.
All of these aspects consolidated the fear of a dual power (Bicefalia), which would hamper JLO’s governance, and there was a need to remove JES from the party presidency as soon as possible in order to reconfigure the party chessboard in favor of the new president and to empower his capacity of action. However, this removal has been helped by JES’ own promise and with the MPLA’s insistence that the president keep his word. In March 2016, JES publicly announced his intention to leave active political life in 2018. This announcement was made during a period of a severe economic crisis, low popularity levels of both the president and the MPLA, and with a president who was distant from the party.
Surprisingly, JLO, as the new MPLA head-of-list candidate for the 2017 elections, was enthusiastically received by the population, especially thanks to his speeches against corruption. This enthusiasm increased as soon as the new president started to govern. Indeed, the so-called JLO “bulldozer” made a great deal of changes in several strategic areas, affecting JES’ close circle.
“The September Spring”, but still a dangerous hegemonic logic of power
The leadership transition started with the 2017 elections and will culminate in September of this year with the consecration of the MPLA Vice President JLO as the new MPLA president during the VI Extraordinary Congress, as announced on the 25th of May at the end of the 2nd Extraordinary Session of the MPLA Central Committee. In this Extraordinary Congress, there will be no competition, only a leadership succession.
However, this unique moment in the political history of Angola shows us the primacy of a dangerous hegemonic logic of power – only one man for two jobs (presidency and party) – and the lack of checks and balances. Contrary to several cases such as in the ANC (South Africa), in the MPLA as well in the FRELIMO (Mozambique), the leadership transition started first at the state level and then culminated at the party level. This reminds us of the importance of controlling the dominant party, which in turn has a symbiotic relationship with the state.
The “September Spring” is awaited with great expectations by both MPLA militants and Angolan society: will it constitute a real change, or will it be the same old thing? Will JLO restore semi-presidentialism and/or promote intraparty democracy? Well, for now, JLO seems to need the power that is provided by the state and party leaderships to govern with minimum constraints for two mandates and leave a legacy.
See Christine Messiant, 2007, “The Mutation of Hegemonic Domination: Multiparty Politics without Democracy,” in Angola, the Weight of History, edited by Patrick Chabal and Nuno Vidal, 93-123, London: Hurst, and Ricardo Soares de Oliveira, 2015, Magnificent and Beggar Land: Angola since the civil war, London: Hurst.
2008, 2012, and 2017 elections.
The MPLA had 191 of a total of 220 parliamentary seats.
Art. 108 of the constitution. The president also appoints the judges of the Constitutional Court, Supreme Court and the Court Audit (art. 119).
Art. 109 of the constitution.
Art. 86 (3) (k) of the MPLA statutes (2017).
Art. 86 (3) (b) of the MPLA statutes (2017).
 JLO was the MPLA’s general secretary between 1998 and 2003, and he was removed from office due to his public declarations on JES’ announcement in 2001 of his non re-election to the presidency in the second multiparty elections. JLO then declared that JES should keep his word and leave power voluntarily.
The presidential decree of 11 September 2018 determined on that same date the beginning of the term of office of the commander general of the National Police and the chief of intelligence service and military security until 2025.
In Angola’s central bank; in the diamond sector (Endiama); in the oil sector, removing JES’ daughter Isabel dos Santos from presidency of the state oil company Sonangol; in the police and security sector, replacing the chiefof police and the headof the intelligence service; and in the media sector (TPA, RNA, Edições Novembro, and Angop), putting end to the contracts with Semba Comunicação, a company whose partners are both sons of José Eduardo dos Santos. Also, José Filomeno dos Santos, JES’ son who has been head of the national sovereign wealth fund since 2013, is accused of the looting of US $500 million from Angola’s central bank.