The change in the top leadership post of Angola, which started in 2017 through a sequential state ruling party leadership strategy, ended the long rule of José Eduardo dos Santos as both the head of state and the ruling party (MPLA) leader. João Lourenço succeeded Dos Santos in this unprecedented political leadership transition in the country’s post-independence and multiparty era. Along with Zimbabwe, Angola’s leadership change is somehow perceived as the beginning of a trend in which dynastic takeovers seem to no longer be acceptable in Africa.
But what do we know about leadership change in Africa and what can Angola tell us?
In overall terms, leadership change constitutes a moment of uncertainty, and it is particularly worrying in Africa. Taking power through violent means such as military coups and leaders overstaying in power are two highlighted trends in contemporary African politics. Concerning the latter trend a recent study by Denis M. Tull and Claudia Simons observes that in almost half of the cases in which an incumbent president reached the term limit, he attempted to extend his term by rewriting or reinterpreting the constitution, and the vast majority of these attempts were successful. Moreover, sitting presidents were able to win third-term elections, despite the popular protest demanding the enforcement of presidential term limits.
Dos Santos long rule spanned the years of the civil war (1975-1992; 1993-2002) and was extended resorting to an instrumental interpretation and rewriting of the constitution. The 1992 constitution established a three-term limit, but since elections never took place between 1993-2007, due to the reignition of the civil war after the first multiparty elections in 1992, Dos Santos managed to prolong his stay in power throughout this period. Ahead of the 2008 general elections, there were discussions on whether Dos Santos had already attained the limit of the presidential terms or if he would be eligble to two more mandates. The constitutional interpretation which then prevailed established that the second presidential term of Dos Santos was to start in the 2008 elections and that he would still be able to run for a third mandate in the 2012 elections. However, the new constitution approved in 2010 reinforced his presidential powers and allowed him to legally remain head of state until 2022.
The Africa Leadership Change (ALC) dataset reveals some important patterns of leadership change in the sub-Saharan region. First, there is a long list of African presidents who have managed to stay in office despite the “electoral revolution” of the early 1990s. Indeed, until 2017, Dos Santos was in the top 5 of the longest-serving presidents in Africa. Second, multiparty elections have seemed to be the most common way of replacing a leader after 1990. However, the incumbent wins in most elections, followed by an increased number of electoral succession cases (see the “no alternation” column of the figure below).
Source: Giovanni Carbone & Alessandro Pellegata (2017): To Elect or Not to Elect: Leaders, Alternation in Power and Social Welfare in Sub-Saharan Africa, The Journal of Development Studies, p. 6. DOI: 10.1080/00220388.2017.1279733.
The August 2017 elections in Angola represented a case of electoral succession in the sense that the new president comes from the same party of the outgoing president; however, it is a case of nonhereditary succession. João Lourenço was not Dos Santos’ first choice (he even tried to revert the MPLA candidates’ list for the 2017 elections) and speculation around the leadership succession pointed to his eldest son, José Filomeno dos Santos (aka Zénu).
Did the MPLA limit hereditary politics in Angola?
The hereditary succession has been a topic of concern in several authoritarian regimes. In 2007, Jason Brownlee developed an argument that emphasizes the role of ruling parties to account for differentials of hereditary succession in modern autocracies. He contends that hereditary succession depends on the precedent for leadership selection, i.e., if the party enjoyed a precedent for selection from within the ranks, as was the case in Angola, then elites will defer to the party as the recognized arbiter of succession, which is likely to be nonhereditary.
José Eduardo dos Santos was the successor of Agostinho Neto in 1979 and was selected by the MPLA. It remains unclear if Dos Santos tried to somehow impose his son in 2017. What we do know is that the continuity of Dos Santos in office or his succession was something that was deeply discussed and negotiated inside the ruling party by the political bureau. João Lourenço’s selection was also the MPLA’s response to the widespread dislike of the Dos Santos’ dynasty and, more importantly, to the ruling party’s growing crisis of legitimacy linked to Dos Santos’ rule. Thus, despite his personal rule, José Eduardo dos Santos is a case of a “ruler predated by the ruling party” in terms of leadership succession. We can also say that his grande famille has been also predated by the new leader.
The fall of Dos Santos’ dynasty
In less than a year in office, the new president began to remove members of the Dos Santos clan from Angola’s epicenter of political and economic power. João Lourenço deposed Dos Santos’ daughter and one of the richest woman in Africa, Isabel dos Santos, from the presidency of the state oil company, Sonangol. Also, her half-brother, José Filomeno dos Santos, was removed from the chairmanship of Angola’s $5 billion USD sovereign wealth fund (FSDEA). More importantly, Filomeno was detained last September and held in custody over “practices of [alleged] various crimes, including criminal associations, receipt of undue advantage, corruption, participation in unlawful business, money laundering, embezzlement, fraud among others”. Isabel dos Santos also faces corruption investigations, allegedly for having funneled oil funds into her consulting companies. Moreover, João Lourenço’s “bulldozer” also affected the privileges of two other members of the Dos Santos family, as the new executive decided to put an end to the contracts with Semba Comunicação, a media sector company founded by José Eduardo Paulino (aka Coréon Dú) with his sister and partner Welwitschia “Tchizé” dos Santos, who is also an MPLA deputy.
According to Alex Vines, these removals have been effortless, as the former president’s family neither receives the MPLA’s support nor enjoys popularity. Furthermore, João Lourenço’s actions affecting Dos Santos’ family increased his popularity levels inside and outside the ruling party and thus didn’t allow the former president to stand up for his targeted family members, as pointed out by Ismael Mateus. Indeed, it was only in November of last year that the former president reacted, claiming during an unprecedented press conference held at the headquarters of his foundation in Luanda that, contrary to the previous declarations of his successor, he did not “leave the state coffers empty.” At the same time, Isabel dos Santos posted several messages on social media criticizing João Lourenço and emphasizing the dangers of having a deep political crisis coupled with the existing economic one, and also defending her honor and work for Sonangol. Tchizé dos Santos has also been using social media to defend both the paterfamilias and her arrested half-brother. Also, she has recently expressed that the leadership transition has not been as peaceful as expected and that João Lourenço should be focusing on the true problems of Angola.
These reactions from the members of Dos Santos clan show us that this powerful political dynasty doesn’t gather support from the MPLA and from the population. On the other hand, the anti-corruption discourse gave legitimacy to João Lourenço’s power consolidation strategy and that targeting the untouchables facilitates the fall of the Dos Santos’ dynasty for now. In addition to their family members, some of the closest allies of Dos Santos were also removed from government and the MPLA political bureau, and some of them are under investigation.
Is the ruling party a gatekeeper for leadership change?
The recent processes of leadership change in Angola or in Zimbabwe highlights the importance of the ruling party in selecting new leaders and limiting hereditary successions of long-serving presidents. African politics is often characterized by personal rule or “Big Man rule”. However, the case of Angola is revealing that strong ruling parties are important gatekeepers for leadership change, and can influence the rise, persistence and fall of ruling dynasties in competitive authoritarian regimes in Africa.