HAVE the winds of change blowing across Africa’s undemocratic states unsettled another despot?
In what came as a surprise to the nation, Angola’s president of 32 years, Jose Eduardo dos Santos, is said to have named a potential candidate to take over from him after next year’s elections. The president had seemed to be in no hurry to leave power and was instrumental in pushing through a change to the country’s constitution that abolishes presidential elections in favour of the winning party in legislative polls electing their own leader, in the same way SA does.
Although the new constitution, passed in February last year, sets a two-term limit for presidents, this becomes effective only from next year, wiping the slate clean for Dos SSantos. He could rule for another 10 years.
Dos Santos is, in effect, acting president as he has never been elected to the position. He was chosen by the ruling MPLA to lead the party after its founder died in 1979 and although he won the first round of elections in the 1992 poll, a return to war precluded a second round.
Since the end of the war in 2002, Dos Santos has repeatedly delayed a promised presidential poll, hiding behind the constitutional review process, set in motion by the MPLA government after its decisive legislative victory in 2008. He said a presidential election would take place once the constitution had been finalised. But, behind the scenes, he ensured this would not happen.
Although the government promised the review would be a public consultation process with a referendum, the MPLA used its parliamentary majority to push through the election proposal. As a result, Dos Santos will be spared any personal election scrutiny should he stand, even though he would be likely to win the vote in a system skewed in favour of incumbency and patronage. He will also not have to shine any light on his family’s extensive business empire, allegedly built on a foundation of corruption and abuse of political influence.
The question is why he would talk about succession. He has previously sidelined anyone showing rival political ambitions. A popular theory is that he plans to consolidate his political power behind the scenes as leader of the MPLA while still controlling the government through his inner circle led by a man he trusts.
That man seems to be Manuel Vicente, CEO of national oil company Sonangol, according to an Angolan newspaper. Vicente has already indicated he is planning to step down from his lucrative job for a role in politics or the private sector. Believed to be one of Angola’s richest people, Vicente is not likely to leave a lucrative job in the country’s key oil industry without the promise of a fitting alternative.
Vicente has built business credibility through his successful leadership of Sonangol’s international investment programme but he has also been linked to high-level corruption at home.
While this may not make him the ideal man to carve out a new future for Angola, his close ties to the presidency and party hierarchy would make him a solid front man for Dos Santos.
There are rumours of the president’s ill health, which may be another reason for considering a successor. But he may also be driven by fear that an unwelcome wind of change may still blow into Angola.
Dos Santos has seen the troubles experienced by his three key allies in Africa — Libya’s Muammar Gaddaf i, Cote D’Ivoire’s Laurent Gbabgo and Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe. There have also been several protests by disaffected youths in the past year. A n election may be a rallying point for rising tensions in Luanda.
Dos Santos’s departure from the presidential stage is not likely to be anything more than symbolic. But it may leave Mugabe feeling a little lonely in the old-dictators club