Angola: Does the return of José Eduardo dos Santos signal a truce with President Lourenço?

By Estelle Maussion
Posted on Friday, 17 September 2021 18:09

Former Angolan President José Eduardo dos Santos in Lusaka, Zambia, in April 2008. Themba Hadebe/AP/SIPA

Angola’s former president José Eduardo dos Santos has returned to Luanda after a two year absence to find that his party, the MPLA, is more divided than ever. Has he come back to seek a truce with his successor, João Lourenço?

After two years of absence and several weeks of speculation, former president José Eduardo dos Santos, who led Angola from 1979 to 2017, finally returned to Luanda on 14 September.

Arriving from Barcelona, where he had been living since April 2019, the former head of state landed in Luanda in the late afternoon.

In a video of him, we see the former president getting off a plane, a Falcon 7X chartered by the Angolan presidency, and sporting a grey suit, white t-shirt and trainers. He is greeted by about 20 people, including General José Maria, his former head of the military intelligence and security service, then gets into a car to go to his residence in Miramar, a residential area located within the Angolan capital.

His return coincided with President João Lourenço’s two-day trip to Kwanza-Norte, a rural province east of Luanda. The former president is planning to stay for a month and attend his younger son’s engagement ceremony, according to the Portuguese and Angolan press.

Easing tensions

Although – unsurprisingly – it has not been commented on by either any of the main players, or the presidency, dos Santos’ presence in Angola seems to suggest that relations are improving between the country’s former and current strongman.

José Eduardo dos Santos is returning at a time when the MPLA is going through its deepest crisis since the country’s independence [in 1975].

As early as March, several sources had mentioned that Lourenço and dos Santos had met in Dubai, where dos Santos’ eldest daughter, Isabel dos Santos, is living. However, this information was not officially confirmed.

When he came to power in 2017, Lourenço – who comes from the MPLA, just as dos Santos – had launched a series of reforms and declared war on corruption, claiming to not want to repeat the same mistakes as the previous government.

Senior officials, military personnel, ministers and even members of the former presidential family have been brought to justice, with some receiving prison sentences.

In August 2020, José Filomeno, Dos Santos’ eldest son, was sentenced to five years in prison for fraud, money laundering and influence peddling, a judgment which he appealed. General Maria (aka “Zé Maria”) has been under house arrest for the past two years for leaking confidential documents.

Exile to Spain

It was this climate that led dos Santos to settle in Spain, or “go into exile”, as some say, where he has also been receiving medical treatment for several years. Two of his daughters, businesswoman Isabel dos Santos and former MPLA MP Welwitschia dos Santos, also live abroad, from where they regularly point out the socio-economic difficulties of the country, the continent’s second-largest oil producer.

READ MORE João Lourenço’s Angola

“José Eduardo dos Santos is returning at a time when the MPLA is going through its deepest crisis since the country’s independence [in 1975],” says Alcides Sakala, a Unita member of parliament and long-standing party member. “It is torn by the fight against corruption, increasingly criticised by the population and has difficulty defending its record.”

“The MPLA is looking for a way to recreate the union,” adds this official from the main opposition party. Adalberto Costa Júnior has been leading Unita since the end of 2019. On 11 September, it organised a “march” to demand “fair, free and transparent” elections.

The MPLA’s feverishness

Although divisions have always existed within the MPLA, they have increased under the pressure created by the fight against corruption, becoming increasingly strong and visible. This leaves the party in a difficult position, just a few months before the next presidential election.

“This return may be due to an agreement made between Lourenço and dos Santos to stabilise the MPLA. But it may also increase divisions within the party, by giving confidence to dos Santos’ former collaborators that were questioned by Lourenço’s executive,” says Elias Isaac, former director of the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa-Angola and civil society figure.

In this context, the next MPLA congress, which is scheduled for December, should give an indication as to the state of health of the party, the real key to power in Angola, as well as the degree of control that President Lourenço has over it. The latter, who is supported by donors but at the head of a country in crisis due to the consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic, must decide whether to focus on implementing long-term reforms or improving short-term living conditions.

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