Angola: After ‘Zedu’s’ death, what remains of the Dos Santos clan?

By Estelle Maussion
Posted on Tuesday, 12 July 2022 10:55

Former Angolan President Jose Eduardo dos Santos in Luanda, Angola, December 2 ,2016. REUTERS/Herculano Coroado
Former Angolan President Jose Eduardo dos Santos in Luanda, Angola, December 2 ,2016. REUTERS/Herculano Coroado

It is truly the end of the dos Santos era in Angola. Hospitalised in a Barcelona intensive care unit starting on 23 June, former head of state José Eduardo dos Santos, who led the country from 1979 to 2017, died on Friday 8 July, less than two months before his 80th birthday.

The announcement came from the Angolan presidency. His successor, João Lourenço, declared a five-day national mourning period starting 9 July to pay tribute to “an exceptional figure of the Angolan nation”.

Neither the date nor the location of the funeral has yet been communicated, points that could be the subject of discussions between the Angolan presidency – which favours a ceremony in Angola – and the former leader’s family, whose intentions are not known.

The death of the man nicknamed ‘Zedu’ took place in a particular political context, two months before general elections (scheduled for 24 August) in which Lourenço will be seeking a second term in office and the continued rule of his party, the Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola (MPLA), which has run the country since independence in 1975.

Humiliating trial

Without its rudder, the Dos Santos clan, already very weakened since Lourenço came to power in 2017, is now a shadow of its former self. The ex-president’s eldest daughter Isabel dos Santos, crowned first African billionaire in 2013, has seen her empire under attack, with asset seizures and multiple legal proceedings.

READ MORE Angola: On the trail of stolen billions

Contesting the embezzlement accusations brought against her, the businesswoman, who lives between Dubai and London and lost her husband, Sindika Dokolo, in a diving accident at the end of 2020, has been banned from entering the United States since late 2021 “because of her involvement in corruption through the appropriation of public funds for her personal benefit”.

Denying any wrongdoing and having appealed his fraud conviction, Dos Santos’ eldest son was unable to visit his father in Spain, since the courts held his passport.

Her half-brother José Filomeno de Sousa dos Santos, the former president’s eldest son, endured a humiliating fraud trial in Luanda, which resulted in his being sentenced in 2020 to five years in prison – a judgement confirmed on appeal in November 2021.

Denying any wrongdoing and having announced a new appeal, the former head of the Angolan sovereign wealth fund was unable to visit his father in Spain, since the courts held his passport.

As for the other members of the family, whether they are abroad or keeping a low profile in Luanda, they have lost influence.

The once-trusted members of the clan have had the same experience. Two generals very close to ex-president dos Santos, Leopoldo Fragoso do Nascimento, ‘Dino’, and Manuel Hélder Vieira Dias, alias Kopelipa, have been targeted by US sanctions for corruption and have been forced by the Angolan justice system to return some of the assets they acquired under opaque conditions. While some – including former vice-president Manuel Vicente and General Higino Carneiro – have been spared, many former allies, ministers and senior officials of the presidential party, considered to be part of the Dos Santos system, have been convicted or are in the courts’ cross hairs.

This situation, a consequence of the anti-corruption crusade led by Lourenço since his arrival in the presidential palace, had fuelled tensions between the former and the current president. Already cool during the 2017 power transfer, their relationship quickly became strained, despite official statements to the contrary.

Although he had never openly acknowledged it, José Eduardo dos Santos did not like seeing his family and friends worried. And it’s a strong bet he did not appreciate his successor’s policy of breaking with the past by bluntly pointing out Dos Santos’ mistakes and shortcomings.

Controversial legacy

“Corruption, nepotism, flattery and impunity, which have reigned in our country in recent years and have done so much harm to our economy, are public enemies number one,” said President Lourenço in 2018, a year after he took office. Although Dos Santos officially moved to Barcelona in April 2019 to seek medical treatment, the political context explains while the exile continued for so long, with Dos Santos making only one return to Luanda from September 2021 to March 2022.

‘Zedu’ experienced a cessation of power without violence or turmoil but full of bitterness, ‘forgotten by those to whom he gave everything’

The question of his legacy is controversial and far from being answered. It is a reminder of the extraordinary destiny of a man who came to power almost in spite of himself, at the age of 37, after the death of the first president of independent Angola, Agostinho Neto.

As secretive as he was a skilful politician, Dos Santos had several lives: warlord, party leader, accomplished diplomat, authoritarian president at the head of an oil giant, feared patriarch, adulated and then neglected. A key figure in modern Angolan history, if only because of his longevity in power (38 years), he is also the man who put an end to the civil war in 2002 – the “architect of peace”, according to MPLA rhetoric – and the man who made possible the reconstruction of the country in the 2000s – all while incurring considerable debt, more than $20bn from China alone.

After having been all-powerful for so long, “Zedu” ended his rule without violence or turmoil but full of bitterness, “forgotten by those to whom he gave everything”, a phrase overheard on the streets of Luanda these days.

He leaves behind a party bearing deep flaws and divisions, and increasingly open to criticism. Both from the opposition – União Nacional para a Independência Total de Angola  has the wind in its sails – and by a population that is now loudly demanding better living conditions.

This is also the heritage that the former president is leaving to his camp and to Lourenço a few weeks before the elections. If the MPLA slogan, “A luta contínua e a vitória é certa” (“The struggle continues and victory is assured”), leaves no room for doubt, it remains for the heirs of the Dos Santos system to figure out how to deal with this legacy.

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