Angola: The funeral of José Eduardo dos Santos, a historic moment at a political turning point

By Estelle Maussion
Posted on Monday, 29 August 2022 16:55

The procession carrying the coffin of former president José Eduardo dos Santos, Republic Square in Luanda, Angola, on August 28, 2022.
The procession carrying the coffin of former president José Eduardo dos Santos, Republic Square in Luanda, Angola, on August 28, 2022. JULIO PACHECO NTELA/AFP

Angola paid tribute to its former president with a state funeral on Sunday 28 August. The ceremony took place in the midst of political tensions between the MPLA and Unita, after the tense general elections on 24 August.

Giant portraits, foreign heads of state including Félix Tshisekedi, Denis Sassou Nguesso, Umaro Sissoco Embaló, Filipe Nyusi, Cyril Ramaphosa and Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, emotional declarations, an ecumenical service and a 21-gun salute…

On Sunday 28 August, Angola paid tribute to its former president José Eduardo dos Santos, who died on 8 July in Barcelona, with a state funeral in Luanda.

“Eternal rest, dear President Zedu,” read the white T-shirts worn by many of the participants gathered in the Republic Square. Held in the presence of his successor, João Lourenço – though he made no speech – the celebration paid tribute to the career of a man who marked the history of the country, having led it for thirty-eight years, between 1979 and 2017.

A symbol of a page being turned, the funeral came at a particular time: a few days after the general elections held on 24 August, which confirmed that Lourenço’s Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola (MPLA) remained in power, but also the unprecedented rise in power of the opposition, the União Nacional para a Independência Total de Angola (Unita), which, led by Adalberto Costa Júnior, is contesting the results and claiming victory.

On the sidelines of the celebration and commemoration, electoral tensions continue.

Four members of the National Electoral Commission (CNE) disassociated themselves from the (still provisional) results because of “constant and systematic violations of the law”. The proclamation of the final results is expected on Monday 29 August. It gave this significant event in Angolan history a very political tone.

Appeasement

Several African presidents attended the funeral of José Eduardo dos Santos on 28 August in Luanda: Félix Tshisekedi, Denis Sassou Nguesso, Umaro Sissoco Embaló, Filipe Nyusi, Cyril Ramaphosa and Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa.
Several African presidents attended the funeral of José Eduardo dos Santos on 28 August in Luanda: Félix Tshisekedi, Denis Sassou Nguesso, Umaro Sissoco Embaló, Filipe Nyusi, Cyril Ramaphosa and Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa. Photo: Estelle Maussion

In this context, with the police having called for the suspension of all other public demonstrations “out of respect for the deceased”, the funeral did not fail to play a calming role. “The pain of the family is the pain of the people,” said Adão de Almeida, Minister of State and rising MPLA figure, speaking on behalf of the Angolan executive.

This message of unity was reflected in an inclusive ceremony, bringing together members of the government, MPLA comrades, diplomatic, religious and military representatives, ordinary citizens, as well as two opposition figures: the leader of Unita, Costa Júnior, and that of the National Front for the Liberation of Angola (FNLA), Nimi a Simbi. Under the large white tent housing the coffin of the deceased, only a few metres separated the two main candidates, Lourenço and Costa Júnior.

Organised on the day José Eduardo dos Santos would have celebrated his 80th birthday, the event was above all an opportunity for the presidential camp to close ranks. The reminder of dos Santos’ extraordinary destiny – independence activist, military commander, winner of the civil war in 2002 and reconstructive president – allowed the party’s rhetoric to be put forward, presenting him as a “good patriot”, “a man of the people” and, finally, as “the architect of peace and national reconciliation”.

Furthermore, while the MPLA has always had divisions without publicly acknowledging them, its vice-president, Luisa Damião, called for “everything to be done to continue consolidating the cohesion of the party so that it can move forward and fulfil the aspirations of the Angolan people”.

Seemingly forgetting that Lourenço had made a name for himself by pledging to put an end to the errors of past governance, Roberto de Almeida, a historical figure in the MPLA and friend of the deceased, emphasised the continuity between the three party leaders, making the current president the worthy successor of José Eduardo dos Santos and Agostinho Neto.

Political recuperation

The coffin of José Eduardo Dos Santos, during the funeral of the former Angolan president, on 28 August in Luanda
The coffin of José Eduardo Dos Santos, during the funeral of the former Angolan president, on 28 August in Luanda © Estelle Maussion for Jeune Afrique.

The success of the ceremony was also intended to make people forget the battle it provoked between the executive and some members of the dos Santos family. As soon as “Zedu” died, the presidency’s desire to organise the event as quickly as possible in Angola, with the support of dos Santos’ former wife, Ana Paula, came up against the refusal of the ex-president’s eldest children, including two of his daughters, Isabel and Tchizé, who denounced a “political recuperation”. This explains why, as a sign of truce, De Almeida took care to address his condolences to all the dos Santos children, including the two absent from the ceremony.

This also explains why Joseana dos Santos, daughter of Ana Paula and the ex-president, who insisted on being “united” to pay tribute to the “father of the nation”, was applauded. But the strongest signal came from the presence of José Filomeno, the first son of dos Santos, even though his reluctance was understandable: convicted of fraud in the fight against corruption, he was unable to say goodbye to his father in Barcelona due to a ban on leaving the country.

Despite this tour de force by the Angolan presidency, the rallying effect did not completely work. Using social networks as usual, Isabel and Tchizé dos Santos, each in their own style, played the spoilsport.

Calling the ceremony “an international humiliation”, the latter accused her half-siblings of having “sold the honour of an African hero in exchange for exposure and ephemeral benefits”, denouncing their alliance with “the dictatorial and corrupt regime of João Lourenço”.

The day before the ceremony, the Minister of State and General Francisco Furtado, one of the emissaries sent to Barcelona in July to try and mediate, deplored the fact that they were missing “the last and best chance” to pay tribute to their father, proof of relations that remain at loggerheads.

Unease within the MPLA

The crowd arrives at the funeral of José Eduardo dos Santos, August 28 in Luanda. Photo: Estelle Maussion

If Lourenço finally won the tug of war over the funeral, he did not come out of the episode completely unscathed.

It took the intervention of Spanish justice, authorising the repatriation of the body of the ex-president, to resolve a “sad and dramatic saga” that has generated criticism of the lack of humanity of the executive. “The former president, who is a great man of our country, would have deserved better”, said Marcolino, a Luandan who came to bow before the coffin covered with the national flag, summing up the unease caused by this case.

Another counterproductive effect of the funeral was that the focus on the figure and legacy of the former president highlighted the difficulties of the current presidency. “We lived better under José Eduardo dos Santos than under Lourenço, where everything – chicken, rice, cement – is much more expensive and life is more complicated,” says Eva, a thirty-year-old who is disappointed with the current government. Ironically, if Lourenço did not hesitate to attack the flaws of his predecessor when the latter was still alive, he seems to be undergoing, in spite of himself, a sort of revenge from beyond the grave.

MPLA in trouble?

In the end, this moment of communion, however successful it was in its execution, only masked for a few hours the state of turmoil in which the presidential party finds itself.

A feverishness, palpable since the beginning of Lourenço’s mandate in 2017, has increased with the results of the general elections. The unprecedented advance of the opposition, which won 44% of the vote and conquered three of the country’s 18 provinces, including the capital Luanda, was experienced as a “shock”, even a “humiliation”. “It is an electoral victory but a political defeat,” says a solid MPLA insider, who calls for total reform of the party, the only way to avoid a rout in 2027.

While Lourenço’s executive successfully carried out macroeconomic stabilisation reforms during the first term, it failed to translate them into improvements in the living conditions of the population at the microeconomic level.

We must focus on the future, act so that the future is better.

This is the task for the next five years, given that he had already promised in 2017 to “continue what was good and correct what was bad”. As leader of the party, Lourenço, who would like to impose himself as the developer of Angola, following the figure of the founder embodied by Neto and that of the rebuilder of Dos Santos, has the heavy responsibility of leading this change.

In the Republic Square, facing the image of ‘Zedu’, Marcolino said nothing else: “We must focus on the future, act so that the future is better”.

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