Understanding President Dos Santos Rule and the Gaming of His Succession

The past year witnessed a critical shift in Angolan politics with regular youth-led public protests calling for the President’s resignation. Two factors made the outcry for Dos Santos to step down the main challenge to both the conventional political discourse and public perceptions of power: the 2010 Constitution and the popular uprisings in North Africa.

This paper provides a brief narrative of the power struggles between the President and his own party, since the establishment of a multiparty system in 1991. It addresses the deployment of constitutional coups, patronage and legal measures to address such internal rifts, as well as the consequences that reverberate today.

The Opportunity

The 2008 legislative elections offered President Dos Santos the most legitimate, ambitious and unique opportunity to extend his grip on power, as well as to reform the state and its political economy. His ruling party, the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) had won by a landslide (81.64 percent). Furthermore, the newfound democratic legitimacy[1] had been magnified by five main elements: double-digit growth rates (an average 14.2 percent real GDP growth of from 2005-2009)[2], Chinese control of a fast-paced nationwide program of national reconstruction, the squashing of the political opposition, overwhelming international endorsement, and an atmosphere of hope within the country.

Such reforms would, in turn, enable the President to establish the timing and the conditions for his own exit strategy from power. By building strong and democratic institutions, the President would demonstrate great statesmanship in devolving power to the state institutions. These, in turn, would afford the President the legal and political protection for his peaceful retirement in the country.

But the course of events points towards a different political outcome, as will be further explained.

The Reforms and the Reality Check

Such opportunities for reform took an unexpected turn when President Dos Santos decided not to call for the overdue presidential elections that were required by the constitution then in force, and which were expected in 2009. He chose instead to exploit MPLA’s legislative victory to further consolidate his personal power. In essence, the constitution he enacted in 2010 abolished the holding of direct presidential elections. President Dos Santos has remained in office since 1979, without ever being elected by the people.

MPLA’s victory was a surefire demonstration of its capacity to ensure similar results for its leader to earn democratic legitimacy as head of state, and at a time when he had virtually no challenge. In spite of this, Dos Santos chose instead a different and autocratic political route. Although often overlooked by the scholars of Angola, this nuanced political maneuvering provides a framework to assess the internal dynamics of power between President Dos Santos and the MPLA. Examining this relationship closely provides crucial insight into the structure of government and the attendant decision-making processes, as well as the prospects for democratic reforms and succession.

Since the establishment of a multiparty system in 1991, the President has continuously eroded the collegial decision-making processes and bodies within his own party as well as the constitutional guarantees of checks and balances in the governance of the country. Despite the diverse arguments invoked for such initiatives, the objectives have always remained the same: the consolidation of presidential powers, and the strengthening of parallel structures of power, usually and loosely defined as the presidential inner circle.

The most significant case took place in 1999, when President Dos Santos successfully managed to unconstitutionally abolish the office of the prime-minister and formally usurped the powers accorded to it. The 1991 Constitutional Law, which had been negotiated with the opposition, under the terms of the Peace Agreements of Bicesse, had established that the prime-minister had the duty to “direct, conduct and coordinate the general activity of the government (Article 114, 1).” A law professor and MPLA politburo member, the then prime-minister França Van-Dúnem, wanted to exercise his constitutional powers by the book but was forced to resign.[3] The President stated openly that “the current constitutional law is embarrassing for the President of the Republic, as established in his article 66, b, for he cannot take the initiative of forming the government, even though he was elected in 1992, as the leader of the ruling party.”[4] Furthermore, Dos Santos stated that “this prime-minister has administrative competences which the President does not have. (…) I do not know any democratic regime, in the world, who bestows so much power in a non-elected figure.”[5]

With his ego bruised by the passive resistance to his isolationist rule within his own party, the trample President stressed how troubled he was from 1993 to February 1999, because of the checks and balances, and the division of powers between the President and the prime-minister, enshrined in the constitutional law. At the time he declared that “if it wasn’t because of deep political and military crisis that engulfed the country due to Savimbi’s destructive actions, I would have tended my resignation to the National Assembly.”[6]  He also clarified that “by personal decision, I decided to take over direct control of government and national defense.”[7] In the same speech, at a central committee meeting of MPLA, the President announced that he would no longer be a presidential candidate, and that “the party may prepare its candidate for the electoral battle (…).”[8]

The President’s ability to outmaneuver his internal adversaries and consolidate his power is partly due to his management style based on corruption, and to how he effectively uses it to undermine any moral or political strength by his critics. The President has established a special task force within the intelligence services, which selects, distributes and oversees business opportunities for certain political and social figures, reward loyalists, co-opt dissenters, enrich certain families, and ensure a vertical and tight control of the patronage system to maintain the status quo.[9] The task force, according to an insider, also creates companies and selects their shareholders; with the President having the final decision regarding the shareholders, it also has had the job of compiling dossiers for blackmailing those who dissent, on corruption grounds.[10] Furthermore, most of the relevant foreign investments in the country are made through joint ventures with companies owned by the presidential family and the ruling elite, which helps to secure international support and complicity through corruption.

Through similar acts, and always with the deployment of arbitrary legal and often unconstitutional measures, the President succeeded in bringing the army, police and the state security apparatus under the micromanagement of his inner circle at Casa Militar headed by General Kopelipa.[11] As Casa Militar became also a parallel government engaged in national reconstruction, by managing the Chinese oil-backed loans and public works, the abovementioned structures, in general, have been exposed to the corrosive elements of neglect, lack of leadership, wholesale corruption and no ideological or professional orientation.

Virtually unchallenged, the President finally managed in 2010 to enact a constitution of his own design by throwing out of the window the MPLA draft constitution, which called for direct presidential elections, more presidential powers but with clear limits. He became the sole decision-maker, and essential checks and balances safeguarding the normal functioning of a democracy, such as the parliament’s prerogative to call the government to account, were removed from the constitution. In essence, where previously the President needed to negotiate and coerce or ‘bribe’ his own party members to support his policies, the 2010 constitution now grants him absolute powers. As he also eliminated direct presidential elections, he no longer needs the party mobilization machine to get him elected, for it suffices to head the MPLA and decide who becomes President through the closed-list method.[12] It important to underscore, that the MPLA, through its spokesperson at the time, Norberto dos Santos, had publicly defended its original constitutional project, and stressed that it included direct presidential elections.[13]

The new constitution, which paved the way for the President to remain in power until 2022, signaled his agenda of entrenching himself in power. Last November, he publicly announced his willingness to head the MPLA list for elections to remain President.[14]

Yet, in spite of all the powers granted by the new constitution, the President adamantly maintains parallel structures to those of his own government, the ruling MPLA and sovereign bodies. Such is the case with Manuel Vicente, appointed by the President to the post of minister of state for Economic Coordination, on January 30 2012. As CEO of the national oil company Sonangol, Manuel Vicente’s powers over state affairs ridiculed those of the vice-president of the Republic, Fernando da Piedade Dias dos Santos, who constitutionally could be Dos Santos’ successor. One can also add the unchecked and central powers that Chinese businessman Sam Pa, head of China International Fund (CIF), has over the state in Angola, through his dealings with the presidency and Sonangol on national reconstruction issues and on the portfolio of state investments abroad. Furthermore, the centralization of powers and tasks in the presidency has become extreme with its direct and budgetary management of construction works, a hospital (Clínica Multiperfil), nationwide IT programs, education, research, media, social and tourist projects, as well as the direct control of 82 percent of the state budget. [15]  This dilutes the competences of the relevant ministries which, constitutionally, are directly controlled by the presidency.

Dos Santos’s modus operandi of micromanaging parallel structures of power, and of pitting one against the other while ensuring that all factions have privileged access to the spoils of corruption, became the paradigm of political stability in the country. However, his absolute power is in a way as fragile as that of Ben Ali of Tunisia, and for similar reasons. Ben Ali had won the 2009 presidential elections with 89.62 percent of the vote, and seemed entrenched in power.  As the International Crisis Group noted, in Tunisia, the ruling party “no longer served as a source of patronage”.[16] It had “become the private preserve of the president and the first family, who strived to monopolize the distribution of economic resources.”[17]

In such circumstances, in which power does not rest on state institutions or even in the ruling party, the current conversations on political succession in Angola, by the President’s own accord, can be a misleading exercise of guesswork.[18] The ideas of political succession run counter to Dos Santos’ actions. There is the clear fear that once the transitional process is set in motion, the lack of functional state institutions might turn against the President, in the very same way he has not allowed for the normal and independent functioning of the justice system.

And it is at this juncture that the Arab Spring in 2011 became a major source of inspiration for Angola’s citizens and at the same time concern for Dos Santos’ short-term political future, and has threatened the very concept of political stability.

Political Stability and the Unraveling of the Arab Spring

The new reality brought about by the protests in the Arab world has been demystifying the concept of stable authoritarian regimes. Such protests have also undermined the very essence of these regimes: their ability to inspire fear among their own people through brutal state-security apparatuses and overwhelming state-media propaganda, as it is the case in Angola. Moreover, the street protests that ended the longstanding rule of Ben Ali and Mubarak and international military support to depose Qaddafi, have overcome the shortcomings of a lack of viable alternative opposition parties, limited freedom of press and of expression, and fragile civil society structures in such countries.

In Angola, the youth-led movement aimed at ending the 32 year rule of President Dos Santos, through street protests, has achieved some landmark successes in spite of its inability to mobilize beyond a few hundred. First, throughout the year, the regime used disproportional force to repress the small gatherings of protesters, thus proving that it has renewed its use of violence against any opposition that troubles the President. Second, they forced the regime to expend considerable financial and human resources to organize regular counter-demonstrations to prove popular support for the President. The last two rallies in support of the President registered passive resistance by MPLA supporters who restrained from cheering for Dos Santos, thus starting to show signs of cracks among the rank and file.[19] Thirdly, in the eyes of the people, the regime has become more repressive.

Thus, the regime is focusing now on the message that there will be chaos upon the President’s departure. As the main messenger, Vice-president Fernando da Piedade Dias dos Santos recently remarked, that the President “is the source of political stability and national unity.”[20] But, this is the very essence of any longstanding authoritarian and mediocre ruler, who tailors power by his own measure, and finds it a conspiracy to project the future without him.


The way forward is for Angolans, across the political and social spectrum to start publicly addressing the post-Dos Santos era. The youth-led demonstrations have been instrumental in breaking the taboo over this issue.

At this point, it is critical for Angolans to open up spaces for regular public debates, both in Angola and abroad, to normalize the idea that what the country needs are strong and functional institutions, and not a despot, as Obama has twice reminded Africans.[21]

What the Arab Spring has shown to Angolan citizens is that people have the power to change, that initiatives must come from within, and that any meaningful support by the international community should be in response to the will of the people.


[1] The first and only multiparty elections had been held in 1992, sixteen years earlier.

[2] Economist Intelligence Unit. “Angola Country Forecast”, 2010:4.

[3] Angolan constitutionalist António Paulo provides a comprehensive critic to the President’s tread on the constitutional law. See Paulo, António. “A Posição do Presidente da República no Sistema de Governo Angolano”  (LL.M. diss., Universidade Agostinho Neto/ Universidade de Lisboa, 2008:136).

[4] Santos, José Eduardo dos.  José Eduardo dos Santos e os Desafios do seu Tempo:

Palavras de um Estadista 1979-2004, Abrantes, José Mena (ed.), Vol. II, Edições Maianga: Luanda,  2004:181.

[5] Idem.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] In the period of 1993 to 1998, Dos Santos also purged top MPLA figures, such as former prime-ministers and secretary-generals of MPLA, Marcolino Moco and Lopo do Nascimento, among others, from the party leadership, politburo and central committee structures for taking a critical stance on his policies. João Lourenço, who in 1998 took the helm as secretary-general of MPLA as a Dos Santos stalwart, lost the job and any relevance in the party, in 2003, for publicly reiterating that the President would honor his word and retire from the presidency by not running in the next elections.

[9] Author’s interview with a senior intelligence officer, 2009.

[10] Ibid.

[11] In 2001, the President sacked the Chief of the General Staff, General João de Matos, and transferred direct control of the army to Casa Militar. In another move, in 2007, Dos Santos authorized the arrest of General Fernando Garcia Miala, who had headed the intelligence services, and let Casa Militar takeover direct control of the secret services.

[12] Under this new constitutional system, the first name on the closed list of the party that wins the legislative elections automatically becomes the President. In this way, neither the people nor the parliament directly casts the ballot to elect the President. Since Dos Santos is concomitantly president of MPLA, it is his sole prerogative to decide which name should be first on the party’s list for the elections, and thus legal and formally ensure his succession at will.

[13] See Norberto dos Santos’ initial press statements to reassure the public on the MPLA’s commitment to maintain direct presidential elections enshrined in the constitution. See http://www.opais.net/pt/opais/?id=1929&det=2230&ss=MPLA%20n%E3o%20liga%20%E0s%20indirectas

[14] The president made the announcement during a joint press conference, in Luanda, with the Portuguese prime-minister Pedro Passos Coelho. See Expresso. “José Eduardo dos Santos vai ser candidate em 2012”, November 17, 2011.  http://aeiou.expresso.pt/jose-eduardo-dos-santos-vai-ser-candidato-em-2012=f688444

[15] See the State Budget allocations to the presidency, for 2012 fiscal year (pp. 75,  101, 119, 164). The budget is available at http://www.minfin.gv.ao/docs/dspOrcaCorren.htm.

[16] The International Crisis Group. “Popular Protests in North Africa and the Middle East (IV):  Tunisia’s Way”. Washington, DC: The International Crisis Group, Middle East/North Africa Report N°106, 28 April 2011.

[17] Idem.

[18] Ibid., 16; See The Economist Intelligence Unit, 2010:4.

[19] The author attended the rallies on October 22, and December 10, 2011.

[20] Jornal de Angola. “Presidente da República é Garante da Estabilidade”, December 30, 2011:1.

[21] Obama, Barack. “Remarks by the President to the Ghanaian Parliament”, July 11, 2009.