Dictator Dos Santos Going, Going… But Not Just Yet

It is rare for an African dictator to give up power voluntarily.  Thus, on March 11, when Angola’s President announced that he would retire from public life in 2018, the news reverberated across the world.  If he holds true to his word (and that is a big “if”) by the time José Eduardo dos Santos steps down he will have held power for a staggering 39 years.

If he is preparing to go, why then is the President employing tactics straight out of the despot’s rulebook?  Why is he casting himself as the ‘victim’ of an imaginary coup plot to justify purges that further embed a culture of fear in Angola? Why would a politician on his way out, bring global ridicule upon himself and his regime with trumped-up charges and a show trial?

Seventeen young dissidents are currently standing trial on bogus charges of plotting a rebellion and attempting to overthrow President Dos Santos.  The public prosecutor’s case is that the accused planned to march on the heavily-guarded presidential palace and burn tires to smoke out the incumbent.

The defendants are avowed opponents of President Dos Santos and the current regime.  Thirteen young men had gathered at a bookstore in Luanda in June of last year to discuss Gene Sharp’s book “From Dictatorship to Democracy: A Conceptual Framework for Liberation”, on non-violent political change, when they were “caught red handed” and taken into custody.

Within the next few days, two more were arrested and these 15 young men spent six months in what Angola calls “preventative detention” before the case came to court.  Two female activists were added to the charge sheet in September, but were allowed to remain free.

The ‘Luanda Book Club’ trial is now in its closing stages with lawyers presenting their final arguments. The ‘evidence’ presented to support charges of a coup plot has been laughable:  a satirical statement on Facebook in which a lawyer, not associated with the youths, dreamed up a better government, putting well-known names into the frame.  The clear intent was to suggest that any of them could do a better job than the present incompetents.

But this was never a trial based on reality, common sense, or even the rule of law.  At the eleventh hour there was a final stunt from the presiding judge Januário Domingos.   Defence lawyer David Mendes represents four of the 17 defendants, and has participated in the trial from the first day.  Yet he was not allowed to present his closing arguments because in recent days the judge published an edict in the state media, summoning dozens of people to testify in the case.  And David Mendes’s name was on that list.  Contrary to both law and common sense, the judge in effect was demanding at the tail end of a lengthy trial, that a lawyer testify against his clients.

This is so beyond farce that commentators are starting to question why the president is allowing such shenanigans to make Angola a laughing stock across the world.  Is the president so far gone that he is out of options?

First, he is ailing.  Since November 2013, when Maka Angola reported his emergency evacuation to Spain due to kidney failure, state-of-the-art medical equipment has been installed in the presidential palace in case of future emergencies.

Second, the economy is suffering. During the bonanza years of soaring oil prices, Dos Santos built one of the most corrupt and incompetent regimes in the world. His grip on power depended on patronage and the distribution of ill-gotten gains.  Angola became known globally as a kleptocracy.  The sharp fall in the price of oil over the past year has pushed the country to the brink of catastrophe.  For instance, just last week, the central bank was unable to sell a single US dollar to commercial banks owing to a shortage of hard currency.

Rewarding incompetence in government in return for loyalty is so deeply entrenched in Angola that at a time of worsening economic crisis, a man can be appointed to one of the country’s top financial positions without having any of the expertise required.

Valter Filipe, a law graduate, began his career as a co-founder of the human rights organisation the Association for Justice, Peace and Democracy before inexplicably being co-opted into the state security apparatus as an agent.   Now aged 42, Mr Filipe has been a regular commentator on state television, in effect, a mouthpiece for the regime.  In his other role he was a junior in the legal department of the Banco de Fomento de Angola (BFA), partly owned by the president’s daughter, Isabel dos Santos. On March 5, 2016 President Dos Santos appointed Valter Filipe as the new governor of Angola’s Central Bank (Banco Nacional de Angola).

Dos Santos’s patronage system is teetering.  For nearly four decades, by giving top generals and police commanders a ‘licence to loot’ in exchange for their loyalty, Dos Santos has guided the army, the intelligence services and the police to a dangerous state of meltdown. His largesse made billionaires of a few generals and multi-millionaires of dozens more. But when it comes to paying the monthly salaries of the ordinary soldier, police officer or state security agents, the head of state can’t guarantee enough money in the state coffers to pay them on time.

Here’s the rub: the President has run out of time to come up with a safe exit strategy.  Money talks.  And oil money made him a lazy dictator. He relied on a never-ending abundance of petro-dollars to run a corrupt regime, paying off his entourage and buying international respectability with enough left over for the state to function.  Now his most important international allies (China, Brazil and Portugal) are all rocked by scandals relating to Angola’s corrupt influence at the heart of their political and business establishments.

But the money is running out.  The economic crisis is worsening.   The rank and file of the ruling party are growing ever angrier against the leader they (rightly) hold responsible for this state of affairs.  How much longer can they tolerate this state of affairs?  And what can the president do to stave off the eventual backlash?

A meeting of MPLA’s Central Committee under the slogan “Angola, growing more and distributing better.”

There was one critical detail omitted from much of the reporting about the president’s announced “retirement”.   Since 1979, in addition to his role as President of the Republic of Angola, José Eduardo dos Santos has also concurrently been president of his party, the ruling People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA).

On the same day of stating he’d be stepping down, the MPLA’s central committee unanimously nominated Dos Santos as their sole candidate for the party’s presidency at its congress next August.   And he accepted the nomination.

If Dos Santos had an exit strategy, why would he not open up the MPLA to internal democracy at the upcoming congress which, in any event, may be his last.   According to the MPLA bylaws (Article 75), in the event of the party president’s resignation, incapacitation or death, the vice president will hold the position for three months, within which an extraordinary congress must be held to elect a new leader for the following five years.

So why stand again for a five-year term that he is unlikely to survive?  What would be the point of putting his party through such upheaval? What kind of legacy would that be?

Here’s a clue:  the party president is automatically the candidate for president of the Republic. Thus President Dos Santos will be his party’s candidate for the 2017 elections – even though he has stated categorically that he plans to stand down the following year.  Under the Angolan Constitution (Article 130, Clauses a, b, c, d) the vice-president would complete the mandate in the event of the resignation, death, impeachment, incapacitation or abandonment of office by the president.

Wouldn’t it be interesting if, in the interim, the president “engineers” one of his favoured first family into the role of vice-president?  Is this all a ruse to ensure a dynastic succession? Otherwise, once out of power, Dos Santos would not be able to manipulate the political process by remote control.  MPLA members could exercise their power to vote for a president not to his liking. MPLA members could adopt an obstructionist policy at the National Assembly (as permitted by the constitution in Art. 128, 1-4) to force his successor out of office and call for a general election within three months.

This is why political analysts say it is now up to civil society, independent of the power holders, to foster ideas on how to manage the transition: to effect a peaceful devolution of powers and to build strong institutions to bring the era of the “Big Man” to an end.

If by that time he were still alive, his final days could see the ignominy of a public trial and the confiscation of his assets – those billions he has amassed during nearly four decades as head of state. Perhaps that is why he feels compelled to silence those voices in civil society who could foster such ideas and why he announces his departure publicly, while in private ensuring that everything is in place to allow him, or his heirs, to continue business as usual.