The Tyrant’s Dilemma: Stay? No, Please Don’t

He promised he would step down. But the campaign has already begun to re-elect Angola’s President for the past 37 years.

“Comrade President, please continue guiding the destiny of our country, asks the nation.” That’s the slogan plastered across the picture of a smiling José Eduardo dos Santos that has appeared on giant billboards in strategic locations across the capital, Luanda, in the past week.

It’s all part of a public relations strategy aimed at persuading both Angola and the rest of the world that the increasingly tyrannical MPLA leader really ought to stay in power.

Many Angolans were nourishing the faint hope that Dos Santos might be honorable and dignified enough to keep his word that he would voluntarily and peacefully retire from political life in 2018 (by which time he would have spent 39 years as President of Angola).

Clearly they were deluded if they thought that a man who pays lip service to democracy while rolling back democratic freedoms, would have any honor or dignity left. Dos Santos doesn’t even have the intelligence to recognize that his obsession with clinging to the presidency, the criminal corruption and incompetence which have marked his regime, have caused ruinous harm to his country and its people.

The billboard campaign sponsors include the ‘Tea Club’ led by the tyrant’s own daughter, MPLA Central Committee Member and parliamentarian Welwitschea “Tchizé” dos Santos; Mira Sambila, which is headed by António Paixão Júnior, president of the Savings and Credit Bank (BPC), a state institution. Is there anyone out there gullible enough to think this is a spontaneous gesture? Or did the President himself green light the start of his campaign?

The billboard highlights the result of the leadership vote at the recent MPLA Congress. It was an election with a sole candidate, the same one as always. Apparently he won with 99.6% of the vote. Does that mean some MPLA fool accidentally spoiled his vote? Is it possible that a party member was brave enough not to vote for the sole candidate? After all, the incumbent had total control of the entire process, ensuring that not even a phantom candidate could pretend to contest his leadership.

The MPLA spin doctors might try to pass this off as a democratic process – but they are not fooling anyone. Is it really possible that a party that claims to have eight million members has only one person willing to stand? An election with a single candidate who wins with 99.6% of the vote is befitting of a dictatorship like North Korea’s. Call it party consensus but don’t try to pass it off as democracy.

The billboard suggests that there was a choice, and that this one-person election within the MPLA is the exact same process as an Angolan general election. This is the propaganda of an anti-democratic regime. The people are not asking Dos Santos to stay in power. The only time Angola held a free election with serious alternative candidates (in 1992) Dos Santos did not win by a sufficient majority for a first-round outright victory. That’s why he waited for a new, atypical Constitution, before announcing further elections, in which the President could no longer be elected directly by the people or parliament. The truth is Dos Santos despises the Angolan people as much as he fears them.

The billboard’s language harks back to the totalitarian ideology of the 1970s: “The MPLA is the People, and the People are the MPLA”. It’s important to recognize that the MPLA and José Eduardo dos Santos excel at usurping the language and institutions of democracy only to subvert them to their own dark ends. The billboard is perfectly symbolic of that subversive strategy.

What the Angolan people are really calling for is transparency, work, health services, education, justice, freedom and democracy. And they will only start on the road to achieving these, once they have voted out José Eduardo dos Santos.

If a dictator’s daughter and acolytes can dare to speak in the name of the entire nation, then surely the myriad sons and daughters of the nation have far greater legitimacy to speak for themselves. The millions of Angolans who are not well served by the Dos Santos regime have a different message: “The nation asks – Dos Santos leave now, please just leave.”