“I have taken the decision to quit political life in 2018,” President José Eduardo dos Santos said to the ruling Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) Central Committee, on 11 March 2016.
His words may lead us to think that he is willing to retire, after 37 years in power. The reality, however, is more complicated than that, as he did not clarify whether he was running for the 2017 presidential elections and it does not make much sense to “quit political life in 2018” with presidential elections scheduled for 2017.
In power since 1979, José Eduardo dos Santos will be 80 years old by the time his eventual new mandate ends in 2022. Irrespective of his age and possible intention to retire, it is only logical that President dos Santos is giving a deeper thought on ways to protect his interests and those of his family and close circle. Moreover, he is certainly seeking to ensure that a new political leadership won´t target him and his circle with criminal charges.
How likely is a post-José Eduardo dos Santos scenario?
In a speech given to the MPLA Central Committee, on 2 July 2015, José Eduardo dos Santos said that “[i]n certain restricted circles it was almost an established fact that the president wouldn’t carry out his mandate until the end, but it’s evident that it’s not wise to consider that option under the current circumstances.” The president added that “we should study very seriously how to build that transition.”
This said, and considering the worsening of “the current circumstances”, it would be hardly surprising that José Eduardo dos Santos decides to stay in power for as long as he is physically and mentally capable. In this setting, his announcement becomes nothing more than mere rhetoric, possibly aimed at testing his popularity within the party, assure a peaceful nomination and disarm internal contestation.
With this in mind, the President faces two options: end the presidential term prematurely or complete it. Both scenarios, however, ultimately require ensuring the protection of his interests and those of his close circle in the long-term. This is both a necessity and a priority, and implies naming an individual of his trust to be his number two in the elections, in view of succeeding him further ahead.
Given that the MPLA historical leadership looks with suspicion at the nomination of someone from José Eduardo dos Santos’s close circle, it is likely that he may seek a compromise solution. Conversely, the President´s announcement also suggest that he may be aiming at increasing his room of maneuver to further consolidate control over strategic sectors before an electoral process and eventual succession.
The Constitution specifies how a power transition might be effected, although it leaves room for interpretation. As per the 2010 constitutional revision, the President is no longer directly voted into office. Instead, “[t]he individual heading the national list of the political party or coalition of political parties which receives the most votes in general elections” becomes Head of the Executive. Considering that José Eduardo dos Santos candidacy for the party’s presidency has been approved by the Central Committee, the current leader is poised to become the ruling party’s candidate.
Furthermore, the MPLA’s presidency allows him to actively influence the party and choose his number two, i.e. the Vice-President. In light of this, it is worth noting that Article 116 of the Constitution establishes that “[t]he President of the Republic may relinquish office” and when the office “becomes vacant, the duties shall be performed by the Vice-President, who shall complete the term of office with full powers.” Therefore, the power transfer can be made in a legitimate manner and in accordance with the Constitution, thus not giving the opposition many legal arguments against it.
There is, however, one third option: to postpone the 2017 elections, such as in 1999. This time now, with peace consolidated, it can possibly be argued that the country needs to address “current circumstances”, i.e. economic and financial challenges, before elections can be held.
Who are his contenders?
Although there is still time left before the submission period of candidacies for the party’s presidency – between 15 June and 15 July –, it is highly unlikely that an internal candidate is willing to challenge José Eduardo dos Santos’ rule. Even if that would happen, any other candidacy faces a major challenge. According to MPLA Electoral Rules, “the competent body to verify the proposed candidacies, validate and organize them for the electoral act (…) is coordinated by the party’s high officials.” As such, José Eduardo dos Santos and his close circle can easily impede a challenging bid.
Regarding the political opposition, given that the person heading the list of candidates of the most voted party becomes President, the leaders of major opposition forces in parliament, Isaías Samakuva (UNITA) and Abel Chivukuvu (CASA-CE), are poised to be José Eduardo dos Santos’ main challengers. These two candidates, however, are highly unlikely to pose a significant challenge.
The opposition is divided amongst several political parties, hindering any chance of establishing a united opposition, while the President has the MPLA’s well-oiled electoral machine and state resources at his disposal to promote the campaign across the country.
Coupled with these factors, the government´s strategy of “divide and rule” and the ease with which opposition politicians and militants take political, economic and financial ´donations´, establishing a considerable challenge to the status quo becomes a near impossible task.
In addition, security forces and intelligence services embed a feeling of fear among any movement willing to stage an anti-government demonstration. Also relevant is the fact that the military leadership is deeply integrated in the country’s political and economic spectrum.
The status quo will remain unchanged
Given that President will do its utmost to ensure a substantial degree of continuity, there will hardly be any major changes in government policy. The same applies in an eventual post-José Eduardo dos Santos scenario, due to the intricate network of economic and political interests amongst the Angolan elite.
The powerful elite is so intertwined and accommodated to the perks associated with being close to power, that it is improbable they would challenge or change the status quo and risk losing those benefits by promoting a new, more democratic and transparent order. Therefore, this privileged sector of the Angolan society will certainly be the main opponent of any significant change to the political order, and its main preserver.
Of course, that is also the case with the elite’s response to the introduction of measures and reforms aimed at tackling the difficult economic and financial context. Although those initiatives might be favourable to the diversification of the elite’s sources of revenue beyond oil and a limited number of sectors, it is highly unlikely that Angola’s economic policy will change in a substantial manner. In fact, any alteration will certainly be limited to the strictly necessary, since an abrupt one would primarily hit the privileged sectors of the society that benefited the most from the status quo.
The same applies to foreign donors. The April 2016 “formal request” made by Angolan authorities to the IMF “to initiate discussions on an economic program,” is, at least in theory, what Angola needs. However, negotiations will certainly be long and difficult, especially if the IMF´s demands collide with electoral interests and the elite’s stakes.
That is probably why the government has, since the start of this year, been charming Asian emerging powers, such as China and India, to open lines of credit and support project development. The aim is likely to be to diversify financing sources away from an undesired overly dependence on the IMF and benefit from external support that require a lesser degree of preconditions, hence better safeguarding the interests of the Angolan elite.
On the other hand, with external financing from emerging economies pouring into state coffers and project development, the government acquires tools to ensure that the elite and the rising middle-class continue to have access to the goods and services they became accustomed to. Additionally, the government has greater leeway to appease potentially dangerous social grievances linked to rising living costs and budget cuts in public investment.
 The Minister of Defence, João Lourenço, and the Minister of Territory Administration, Bornito de Sousa, stand as appropriate candidates in this context.
 By means of a message addressed to the National Assembly, also notifying the Constitutional Court. Article 130 establishes that, besides “Resignation from office, under the terms of Article 116,” other circumstances are valid: “Death”, “Removal from office”, “Permanent physical or mental incapacity”, and “Abandonment of duties”.
 When the National Assembly voted to do so, due to the renewal of conflict.
 Through positions in government, state companies, participation in private ventures and access to national wealth.
 There are rumours that an IMF assistance programme may lead to the introduction of a consumption tax, salary cuts and rationalization of public investment.
Originally published in Presidential Power.