One of Africa's Longest-Serving Presidents Is Planning to Step Down (Maybe)

Jose Eduardo dos Santos has led Angola since 1979 — only one other African leader has been in power longer. But he has said before he would step down, and didn't.
March 11, 2016, 4:52pm
Photo by Rolex Dela Pena/EPA

Following a busy year for African leaders clinging on to power and defying term limits to seek re-election, one of the continent's longest-serving president claims he plans to step down as head of state in the next two years.

President Jose Eduardo dos Santos has led Angola since 1979. Now 73, he announced on Thursday that he will vacate the role in 2018. The head of the ruling People's Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), which has governed the oil-exporting country since it declared independence from Portugal in 1975, did not provide details on why he was deciding to step down.


"I took the decision to leave active political activity in 2018," Dos Santos told MPLA heads, in an announcement later aired on the radio, according to Reuters.

The proposed date falls in line with the 2017 parliamentary elections, which determine who will be appointed president based on the results. It was not immediately clear whether Dos Santos would retain his post as MPLA leader during the next election, or take part in the campaign. Dos Santos was re-appointed to a new five-year term as Angola's president in August 2012 after his party scored a landslide win.

Angola, a member of OPEC and Africa's second-largest oil exporter after Nigeria, has been hit hard by the slump in global crude prices. Oil exports account for more than 90 percent of foreign exchange revenues. The government is in discussions with the World Bank and International Monetary Fund about possible financial assistance.

Dos Santos' inscrutable public demeanor belies his tight control over Angola, where he has overseen an oil-backed economic boom and the reconstruction of infrastructure devastated by a 27-year-long civil war that ended in 2002.

Critics accuse him of mismanaging Angola's oil wealth and making an elite, mainly his family and political allies, vastly rich in a country ranked amongst the world's most corrupt. Dos Santos is Africa's second-longest ruling leader after Equatorial Guinea's President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo.


As his successors, some see Vice President Manuel Vicente — the former head of state-owned oil firm Sonangol — as a likely option.

"(Dos Santos) has been grooming Vicente for quite a while now … He has deputized for him on a number of important occasions, which sent a strong signal," Gary van Staden, a Johannesburg-based political analyst with NKC African Economics, told Reuters.

Others, however, have speculated that the president is grooming his son, Jose Filomeno de Sousa dos Santos, to succeed him. The younger Dos Santos currently heads Angola's sovereign wealth fund.

"It may mean the succession is in progress and that it will be a dynastic one," said Nelson Bonavena, an economics lecturer at the Catholic University of Angola and political analyst.

But succession talk may be a bit premature considering this is not the first time people have speculated about a dos Santos exit, including the leader himself. In 2001, according to the BBC, said he would not run for another term. Later, however, a new constitution was passed that eliminated term limits, and dos Santos stayed in power.

Angola expert Ricardo Soares de Oliveira of Britain's Oxford University, said the news of Dos Santos' planned exit should be treated cautiously.

"Dos Santos' departure from power has been the talk of the town in Luanda for 15 years. He has always hinted that he wanted to leave but this is the most specific commitment he has ever made," he said.

"The fact that he put a date to it is a powerful marker and would come back to haunt him if he were to renege on it," he added.