José Eduardo dos Santos was in power for longer than 73% of Angola’s 33-million people have been alive.
He spent half of his life as president, and he was everywhere: on our banknotes, gazing into the middle distance alongside the founding president; in our homes on the television, always the focus of our nightly news; in our cars on the radio.
His few speeches played on repeat, and was in our conscience as he jailed our friends for reading books, had his thugs violently break up anti-government protests or presided over one of the most corrupt regimes in living memory.
The world in which he came to power was vastly different from the one he left, and he never quite adapted.
His omnipresence was fuelled by an unrelenting cult of personality, but he could also be silent and aloof — a master of deception. One of his biggest accomplishments, however morbid, was the ability to rule Angola through a shadow government of his own making. He rendered the country’s institutions obsolete at worst and a mere inconvenience at best, swatting aside any challenge to his authority like a mosquito in the summer heat.
He ruled by division and conquest. As Angola became a securitised state in which Dos Santos pitted the intelligence services against themselves, and they all spied on each other, it’s no surprise that paranoia took over and perceived threats were created out of thin air. It’s also not surprising to see the ruling MPLA imploding by the time Dos Santos was finished, he was the only thing keeping its various factions together.
His family, some of whom became fabulously wealthy thanks to their proximity to the centre of power, is riven by infighting. Even after his death, it is fighting publicly about what to do with the body and where to hold the funeral.
What could have been
Dos Santos died on July 8 in Barcelona, far from the hospitals and clinics in Angola belonging to a health sector which he neglected. He died alone.
He could have died a hero. After our destructive civil war, his reputation was at an all-time high. He had vanquished his arch-enemy in battle. Despite corruption, he was seen as the “architect of peace” not only for ending the war but also for sparing opposition soldiers and their leaders.
He integrated enemy soldiers into the armed forces, and let their leaders get on with their lives. Many of his comrades would have done differently.
But the former president could not resist the allure of power. From the early 2000s, he kept hinting that he would no longer run for president. But when it came time to quit, he would invent a reason to stay on to the detriment of himself and his country.
Had he left office before the 2008 election, he would have been forever enshrined in Africa’s history as a competent leader who steered the country to a market economy after the fall of his socialist experiment; who defeated the rebels and ushered in a lasting peace.
Instead, he engineered a constitutional coup d’etat. Perhaps scarred by our first multi-party elections in 1992, in which neither he nor rebel leader Jonas Savimbi garnered more than 50% of the vote in the first round, he did away with direct presidential elections, gave himself unchecked powers and stayed a further decade in office.
During this time, and even before he changed the Constitution, Dos Santos squandered the single best opportunity he had to truly develop the country. With the price of oil at an all-time high and with a country to rebuild, he chose corruption over development.
He chose to enrich himself, his family and his cronies instead of enriching the country and its population. He shirked his responsibility, as a leader to foster progress in a nation that truly deserved it after decades of civil war and we will feel the consequences for decades to come.
A tarnished legacy
Dos Santos died as he lived: sowing divisions, creating uncertainty and saying very little. His oldest children are either under investigation for corruption or on trial for the same reason. His eldest son was hit with a five-year jail sentence that is pending an appeal. There is infighting within the family.
His closest associates, known as the Presidential Triumvirate, have just been indicted on corruption charges. His chosen successor, current President João Lourenço, is perceived to have waged a vendetta against him.
Angola, the country he claimed to love, has no strong institutions to speak of, and the economy he managed for close to 40 years remains significantly dependent on oil exports. The opposition party he spared after the war has never been more popular.
This is the Dos Santos legacy. It could have been — it should have been — so much more. His last days of ignominy, spent so far from home, are a fitting coda to a life that fell far so short of its potential.
This article first appeared in The Continent, the pan-African weekly newspaper produced in partnership with the Mail & Guardian. It’s designed to be read and shared on WhatsApp. Download your free copy here.