A corrupt dictator clinging to power at all costs – or a stabilising architect of peace, who has steered Angola from out of the ruins of civil war to become a regional economic and political powerhouse?
Opinion is bitterly divided on José Eduardo dos Santos, who in September will clock 35 years as president of Angola, having taken the reins in 1979 following the sudden death from cancer of the country’s first president and MPLA leader, Agostinho Neto.
Thirty-five years is a long time, even for an African president.
It is nearly twice as long as half his population has been alive and he now is the continent’s second-longest serving president, trailing Equatorial Guinea’s Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo by one month.
But, despite being the only leader generations of Angolans have ever known, the 71-year-old remains somewhat of an enigma: paradoxically ever-present on billboards and in people’s psyches but rarely seen, shunning public appearances, media interviews and foreign travel.
There are no Jacob Zuma-style business breakfasts or emailed updates. The presidency barely has a functioning website and, on the rare occasion Dos Santos does leave his pink palace, it is with an enormous convoy that leaves Luanda’s traffic paralysed for hours afterwards.
We know more about his children than about him: daughter Isabel is famously Africa’s first female billionaire, with assets in telecoms, banking and diamonds; daughter Tchize runs a television and communications network; son Coreon Dú is a music producer and singer; and son José Filomeno heads the country’s sovereign wealth fund.
Although his critics use the term “Eduardismo” to sum up how the family and his inner circle have allegedly monopolised Angola’s economic and cultural space, Dos Santos himself appears to flaunt few of the physical trappings of a long-serving African president, like Mobutu Sese Seko did.
“He’s not like other African leaders in the way he dresses or behaves; he has always been very modest, almost shy. He’s not at all like Obiang or [Zimbabwean President Robert] Mugabe,” said Elisabete Azevedo-Harman, a research fellow for the Africa programme at Chatham House, the London-based think-tank.
But behind this faccedil;ade of softly spoken humility, Dos Santos has been busy weaving a complex web of fear and favour, keeping his allies close enough to him for support but also far enough away so as not to present any threat to his rule.
As head of state, he controls the armed forces, leads the executive and appoints senior members of the judiciary, and nearly all media outlets that are not state-controlled are owned by his close associates.
Cabinet reshuffles are frequent and sometimes inexplicable; promotions are seemingly as arbitrary as demotions, with rising stars falling as fast as they ascend.
Dos Santos, nicknamed “O Chefe” (the boss), has never been challenged for his leadership from within the MPLA and has never been threatened by a coup d’état. But the length of his presidency, seen by his backers as an asset because of the stability it is perceived to have afforded the country, is also, some believe, starting to become a liability.
In 2011, a small group of young Angolans, inspired by revolution in North Africa, took to the streets to call for their president’s resignation, blaming him for what they see as an unequal distribution of Angola’s oil wealth, which has kept large parts of the country in grinding poverty despite the booming economy.
They were few but their voices have resonated loudly, and the culture of fear instigated by Marxism and propagated by decades of war is slowly beginning to recede.
Among the protest ringleaders was rapper Luaty Beirao. “We hold the president responsible for the dire and unimproving situation of the country,” he told the Mail & Guardian this week.
“It seems like after 35 years … he has run out of ideas, reshuffling his pieces on the board a hundred times over but only coming up with the same lousy results. We feel enough is enough,” he said.
The authorities responded to this rare flash of rebellion with an over-the-top propaganda campaign, celebrating Dos Santos as an architect of peace and labelling Beirao and his group as war-mongering anarchists.
The increasingly hyperbolic tone of the government-owned daily newspaper, the Jornal de Angola (nicknamed “Nosso Pravda” after the Russian communist party’s publication), along with the security forces’ heavy-handed response to the protests, is starting to jar – and even middle-class MPLA voters are expressing disquiet.
According to a respected Angolan activist, Rafael Marques de Morais, Dos Santos’s time is running out. This is partly because of his waning public image, but also corruption, a tool he says the president has used to cement his hegemony.
Morais, who runs a popular blog called Maka Angola, detailing allegations of human rights abuses and corruption perpetrated by high-ranking officials, said that those who had been managed by Dos Santos are now managing him, and that divisions are appearing.
“Dos Santos crafted the art of corrupting to control power, but now corruption has spiralled out of control and has made him a hostage of his own system. He has no way out.”
The dangers of suddenly pulling the plug on a long-running regime, especially one with a violent past and vast natural resources such as Angola’s, are well documented.
Risk analysts from outside the country are hoping for a smoother process, as are their clients, the foreign investors making the most of Angola’s booming oil-driven growth.
“Things are happening in the background. I think it’s under control; I believe there is a plan,” Markus Weimer, an independent analyst and expert on Angolan politics, said.
“The president has a clear idea of what he wants to achieve, how he wants to exit and what he wants to do afterwards, and he will determine how it will happen.”
In 2010, Angola adopted a new Constitution that controversially abolished direct presidential elections, with the head of state being chosen from the top of the list of the party that wins the most parliamentary votes. Under this system, should the president leave office midterm the vice-president becomes head of state until the next general election.
This opens the door for current Vice-President Manuel Vicente, who is regarded by many as the most likely contender to take over the presidency.
Plucked from his long-term chairmanship of the country’s powerful state oil company, Sonagol, and brought into government just months before the 2012 election, Vicente is a close ally of the president.
He is supposedly the mastermind behind the special Angolan-Chinese relationship and the scores of opaque offshore joint ventures into which oil billions allegedly flow.
He is also reported to be close to two other key presidential advisers, General Manuel Hélder Vieira Dias Jr and General Leopoldino Fragoso do Nascimento. Together, the three are understood to own and manage a significant share of the Angolan private sector.
But the hitch is that Vicente is not liked within the MPLA ranks. He is seen as a businessperson, a hard-nosed capitalist with no ties to the party’s Marxist-socialist roots and no military pedigree. But the party would have little choice but to accept Vicente – at first, anyway.
The MPLA is due to hold a congress in December but last month Dos Santos told his central committee that leadership issues would not be on the agenda until the 2016 congress.
This buys the president time and, by setting a date, it partially answers those critics who say he is ruling indeterminably. It also gives Vicente a chance to win over the party. Already, the former oilman is taking a more central role in party activities.
If Dos Santos does step down before the 2016 congress, it would give Vicente the advantage of incumbency over anyone else who wanted to challenge him for the leadership.
But not everyone sees the plan as so clear cut. Azevedo-Harman says: “I still think it’s very unclear about Manuel Vicente. It remains an open question.”
She says that Dos Santos has made a significant effort in the past year to re-engage with the international community, hosting a stream of presidents and ministers and taking a leading role in trying to end conflict in the Great Lakes region of Africa.
Many have read these moves as steps towards building a legacy by a man ready to step down, an attempt to build a profile as regional wise man and join the ranks of continental advisers such as Nigeria’s Olusegun Obasanjo, Cape Verde’s Pedro Pires and Mozambique’s Joaquim Chissano.
But Azevedo-Harman believes Dos Santos is playing a longer game.
“He’s taking on long-term, not short-term, projects,” she said. “He’s getting a lot of profile from his involvement in things like the Great Lakes, but he knows it’s not enough to just be president of that; he actually needs to achieve something and that may not happen straight away.”
Another Angola watcher, who did not want to be named, said: “It’s a very interesting time; we don’t really know what is going to happen.
“Everyone is talking about him getting ready to go but, if he feels he can’t ensure stability once he has left, I don’t think he will leave voluntarily. Constitutionally, he could rule on until 2022 – so who really knows, except him?”
Follow Louise Redvers on Twitter @LouiseRedvers
Bricklayer’s son makes good
José Eduardo dos Santos was born on 28 August 1942 to a bricklayer in Luanda.
He joined the liberation struggle as a teenager, spending time in Léopoldville (now Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo), where the MPLA had an office. He studied oil engineering in what is now Azerbaijan, then part of the USSR.
Dos Santos was appointed president in 1979, after being planning minister. He has had several wives; Angola’s first lady is former air hostess Ana Paula dos Santos.