No one really expected President Jose Eduardo dos Santos to step down. He is, in so many ways, the archetypal African dictator, having first taken office 35 years ago. In the pantheon of presidents-for-life, only Equatorial Guinea’s Teodoro Obiang has been in power for longer, and only then for a matter of months more than Dos Santos.
But after the election on Wednesday, the Angolan president is vacating his office. A carefully stage-managed succession will see him replaced by Joao Lourenco, his handpicked lieutenant.
Dos Santos, meanwhile, will take a back seat from public life. He’s not retiring, exactly – he will still be chairperson of the ruling MPLA, and so will still be making plenty of important decisions – but he is nonetheless voluntarily moving a step away from the levers of power.
For any dictator, it’s a dangerous moment. Is this the time when all the opponents that have been so carefully beaten down over the years – both literally and metaphorically – come to take their revenge? Is now when the cult of personality shatters, revealing the all-too-vulnerable mortal beneath? Can family and friends and assets still be protected without the authority that comes from the Presidential Palace?
These inherent dangers are a major reason why Dos Santos’ peers – men like Obiang, Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, Cameroon’s Paul Biya, Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir – are so afraid to resign.
But Dos Santos has a secret weapon that allows him to make this step with a little more confidence than others: his children.
His daughter, Isabel, 44, is in charge of Sonangol, the state oil company – a key position in a country that is almost entirely reliant on its vast oil wealth. She is also Africa’s richest woman, having leveraged her connections in a series of questionable deals to amass a fortune in excess of $3.5 billion.
His son, José Filomeno, 39, runs Angola’s Sovereign Wealth Fund, which is worth about $5 billion.
Together, Isabel and José Filomeno effectively control Angola’s purse strings. Several others among his nine children have also used their status to carve out prominent careers: Welwitschia José, 35, runs several successful businesses, including one which produces content for the state broadcaster; José Eduardo Paulino, 32, better known by his stage name Coréon Dú, has cornered the showbiz market.
Critics point out that the success of the Angolan president’s children would have been impossible without the patronage of the president himself; and, more damningly, that any success was likely achieved through corrupt or illicit means, with little regard for the citizens of the country that their father is supposed to be governing.
The critics are not wrong.
As D Qaresma Dos Santos (no relation to the first family) wrote for Maka Angola, one of the few Angolan publications brave enough to report critically on the president: “The pattern of behavior of the Dos Santos family and all their hangers-on has been to siphon off state funds for their own use whenever they want…They see no need to concern themselves that there is widespread hunger and poverty. In the style of the Roman Emperor Nero, they will continue to play while their country goes to hell [in] a handcart.”
For President Dos Santos, one suspects that is exactly the point. He has rarely shown much interest in the fate or ordinary Angolans, but as he slows down it is vital – from his perspective – that his family are committed and competent enough to keep playing the game which kept him in power for so long. In the years ahead, his children are his main allies – and he has made sure they are equipped to protect him.
This is in stark contrast to other dictators. As the Mail & Guardian revealed last week, Robert Mugabe can’t trust his sons to behave themselves in a nightclub, nevermind give them keys to the treasury. President Obiang’s son, meanwhile, is being tried in France after his outrageously flashy lifestyle – a private yacht, a fleet of luxury cars, a Parisian mansion – attracted the attention of prosecutors.
How his counterparts elsewhere on the continent – also aging, also ailing – must wish they had taken a few parenting tips from the Angolan President. Perhaps then they too might feel they could retire with confidence.