No one really expected President José Eduardo dos Santos to step down. He is, in so many ways, the archetypal African dictator, having first taken office 35 years ago.
But Dos Santos is not exactly retiring — he will remain chairperson of the ruling MPLA and so will still make important decisions.
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 João Lourenço, his handpicked lieutenant.
Dos Santos will take a back seat from public life. And even though he’ll retain power through the MPLA, 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 who 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’s peers — men like Obiang, Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, Cameroon’s Paul Biya and Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir — are so afraid.
But Dos Santos has a secret weapon that allows him to make this step with 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 in effect 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 that produces content for the state broadcaster; and 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. More damningly, any success was probably achieved through corrupt or illicit means, with little regard for the citizens of the country in whose interests 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 behaviour 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 ex-president Dos Santos, one suspects that is exactly the point. He has rarely shown much interest in the fate of Angola’s citizens, but as he slows down it is vital, from his perspective, that his family is committed and competent enough to keep playing the game that 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. Last week’s events show that Mugabe can’t trust his sons to behave themselves in a nightclub, never mind with the keys to the treasury. Obiang’s son 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 Dos Santos’s counterparts elsewhere on the continent — also aging, also ailing — must wish they had taken a few parenting tips from the former Angolan president. Perhaps then they too might feel they could retire with confidence.