When it was announced in 2016 that President Jose Eduardo dos Santos would step down following elections, taking place this week, news reports highlighted a legacy of nepotism, inept governance, human rights violations, corruption and financial bankruptcy – echoing many within Angolan civil society, young people, and intellectuals. But for many others, Jose Eduardo dos Santos remains the father figure of the nation – and, rightly or wrongly, the man who ended the war.
Dos Santos became president of Angola in 1979, four years after the country’s independence from Portugal, at a time when a bloody and ferocious war was already being fought between his MPLA government and the opposition UNITA, erstwhile allies in the independence struggle. In February 2002, UNITA leader Jonas Savimbi was killed and on 4 April of that year, the Luena Memorandum was signed, the MPLA declared victory and the war ended. By that October, UNITA had declared itself a fully disarmed and democratic political party and UN sanctions against it were lifted. The government took the credit for ending the war and the economic dividends of the peace.
This is the narrative that still rings true with many among the urban poor, and also finds resonance with the majority of rural voters who lost homes and possessions during the conflict, forced on numerous occasions to run for their lives. For these Angolan citizens peace dividends such as stability, freedom of movement and extensive demining are still viewed as fundamental, notwithstanding the recognition of large deficits in socio-economic indicators.
‘When you are poor, what matters is not what political parties are saying. We cannot eat politics,’ one young trader said to me at Roque Santeiro, at the time Africa’s largest informal market which then sprawled for several square kilometres on the outskirts of Luanda, in 2010. ‘What really matters to us is what the government actually does or does not, to help improve our lives. With peace we can produce, fight for more health and better schools for our children.’
The regional dimension
Across the region, citizens place a high value on sustained peace. I was in Mozambique on 6 August when the country’s president, Filipe Jacinto Nyusi, undertook what some considered a perilous trip to the headquarters of Renamo, the main opposition party, deep in central Mozambique’s anti-government heartlands. He met Renamo leader Afonso Dhlakama and agreed on the next steps for a sustainable peace, including the decentralization programme, ending party politics within the armed forces, and the disarmament of Renamo.
It is not always prudent to compare the peace process of different countries; especially if in one of them peace was achieved through the military defeat of one of the belligerents, as in Angola, and in the other, Mozambique, it seems to have come by means of a protracted negotiated settlement.
But there is a clear connecting line: through one single act, Nyusi has become the hero of the hour for Mozambicans across party lines and the political spectrum, despite presiding over a government under unprecedented pressure from the international community, and with domestic approval rates at abysmal levels as a result of pervasive poverty, soaring inflation and strong allegations of corruption linked to unauthorized loans. Why? Because there is a distinct possibility that he may bring lasting peace to the country.
Politics presses on
In Angola, Dos Santos’ long tenure has seen some steps forward in the lives of his country’s people. According to the UNDP’s Human Development Index (HDI), between 2000 and 2015, Angola’s HDI value increased by 36.4%. From 1990 to 2015, life expectancy at birth increased by 11.5 years, and the length of time children spent in school increased by 7.6 years. However, in recent years lower crude oil prices have threatened some of these gains, and corruption and poverty remain pervasive. National and international economic analysts, including the World Bank and the African Development Bank, assert that GDP growth will remain stagnant at about 3.5% in 2017. Economic diversification and increased resilience to economic shocks are clearly necessary.
But, despite these stresses, President dos Santos’s departure does not necessarily herald a seismic shift in Angolan politics. Regardless of popular views, many votes are still decided by tradition or patronage, and dos Santos’s political skill as the architect of a robust governance system needs to be recognized. There is intense legislative activity to populate key jobs in government with loyalists, and the appointment of the president to a seat on the Council of the Republic – and moves to ensure his immunity from future prosecution – may further cement his grip on power. After all, he picked his own successor.
Dr Gita Honwana Welch, Associate Fellow, Africa Programme.