Life after power: the bitter exile of Angola’s ex-President Dos Santos

By Estelle Maussion

Attacked from all sides by his successor, the former Angolan head of state José Eduardo dos Santos has had a hard time living through the fall of his family empire. But his heirs did not admit defeat so readily.

It’s mid-June in Barcelona. On the sofa in the living room, José Eduardo dos Santos plays cards with his grandchildren. Published on Instagram by his daughter, Isabel, the photo gives an insight into the daily life of the man who ruled Angola from 1979 to 2017, before passing the reins to João Lourenço. It shows a happy and relaxed retiree.

But appearances are deceiving. Dos Santos’ new life is not easy. Criticised by his successor – who has embarked on an anti-corruption crusade – the former head of state and his relatives are no longer really at home in Angola. Once all-powerful, they are now on a tightrope. While Dos Santos, faithful to his character, remains discreet, his children have gone on the offensive: the former ruling family have
turned into an army of opponents of João Lourenço.

Hindrance to the presidential palace

Relations between the old and new presidents, complicated even before the handover, are now at an impasse. “They have not spoken since last April, and José Eduardo dos Santos left for Spain,” says an observer of Angolan political life.

At that time, the former head of state refused to use the Angolan airline, TAAG or use the protocol service associated with his status, to make the trip, suggesting that he no longer trusted the state to ensure his safety.

The incident caused embarrassment at the presidential palace. Lourenço even visited his predecessor to convince him to change his mind. It was a waste of time. Dos Santos flew to Barcelona on the Portuguese carrier TAP. This episode occurred in September 2017 during the transfer of power and notification of the flight was sent 30 minutes before it departed. Lourenço, apparently, was greatly displeased. Since then, Dos Santos has also declined several invitations to official ceremonies.

Thunderous break

If there is bad blood between “JLo” and “Zedu”, it is because the mandate of the former is an ordeal for the latter. When he decided not to run for re-election in the 2017 general elections, Dos Santos thought he was embarking on a smooth transition. Certainly, it led to giving away the palace, but he intended to remain at the head of the Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola (MPLA), the majority party and the keystone of the government.

Except things have not gone as planned. Lourenço’s victory triggered a thunderous rupture: he declared war on corruption, dismissed Dos Santos and pointed out the mistakes of past governance. The Dos Santos children were the first to be affected by these moves.

Isabel, the eldest, was ejected from her position as president of the national oil company, Sonangol. José Filomeno, José Eduardo’s first son, was also fired from the Angolan sovereign wealth fund, where he held the reins. He was subsequently placed in pre-trial detention as part of a fraud investigation.

“The changes are necessary but should not be so radical,” said José Eduardo dos Santos with restraint at the end of 2017.

Heads must roll

It’s not over yet. Lourenço took over the leadership of the party one year after coming to power. In September 2018, Lourenço described “the corruption, nepotism, flattery and impunity” of recent years as “enemy number one” in a barely veiled attack on the former ruling family.

“The MPLA must take the lead in this [anti-corruption] crusade, even if its militants or senior leaders are the first to fall,” he insisted, in front of a stunned José Eduardo dos Santos.

The system of governance that the latter had meticulously built up over almost 40 years is now beyond his control. In mid-June 2019, at the last extraordinary congress of the MPLA, Lourenço hammered the point home.

After deploring the absence of Dos Santos, he attacked his family again without naming them. He denounced “allegedly private investments”, (that were in reality “financed by public funds”), in “banking, telephony, media, diamonds, mass distribution, building materials among others”. These are sectors in which Isabel dos Santos and her husband, the Congolese citizen Sindika Dokolo, are active.

A united clan

In the face of adversity, the family rallied – from abroad. A few months after Dos Santos’s departure for Europe, he was followed by his two daughters, Isabel and Welwitschia (known as “Tchizé”). At the end of June, Isabel posted another photo online showing their half-brother, José Eduardo Paulino, alias “Coréon Dú”, had joined them.

Only José Filomeno, who cannot leave Angola due to legal proceedings, remains in Luanda. Isabel, however, offers an image of a united clan and reminds everyone of the success of its investments, which generate profits and jobs in the country. She also comments on the difficulties of the Angolan economy, underlining the pressure on the shoulders of
her father’s successor.

Known for her strong character, her half-sister Tchizé, who says she “fled” Angola because of “threats”, is more confrontational. In May, denouncing Lourenço’s authoritarianism, she called for his dismissal. This, combined with her absence from parliament for more than 90 days, resulted in her being suspended from the MPLA central committee.

Reconciliation?

What does José Eduardo dos Santos think of all this? Does he plan to return to Angola? It’s hard to say. In Luanda, his quiet residence in the Miramar district, a vast white and yellow residence overlooking the sea, awaits him. There is also the Fundação Eduardo dos Santos, though its past management is the subject of a judicial investigation for corruption.

A civil society figure says Dos Santos has not attained the gravitas of other former leaders and his future seems much less exciting than his rich past political career. “He is nothing like a Thabo Mbeki or an Olusegun Obasanjo, who are part of all the major conferences and initiatives on the continent,” the figure says.

The bottom line: José Eduardo dos Santos may have been eclipsed by his confrontation with João Lourenço. The hatchet is far from being buried, but the forces pushing the two men towards reconciliation seem strained.  

This article first appeared in Jeune Afrique.

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