LISBON, Portugal — José Eduardo dos Santos, once one of Africa’s longest-serving leaders who, for nearly four decades as president of Angola, fought the continent’s longest civil war and made his country a major oil producer as well as one of the poorest and poorest countries in the world. most corrupt nations, died on Friday. He was 79 years old.
Dos Santos died in a clinic in Barcelona, Spain, after a long illness, the Angolan government said in an announcement on its Facebook page.
The announcement said dos Santos was “a statesman of great historic stature who ruled…the Angolan nation through very difficult times.”
Dos Santos has been living mainly in Barcelona since his resignation in 2017 and undergoing treatment there for health issues.
Angola’s current head of state, João Lourenço, has announced five days of national mourning starting on Saturday, when the country‘s flag will fly at half mast and public events will be cancelled.
UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres recalled dos Santos’ participation in the struggle that led to Angola’s independence and his leadership “through the signing of the peace agreement that ended civil war in 2002,” his spokesman said. “During his tenure, Angola has become an important regional and international partner and a champion of multilateralism.”
The UN Security Council paid a silent tribute to dos Santos at the start of a meeting on Friday after the council’s current president, Brazil’s UN ambassador Ronaldo Costa Filho, expressed his ” sadness” at his death.
His public persona did not match his behind-the-scenes machinations
Dos Santos came to power four years after Angola gained independence from Portugal and found itself embroiled in the Cold War as a proxy battleground.
His political journey spanned Marxist one-party rule in the postcolonial years and a democratic system of government adopted in 2008. He voluntarily resigned when his health began to decline.
In public, dos Santos was modest and even seemed shy at times. But he was a shrewd operator behind the scenes.
He has kept a grip on the 17th-century presidential palace in Luanda, the Atlantic capital of the southern African country, dividing Angola’s wealth among his army generals and political rivals to ensure their loyalty. He demoted anyone he perceived to be gaining a level of popularity that might threaten his command.
Dos Santos’ greatest enemy for more than two decades was Jonas Savimbi, leader of the UNITA rebels whose post-independence guerrilla insurgency fought in the bush aimed at ousting dos Santos’ Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola, or MPLA.
The MPLA had financial support from the Soviet Union and military support from Cuba in its war against UNITA. Savimbi was backed by the United States and South Africa.
The war lasted, with brief periods of UN-brokered peace, until 2002, when the army finally tracked down Savimbi in eastern Angola and killed him.
Angola’s wealth has been concentrated in the hands of the elite
Dos Santos abruptly abandoned his Marxist policies after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. He moved closer to Western countries, whose oil companies invested billions of dollars in mainly offshore exploration.
His supporters praised his ability to adapt to changing circumstances. His detractors called him unscrupulous.
Dos Santos was invited to the White House in 2004 by then-President George W. Bush as the United States sought to reduce its dependence on Middle Eastern oil.
Angola has become sub-Saharan Africa’s second largest oil producer after Nigeria, producing nearly 2 million barrels per day. He also unearthed more than $1 billion worth of diamonds each year.
However, the wealth never reached the Angolan people, who during and after the civil war were threatened by large areas of unmapped minefields and had little access to basic amenities, such as running water or roads. . Education and health care were – and remain – scarce.
More than $4 billion in oil revenue disappeared from Angola’s state coffers between 1997 and 2002, New York-based Human Rights Watch said in a 2004 report, based on an analysis of International Monetary Fund figures. .
The US State Department said wealth in Angola is “concentrated in the hands of a small elite, who have often used government positions for massive personal enrichment”.
Dos Santos was believed to have valuable real estate in Brazil, France and Portugal, as well as foreign bank accounts.
Under his rule, and despite the general poverty, street protests were rare and quickly dispersed by heavily armed riot police known as “Ninjas”. A well-paid and well-equipped presidential guard was garrisoned inside dos Santos’ palace and lined the city’s grimy, pothole-filled streets whenever he went out.
We didn’t expect him to last long in politics
The son of a bricklayer from Luanda, Angola’s coastal capital, dos Santos began his political life with boots and a gun in 1961 as an 18-year-old guerrilla fighter for the MLPA in the struggle for independence from Portugal.
MPLA bosses pulled him out of combat in 1963 and sent him to the Soviet Union to train as a petroleum engineer and military communications specialist.
Upon his return to Angola in 1970, he skillfully negotiated compromises to prevent the MPLA from splitting into splinter groups and, as a reward, was appointed to the party’s central committee.
When independence arrived in 1975, dos Santos became Minister of Foreign Affairs, then Minister of Planning and Deputy Prime Minister of the one-party Marxist state.
In a surprise choice, the MPLA elected dos Santos at age 37 as president upon the death of Agostinho Neto, Angola’s first leader, in 1979. Dos Santos was seen as a consensual figure among bickering party veterans, but few anticipated his political longevity.
Dos Santos never sought to establish a personality cult and remained a mysterious figure. He reportedly once said in private that he felt his true calling was that of a monk.
Nor was he known for his political sensitivity: he built a multimillion-dollar mansion on the outskirts of a Luanda slum as millions of Angolans struggled with starvation during the civil war.
He won a surprise victory which sparked a series of internal conflicts
He was seen as a definite loser against Savimbi in the country’s first democratic elections in 1992, following a peace treaty signed the previous year.
Margaret Anstee, former UN special representative in Angola, described dos Santos as almost the opposite of Savimbi.
“His demeanor was serious and reserved, to the point that I detected a sense of shyness or timidity, absurd as that may sound. The contrast to Dr. Savimbi’s flamboyant personality could not have been sharper,” writes she in her 1996 book on Angola. titled “Cold War Orphan”.
But as further proof of his stamina, dos Santos resisted again, narrowly edging out Savimbi for the presidency while leading the MPLA to a parliamentary majority in the concurrent legislative elections.
When Savimbi rejected his defeat at the polls and returned to his armed struggle, Western support gradually swung behind dos Santos.
The enemies signed another peace agreement, brokered by the United Nations, in 1994, but which also fell apart four years later.
Meanwhile, dos Santos – with an army of around 100,000 troops, many with years of jungle combat experience – has attempted a role as a regional power broker, starting with neighboring countries.
It sent 2,500 troops to the Republic of Congo in 1997 to help President Denis Sassou-Nguesso take power and the following year sent a contingent to Congo to help President Laurent Kabila’s government fight rebels backed by the Rwanda and Uganda.
The end of Angola’s civil war in 2002 provided an opportunity for broader economic development in the southern African country, which is more than three times the size of California.
Corruption has become a problem in Angola
But public infrastructure has been devastated; 4 million people – about a third of the population at the time – had fled their homes because of the fighting; and oil and diamond wealth remained in the hands of the political and military elite.
Berlin-based Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index 2005 named Angola one of the 10 most corrupt countries in the world.
“As children maimed by landmines begged on the streets, politicians’ wives flew to New York with the government’s health care budget for nip-and-tuck cosmetic surgery,” wrote professor John McMillan. in economics at Stanford University, in a 2005 study of Angola. Corruption.
Under pressure to finally hold a poll, dos Santos announced legislative elections in 2008 and a presidential election the following year.
Dos Santos’ MPLA won the most votes for parliamentary seats. But then the head of state changed tactics, first postponing the presidential election and then canceling it.
He amended the constitution so that the president is chosen by the party that wins the legislative elections. This kept him in power for another eight years.
However, with his health deteriorating, Dos Santos announced in 2016 that he would retire.
He was replaced by Lourenço, a pillar of the MPLA, who has made the fight against corruption his flagship policy. He targeted the adult children of dos Santos, who possess fabulous personal wealth, but not his predecessor.
The change in fortunes of the dos Santos family prompted one of his daughters to suspect that a conspiracy was behind her father’s illness and death. Spanish prosecutors and police are investigating allegations by Tchizé dos Santos that people close to the ex-president tried to kill him, failed to take care of him properly and acted negligently.
Dos Santos, who married four times, was survived by his current wife, Ana Paula, with whom he had three children. He is known to have at least three other children and various grandchildren.