By Gwynne Dyer
THERE is momentous change in Angola. The oil-rich country of 28 million people on Africa’s southwestern coast has just elected J-Lo as president.
There is also very little change in Angola. The new president is not Jennifer Lopez, the American J.Lo (which would definitely mean big change). It is João Lourenço, a member of the ruling Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) since the 1970s, a general since the 1980s, and most recently the Minister of Defence. He can’t sing, either.
J-Lo replaces 75-year-old José Eduardo Dos Santos, who has been president for the past 38 years (the second longest-ruling president in the world). But it’s questionable how much power he will really inherit from the outgoing president, who passed a new law prohibiting his successor from changing the heads of the army, the police or the intelligence service for eight years. Dos Santos wants no surprises after his retirement.
In fact, it’s hard to say that Dos Santos is retiring at all. He will remain the head of the ruling MPLA party, his daughter Isabel (Africa’s richest woman) runs the state oil company, and one of his sons controls the $5 billion state investment fund. Other allies and cronies dominate the rest of the economy.
J-Lo, by contrast, holds no positions that provide opportunities to steal massive amounts from state funds, and is widely believed to be non-corruptible or nearly so, a rare quality in the MPLA’s senior leadershiip. That may be why he was forced on Dos Santos by the party as a successor.
The MPLA has a little problem. After a devastating 27-year civil war between rival liberation movements ended with the death in battle in 2002 of Jonas Savimbi, leader of the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (Unita), rapidly growing oil production and high world oil prices created a huge boom in the Angolan economy. In several years since then it has been the fastest-growing economy in the world.
A great deal of the new wealth went to senior MLA members and their allies, but enough trickled down to keep the impoverished masses quiet and obedient. But the collapse in oil prices since 2014 has halved the Angolan government’s income and killed the private economy, such as it was. In the sprawling capital, Luanda, half-finished, abandoned apartment towers line the shore.
The poor are getting poorer, and they may eventually get angry. This is a relatively rich country where 20 percent of children die before their fifth birthday and a quarter of the adult population is officially unemployed (unofficially, much more). There is a lot of dry political tinder lying around waiting for a match.
The opposition Unita party won 27 percent of the votes in last week’s election, ten percent more than ever before, despite what was probably large-scale vote-rigging. The rank-and-file of the ruling party is getting worried, and despite having made the transition from hard-line communist to free-market capitalist over the years the MPLA remains a disciplined organisation.
Dos Santos was invulnerable until he got ill, but for more than a year he has been receiving treatment for cancer. He had his cousin, Vicente Manuel, made vice-president in 2012 with the intention of making him the designated successor, but the party chose João Lourenço instead in 2015. And though nobody is admitting it publicly, it probably pressured Dos Santos not to run again in the 2017 election.
So change is probably on the way in Angola after all, despite Dos Santos’s strenuous efforts to protect his family’s own wealth and power and hamstring his successor. What kind of change it’s hard to say, because like all prominent MPLA members J-Lo has had to hide any contrary opinions he may have held during the long reign of Dos Santos.
One clue, however, is Lourenço’s reputation for honesty. Long-ruling parties faced with collapsing popular support often try to win it back by choosing somebody known to be clean and competent as leader: think of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union picking Mikhail Gorbachev as General Secretary in 1985.
But remember also what happened to the CPSU in 1991. It was already too late to “reform” the Communist Party in the Soviet Union by 1985. It may already be too late to reform the MPLA now. And Angola’s civil war is only fifteen years in the past: a transition to a less corrupt, more open, less repressive regime would be a tricky thing to manage.
Lourenço has fought for and served the MPLA all his adult life, and he certainly has no intention of removing it from power. But he could be seduced by the idea of making it really popular again, and thereby holding onto power by genuinely democratic means.
In which case we must wish him luck, while knowing that he is likely to fail.
Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries