Former Angolan president José Eduardo dos Santos, who controlled the continent’s second-biggest oil producer with an iron hand for 38 years, has died at the age of 79.
During almost four decades in power, dos Santos fought and won one of Africa’s bloodiest civil conflicts, oversaw Angola’s rise as an Opec crude producer and forged close ties with Beijing, making the country a symbol for Chinese influence on the continent.
He also presided over one of the world’s most corrupt regimes, leaving Angolans in penury while the ruling People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) benefited from billions of dollars in oil wealth. Isabel dos Santos, his eldest daughter, emerged as Africa’s richest woman under his rule.
The political legacy of dos Santos will be “the looting and kidnapping of a country, bent to the interests of the oligarchy he created”, Rafael Marques de Morais, an activist who was jailed by his regime, wrote this month. Angola had the promise of a new start in 2002 when the civil war finally ended, he said in an article on an activists’ website, but instead it became Dos Santos’ fiefdom.
Born in 1942 in the seaside Luanda district of Sambizanga, dos Santos joined the MPLA as it fought to secure independence from Portugal in the 1960s. He followed the path of many other African liberation war exiles, travelling to the Soviet Union for training. He studied to be an oil engineer in Baku, Azerbaijan, and married a geologist, Tatiana Kukanova, Isabel’s mother.
After Angola secured independence in 1975, dos Santos served as the country’s first foreign minister under President Agostinho Neto. Neto’s presidency was consumed by the start of the civil war with Unita, a former ally in the anti-colonial struggle, and a coup attempt in the MPLA. When Neto died in 1979, dos Santos emerged as his successor.
In the 1980s, dos Santos received support from Moscow in one of the fiercest proxy conflicts of the cold war. Moscow-backed Cuban troops fought against apartheid South African forces and US-backed rebels led by Jonas Savimbi.
After the start of negotiations to end the civil war, dos Santos — who ditched Marxism in favour of markets and multi-party politics as the cold war ended — came just shy of winning the first round of elections of presidential elections in 1992. But rivals Unita rejected the result and a second round was never held.
Fighting continued for another decade until Savimbi’s death in 2002. After postwar elections in 2008 and then presidential elections in 2012, Dos Santos used oil company Sonangol to finance the reconstruction of the country, turning to China for oil-backed loans. Angola became Beijing’s biggest African borrower. Foreign investors also piled into Angolan oil production, which rose from 700,000 barrels a day in 1996 to almost 2mn by the 2010s as discoveries were made deep off the coast.
As a result, the ruling party called dos Santos the “Architect of Peace”. But there was no peace dividend for Angolans, half of whom continue to live on less than $2 a day. Dos Santos drew his power from a parallel system based on securocrats and Sonangol, building what Paula Cristina Roque, an analyst of his rule, has called a securitised “shadow” state that crushed any potential threats and opposition.
In the last years of his rule, dos Santos bequeathed control over major state assets to his children. He gave the chairmanship of the nation’s sovereign fund to his son José Filomeno, known as Zenu, and control of Sonangol to Isabel.
But he failed to establish a political dynasty. As oil prices plunged and Angola entered an economic crisis, dos Santos tried to stage-manage his exit. But he badly misjudged his successor. João Lourenço took over in 2017 and soon began dismantling his predecessor’s system of patronage while largely retaining the repression that had sustained his rule. In 2019, Isabel’s Angolan assets were frozen. Her business empire disintegrated. In 2020, Zenu was jailed by an Angolan court for five years over an alleged $500mn fraud.
Zenu denied wrongdoing and went on to appeal the conviction. Isabel fights on from exile in court battles around the world and has fought back against what she says is the manipulation of state institutions to destroy the dos Santos family.
Still, the clan’s political clout seems broken for good. The patriarch himself departed Angola and settled in Barcelona in 2019. In 2021, he briefly returned home before going back to Spain for medical treatment.
On Friday, the Lourenço government said dos Santos had “governed for many years, with clairvoyance and humanism, the destinies of the Angolan nation in very difficult moments”. But his real legacy, Marques said this month, was to leave behind a “feudal suzerainty”.