Dos Santos' 2018 exit and the threat of an oil-backed but population-driven Angolan ‘Black Spring’

While African leaders often steal elections, unusually, in 1992 the Angolan strongman asked the electoral body to reduce his votes!

FOR all the focus on José Eduardo Dos Santos’ iron-fist rule over an illiberal democracy, history has a way of offering rich, even if rare, counter-narratives.

In 1992, Dos Santos was on course for an electoral drubbing as the southern African country went to UN-brokered polls meant to break the debilitating cycle of internecine conflict. His chief challenger, charismatic rebel leader Jonas Savimbi, had built on his popular image as an indigenous African leader, with thought leaders such as Senegal’s Leopold Senghor critical of Dos Santos as culturally Portuguese.

But Savimbi, an omnipresent man on international circuits where he held much of the liberal West in his thrall, became cocky, too sure of victory. His campaign rhetoric was about vengeance, driving war-weary Angolan voters into the arms of his more “regular guy” rival.

Dos Santos’ unusual move

In the event, the incumbent polled 49% while Savimbi managed 34%. But as top ranking US diplomat Herman Cohen would years later confirm in a book, it turned out that worried about Savimbi rejecting the result, Dos Santos had persuaded the Portuguese chair of the independent electoral chair to lower his score from 51%, which would have given him outright victory, so as to give the UNITA leader a second bite of the cherry in a run-off.

As expected, Savimbi rejected the outcome and went back to the bush, only to be killed 10 years later by government forces, aided by members of his liberation movement said to have been disillusioned by the transition of Savimbi into a demagogue paranoid of rivals, and by an Israeli drone.

Last week, Dos Santos, 73, announced he would leave “active politics” in 2018, when he would have clocked nearly 40 years in office. Observers say he has been making this promise since at least 2001, and only in July last year  signalled it was “not wise” for him to step down.

But there are two notable signs of a rapidly shifting terrain that may suggest examining this latest pledge seriously.

Times are a changing

The first is the medium-term fortunes of oil. Few other economies on the continent are as completely dominated by the resource as Angola—which generates at least 70% of its state revenue, 40% of its gross domestic product, and more than 90% of its export receipts from crude.

The bulk of its oil has come online only in the period following the end of the civil war, and it has gushed cash. In 2002, its GDP was $10 billion, it is now worth about $130 billion.

The money has funded a lot of rebuilding, with gleaming roads and a spate of dam construction among the most visible infrastructure.

But it has also bred credible claims of benefiting only a small group of elites and cronies. Given the rapid pace with which Dos Santos consolidated power over the last 15 years, any disgruntlement with this has been dealt with ruthlessly.

When oil revenue was plentiful few external powers had any leverage over Angola—its problem was essentially too much, not too little, cash.

The money allowed Angola to dictate its foreign policy, choose its friends and terms, and engage in intra-African military adventures backed by one the continent’s highest spending on an army.

But the price of the commodity has since fallen through the floor, a drop of 65% since June 2014, sending Angola authorities into the hands of donors, from close friends such as China, to multilateral lenders such as the World Bank, for emergency loans to tide it over.

Ratings firms are queuing to downgrade the country, citing the shock of depressed oil prices. As such, debt repayment could eat up eat up even more of already scarce foreign reserves, while its local kwanza currency is currently on its back, having fallen to record lows due to devaluation.

To compound matters, few new reserves are being found. As Dos Santos looks towards 40 years in power, 40 years from now Angola will have no oil.

The immediate effect of this is difficulties in oiling the patronage system that has kept the president comfortable while in power, shielding him from having to rely on taxpayers for money.

Intelligence firm PGI in its outlook for this year noted that “the low oil price will weaken his ability to buy political support, while any cuts to defence spending could provoke opposition from the armed forces”.

With prices of the commodity expected to remain sub-$50 for the rest of this decade, the resulting crunch may have informed the president’s move to look to exit while still on a political high, but leaving a back door open in case oil prices recover.

The Cidade Alta in Luanda, Angola, stretches along a ridge lined by pink colonial buildings including the president’s and archbishop’s palaces. (Photo/David Stanley/Flickr)

Angolan authorities have recently upped the conversation around diversification, targeting agriculture, industry and other minerals such as diamonds, but there are two major obstacles to this. First, rebalancing the economy rarely happens overnight, especially in such an oil-reliant economy and where government spending accounts for a third of total economic output.

New rival elites

Secondly, diversification creates opportunities for new—and rival—elites and thus alternative centres of power to emerge. This is why when oil prices are high the conversation around this usually vanishes from policy circles.

The prospect of low oil has also run into the problem of a rapidly growing population, and consequently, few opportunities for young Angolans.

The country has in recent months gradually reduced fuel subsidies, while this year cuts of at least 25% in public spending are planned.

Such cuts would be felt mainly in the low-income areas. Much of Angola’s recent growth, like its political power, is centralised. Visitors describe the capital Luanda as an economic enclave, and the country’s investment agency offers the highest incentives to investors venturing into the hinterland.

Its high cost of living is already well documented, with almost everything having to be imported and Angolans having to devise creative ways to survive.

Coupling this with the urbanisation of poverty raises the chances of increased social unrest. In a case that has caught the international community’s attention, some 17 young Angola activists have been in detention since June.

They are charged with rebellion against the state, for organising a reading of US academic Gene Sharp’s 1993 book, From Dictatorship to Democracy: A Conceptual Framework for Liberation.

It might seem as overreaction by a regime intent on battening down the hatches on any opposition, but in Angola, such study groups have historical meaning.

The 1977 coup attempt against president Agostinho Neto partly emanated from study groups, described by the government as subversive secret networks, and which were linked to left-leaning protagonists.

Ticking time bomb

Their case is symbolic of a time bomb. Oil keeps Angola ticking, but employs only one million of its estimated 25 million people. Over the next 15 years this population is projected to rise to 40 million, and to 65 million by 2050, when it will be in the top 30 countries that account for 75% of the world’s population.

In that year, nearly 60% of Angola’s population will be aged between 15-59, and with the few existing opportunities, a reality that is a legacy of the war, it could get even dicier for the authorities.

Interestingly, oil also has a role to play in this: its wealth tends to drag down exports and make patriarchs more likely to provide, removing women from the job equation. Essentially, they have more time to themselves, and become more fertile.

In such an increasingly uncertain time, giving the young population hope of political change could buy Dos Santos valuable space to manage the transition, for which analysts say there currently exists no mechanism.

Significantly however, Dos Santos proposes to leave the  presidency a year after the election, essentially guaranteeing he will be in the running. It could be a tactic to consolidate power further by drawing out those who would seek to succeed him.

His perceivably favoured successor is Manuel Domingos Vicente, whom he hurriedly elevated as his deputy in 2012, having been at the helm of the all-important national oil company Sonangol.

However, with no liberation struggle credentials, he faces resistance from entrenched interests who would rather one of their own succeed Dos Santos if he eventually leaves.

It sets the country up for a run up to an election—only Angola’s fourth ever—that could be full of intrigue, unlikely to be as outright as that in Zimbabwe, where another liberation movement is fighting to own the post-long time leader order, but no less vicious.

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