Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Angola Marks 30 Years of President Jose Eduardo dos Santos' Leadership

Dos Santos - Angola's silent leader

By Louise Redvers
BBC News, Luanda

Jose Eduardo dos Santos is marking 30 years at the helm of Angola. He has presided over and ultimately won a long civil war and shows no sign of stepping down.

The 67-year-old is now Africa's second-longest serving leader after Muammar Gaddafi of Libya, following the death of Gabonese leader Omar Bongo in June.

But unlike the flamboyant Col Gaddafi, Mr dos Santos shuns the limelight, rarely making public appearances, and he refuses all interview requests from international media.

When he travels outside his vast presidential palace in the capital, Luanda, he does so surrounded by a mass of heavily armed soldiers and roads are closed beforehand to allow his free passage.

As head of the armed forces, and the police, and through his chairing of the government's cabinet meetings and his appointments of senior judges, he retains a firm grip on all aspects of power in his country, and much of the country's media is also under state control.

'Political craftsmanship'

In the July 2009 issue of the Review of African Political Economy, Alex Vines, director of Regional and Security Studies at London think-tank Chatham House, describes Angola's leader as "an accomplished and shrewd economic and political dealmaker with an instinct for political survival".

He said: "Against all odds, he has remained in power since 1979, overcoming challenges of war, elections and at the same time displaying a highly refined political craftsmanship."

Mr dos Santos has been credited for his attempts at negotiations with ex-rebel group Unita through the conflict years and in particular the speed in which the Luena protocol ending the war was signed following the death of Unita leader Jonas Savimbi in 2002.

And while the length of Mr dos Santos' long rule may be questioned by opposition and rights groups - who say he is deliberately delaying presidential elections to prolong his rule - to foreign investors tired of upheaval in places like Nigeria, his three decades of power is an attractive sign of stability.

This continuity has been credited for Angola's impressive post-war economic boom, its annual double digit GDP (Gross Domestic Product) growth and the billions of dollars of foreign investment helping to reconstruct the country after so many years of civil war.

Among Angolans themselves, the president also appears to be extremely popular, with his MPLA storming to victory in the 2008 parliamentary elections - the first to be held in 16 years - winning more than 81% of the vote.

'Very complicated'

Earlier this month he made a rare trip outside Luanda to the coastal city of Benguela, to open a new bridge and visit one of the new football stadiums to be used in the Africa Cup of Nations which Angola is hosting in January.

Thousands of Angolans turned out to line the streets, waving flags and cheering.

Many ordinary people are ambivalent to the amount of time their president has been in power.

History student Machado Mendes, 26, said: "It's a very complicated situation. Angola spent a very long time at war, during which it was impossible to have regular democracy."

Isabel Marcelino 30, a nurse, added: "I think it's better for our country that he's in power this long because if we had a new president, they wouldn't know how to organise the country.

"Some people the president is doing nothing, but that's not true, every day that passes our country gets better."

During recent celebrations for the president's 67th birthday, state media was full of dedications and praise from politicians, army chiefs and MPLA members home and abroad, and there were parties and seminars dedicated to studying his strategies and vision.

Few publicly criticise the president or the government and independent journalists who express their opinions can risk criminal proceedings.


However, there is a growing discontentment within academic and opposition circles over allegations of misappropriated riches among the president's family and inner circle. Some have compared his presidency to a "dynasty".

"What we are seeing today in Angola is a small minority of people getting richer while there is a majority of people getting poorer and poorer and poorer," said Unita spokesman Alcides Sakala.

Indeed, while Angola has enjoyed rapid economic growth and vies with Nigeria as Africa's largest oil producer, two-thirds of the country still live in poverty and one in six children die before their fifth birthday.

Education and health services remain weak and more than half of the population have no access to sanitation.

President dos Santos has publicly acknowledged these challenges but the party line is that change cannot happen over night and will only come through long-term strategic investment to create jobs and rebuild war-damaged infrastructures.

More than one-third of this year's $33.3 billion budget will be spent on social areas like health and education and there is a pledge to build one million new homes by 2012.

Fond of music and football, the president is married to Ana Paula dos Santos, who is 18 years his junior and has several children, a number of whom have significant business interests in Angola and Portugal, the former colonial power.

Story from BBC NEWS:
Published: 2009/09/20 23:33:55 GMT

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