President dos Santos is “missing”

President Jose Eduardo dos Santos left Angola on June 26th for a private visit to Barcelona in Spain, where he is reported to have travelled in the past for medical attention. With his stay overseas now exceeding 44 days, more than the duration of any previous visit, his absence has come under scrutiny in Angola. While he may well reappear in public soon, his absence and rumours about his health have sparked a debate about his succession.

It is not unusual for the 70-year-old to be out of the public eye for long stretches of time, or for ministers to substitute for him at regional summits and bilateral meetings, as they have been doing over the past month. However, the president is widely rumoured to have suffered from serious health problems and his extended visit to a place where he has previously received medical care has led to speculation that he may be gravely ill. On August 8th, a government official said that the reason Mr dos Santos was gone for longer than expected is because of repairs being carried out to the presidential palace, and that he will travel to the Gulf of Guinea summit in Malabo on August 9th.

Who will be Angola’s next president?

The situation has triggered a debate about what will happen if Mr dos Santos, who has ruled Angola since 1979, is forced to step down due to illness.  According to the terms of the 2010 constitution, “if the office of the elected president of the Republic becomes vacant, the duties shall be performed by the vice-president, who shall complete the term of office with full powers.” The term of office would run until the next election, which only the vice-president, Manuel Vicente, as acting head of state, would have the power to call, and which is currently expected in 2017.

If this system is followed, it would hand the presidency to Mr Vicente, the former CEO of the state oil company, Sonangol, who became vice-president in 2012. However, whether he would have sufficient political backing to remain in office beyond 2017 is unclear. Mr Vicente is not popular among many within the ruling party, Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola (MPLA), because he is seen as too business-orientated and lacking in military credentials.

Mr Vicente might be having a trial run

According to the constitution, the leader of the party with the most parliamentary seats becomes president. While the MPLA is almost certain to win the next election, it is unclear whether Mr Vicente would still head the party or be replaced by a rival. These are unchartered waters for Angola, not just because the constitution is only three years old, but because Mr dos Santos has led the MPLA since 1979 without any leadership challenges. Keeping his succession plan cloudy has been a deliberate and successful tactic by Mr dos Santos to prevent others gaining sufficient influence to challenge his authority.

One view discussed in Luanda is that the president’s prolonged absence has been a ploy to give Mr Vicente a trial run in the top job, a chance to win over the hearts and minds of his critics. In recent weeks state television has been full of the former oilman making speeches, attending events, saying little of note in terms of policy, but raising his public profile, which has been muted until now. This theory is plausible and bears some similarities to the strategic planting of rumours about Mr Vicente’s entry into politics months before it actually happened. This was probably done to give Mr Vicente time to raise his public profile and increase his political experience, as well as to give MPLA members time to grow used to and accept his role.

A family matter

A question lingers about Mr dos Santos’s eldest son, Jose Filomeno, who some believe is being groomed to take over from his father. In June, Mr dos Santos Jnr, who had just turned 35 (the minimum age to be president), was appointed chairman of the country’s US$5bn sovereign wealth fund, his first high-profile public position. However, he is not a member of the MPLA Politburo or Central Committee, and like Mr Vicente, he has few fans in party circles. If his father should cease to be president in the coming months, it is hard to see Mr dos Santos Jnr being able to replace him, at least not in the short term.

There has been no official reason given for the length of Mr dos Santos’s stay abroad, or any date when he may return. However, his birthday is on August 28th, a day that is typically used to promote his image through sporting and cultural events, and it is unlikely he would miss such an opportunity for good press. Indeed, although publicity shy compared with other African leaders, Mr dos Santos has lately been working on improving his image and legacy. In June, for instance, he took part in a rare televised interview with Portuguese media. Opposition parties have accused the Office of the Presidency, which is not known for its open channels of communication, of disrespecting the Angolan people by staying silent on the head of state’s whereabouts or expected return.

A political vacuum

There is little doubt that Mr dos Santos has ruled for too long, and that economic progress for most Angolans has fallen far short of potential, given the country’s vast oil and gas riches. Angola ranks 148th out of 187 countries in the Human Development Index compiled by the UN, and life expectancy at birth is less than 52 years. However, he has been president for close to 34 years, more than the entire lifetime of most Angolans, and his rule has also coincided with a period of stability following the end of a three-decade civil war in 2002. A break in that continuity, either suddenly due to his illness or through a poorly managed transition period, could threaten this hard-won stability. Mr dos Santos has kept the peace through skillful control of influence, favours and patronage, while containing popular discontent through a mixture of repression and manipulation of the media.

At the same time, Mr dos Santos has created a dangerous power vacuum by not articulating or allowing a clear succession plan, and there has been a growing sense that the injustices ingrained in the political system–which largely benefit a small elite–cannot continue indefinitely. Angola has one of the best-equipped and well-trained militaries in Africa, and while the top generals profess loyalty to the president, their allegiances would be split among different MPLA figures in his absence. It is crucial that the inevitable transition to a new president, whether it comes in the next few months or several years from now, is smoothly managed, to avoid a descent into violent conflict.

Source: The Economist Intelligence Unit

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