23 February 2019
Angolan President Joao Lourenco has been working aggressively to consolidate his power over the past five months. Photo: Reuters
Angolan President Joao Lourenco has been working aggressively to consolidate his power over the past five months. Photo: Reuters

The intense power struggle in Angola

In recent months, Angola, the second largest oil producer in the African continent after Nigeria, has been engulfed by political turmoil, with an intense power struggle between the incumbent president Joao Lourenco and the former political strongman Jose Eduardo dos Santos.

The situation, however, has received very little, if not totally zero, attention from Chinese news media.

Jose Eduardo dos Santos had remained in power for over 38 years until 2016, when the then 74-year-old strongman answered nationwide calls for him to step down by handpicking the then minister of defense Joao Lourenco as his successor.

Lourenco later ran in the 2017 presidential election on behalf of the country’s ruling party, the “Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola” (MPLA), and won by landslide.

However, Santos had a secret agenda when he chose Lourenco as his successor. Lourenco, whom Santos thought would be easy to manipulate, was intended as a figurehead only.

What Santos really attempted to do was to maintain his influence by pulling the strings behind the scenes on one hand, and to put his four sons and daughters in charge of key national bodies — such as the Angolan sovereign fund, the state-owned TV network and the country’s largest oil company, Sonangol — on the other, so that he and his family would still remain firmly in power in the days ahead.

However, much to the surprise of Santos, Lourenco has proven himself to be no pushover at all ever since he was sworn in as the new president of Angola in September last year.

Rather than toeing Santos’ line humbly, Lourenco has not only been working aggressively to consolidate his own power over the past five months, but has also taken a gigantic swing at the hornet’s nest by swiftly removing Santos’ children as well as some of his political allies from key positions.

However, Lourenco’s victory is still far from being sealed and the power struggle between him and Santos remains pretty much a work in progress at this point.

It is because Santos is still holding substantial political power by continuing to serve as the chairman of the MPLA.

If he and his supporters refuse to accept the political fait accompli and are determined to mount an all-out counter-offensive against Lourenco, Angola may once again be thrown into disarray after only 16 years of peace in the wake of the country’s bloody civil war between 1975 and 2002.

Besides, President Lourenco’s massive crackdown on the Santos family and his aggressive seizure of power have also aroused suspicion among members of the Angolan opposition.

They are worried that what the president is really doing is just trying to rally public opinion behind him and claim the moral high ground in order to allow himself to establish his own personal dictatorship and to appoint his trusted people to key government positions.

Given such concern, the Angolan opposition has been refraining from aligning itself fully with the new president.

Recently, Lourenco has further demonstrated his commitment to carrying out sweeping reforms and fighting corruption by publicly and unprecedentedly declaring his own net worth and family assets to engender transparency.

Lourenco indeed has every reason to take a tough stance on corruption. It is because on one hand, he is desperate to swing public opinion his way, and then on the other, because Angola has been undergoing its worst financial crisis ever since international oil prices started to plummet in 2014.

The global oil price crash that began in 2014 has taken a deadly toll on Angola’s economy, which earlier experienced a “golden decade” with an average annual growth of some 10 percent. At its height, crude oil constituted 90 percent of the country’s total export revenues and nearly half of its gross domestic product.

If Lourenco doesn’t take decisive action, it is likely that his country may descend into the same kind of chaos and desperation as that seen in Venezuela.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Feb 7

Translation by Alan Lee with additional reporting

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Associate professor and director of Global Studies Programme, Faculty of Social Science, at the Chinese University of Hong Kong; Lead Writer (Global) at the Hong Kong Economic Journal

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