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Angolan President José Eduardo dos Santos is not Africa’s longest-(self-)serving leader. That distinction belongs to President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo of Equatorial Guinea.
But Dos Santos comes a close second.
Obiang took office on August 25, 1979, after deposing and executing his uncle.
Dos Santos followed 27 days later on September 21, succeeding Agostinho Neto, independent Angola’s first president, who died of natural causes.
Both leaders have exemplified the extraordinary capacity of African leaders to retain power, no matter what political system ostensibly prevails in their countries at the time. Both led one-party states when they took office, but both adapted wonderfully to the multiparty democracy they were obliged to permit in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
They have both continuously won such elections as they allowed.
Obiang regularly triumphs at the polls with majorities of over 90 percent. Dos Santos has been a bit more subtle. Yet he, too, seems to suffer from the same malady as Obiang in wanting not only to win, but to win overwhelmingly.
Dos Santos has personally won only one election, in 1992, against Unita’s Jonas Savimbi in Angola’s first presidential plebiscite. But he fell just short of the 50 percent he needed to avoid a run-off with Savimbi.
The run-off conveniently never happened because Savimbi rejected the first-round result and civil war resumed.
Dos Santos, perhaps cowed by his failure to win a convincing mandate in 1992, has evaded another encounter with his electorate ever since.
For a decade, until his forces killed Savimbi in 2002, civil war was his excuse.
For the next seven years he didn’t really have an excuse.
And then in 2009, with President Jacob Zuma conveniently at his side, he announced that he was planning to adopt the “South African system” where the president is indirectly elected by parliament.
So, he will never face the electorate again on his own. And on August 31, when his MPLA party inevitably wins legislative elections again, parliament will re-elect him as president, and so he will “serve” (mostly himself) for another five years at least, until he is 75 and has clocked up 38 years in office.
That will help him add to the incalculable fortune he has already accumulated by siphoning off much of the country’s oil wealth, another similarity with Obiang.
By most accounts, the MPLA would have won this month’s elections anyway, through what one might call its “deep” or structural control of the apparatus of manipulation, including the budget, of course, and the national electronic media.
But Dos Santos and the ruling party have now credibly been accused of going a big step further by putting in place the means to rig the election more directly.
In June the National Electoral Commission – which, incidentally, does not even have “Independent” in its name – appointed a Spanish company called Indra-Sistemas to run the logistics of the election, after a blatantly opaque and flawed tender process, which unfairly disqualified other companies, including at least one from SA.
Indra-Sistemas also ran the 2008 legislative elections, when it was widely accused of various suspicious practices, such as printing 16 million more ballots than the number of voters and yet not delivering any ballots to several Unita strongholds.
Unita leader Isaias Samavuka told a recent news conference in Luanda that Unita had no doubt that Indra-Sistemas “came to Angola to fulfil the personal interests of José Eduardo dos Santos and not those of the country”.
But why rig an election so obviously when you almost certainly would have won it convincingly anyway?
Maybe it’s because of the paranoia that is one of the by-products of the president-for-life syndrome. And perhaps also sycophancy, another by-product.
A few weeks ago, at an election rally, the MPLA secretary-general promised Dos Santos a 92 percent victory as a special 70th birthday present. His birthday is three days before the poll.
Happy birthday, Mr President. Unhappy birthday, Angola.