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Angolan President José Eduardo dos Santos, one of Africa’s longest-serving rulers, turned 70 on Tuesday, just days before his oil-rich country heads to only its third general elections on Friday.
The ruling Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), which he heads, took advantage of the proximity of the two events to run a major propaganda campaign to celebrate his birthday and promised him a big victory as a present.
Dos Santos began his long political career as an organiser, integrating clandestine groups that formed in the capital’s suburban neighbourhoods, after the establishment of the MPLA on December 10, 1956, to oppose the Portuguese colonial power.
He eventually took over the MPLA’s leadership to become Angola’s president in 1979 at the age of 37.
This was four years after independence, when the country’s first president, Antonio Agostinho Neto, died after surgery in the former Soviet Union.
Dos Santos, who had graduated in oil engineering in the former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan, survived challenging times over the next decades. This included wars against Angola conducted by Mobutu Sese Seko, president of what was then Zaire, and apartheid South Africa.
But Dos Santos’s main military challenge was a long-running insurgency by Jonas Savimbi’s Unita movement, which had competed with the MPLA to run Angola since before independence in 1975.
Dos Santos kept his hold on power despite – or perhaps because of – the wars against the MPLA. He led a one-party Marxist regime that finally opened up to multiparty democracy and capitalism in the early 1990s after the collapse of its Soviet mentor.
Dos Santos is credited for having achieved this transition relatively successfully, though it was hardly smooth.
In 1992, in Angola’s first democratic elections, the MPLA beat Unita convincingly. But Dos Santos, though beating Savimbi in the presidential election, failed to muster the necessary simple majority for victory, and thus should have faced a second round against Savimbi.
However, Savimbi rejected the first-round results, accusing the MPLA of rigging them, and the civil war – which had already raged for a quarter of a century – resumed for another decade.
Dos Santos resisted all entreaties – including from the ANC government – to negotiate with Savimbi again. Eventually his forces cornered his arch-enemy in his Central Highland stronghold in 2002, killing him and his top aides, so ending Unita’s rebellion.
Angola has been one of Africa’s fastest-growing economies since the end of the war, its boom fuelled almost entirely by its oil resources.
Gross domestic product is forecast to increase by 12 percent this year, the World Bank recently said. But despite this impressive economic growth, an estimated two-thirds of Angola’s 16.5 million people still live below the poverty threshold of $2 (about R16.80) a day, according to the UN Development Programme.
The 2011 UN Human Development Index ranked the country 148th out of 187.
Widespread and systemic corruption and mismanagement are given the most blame for this anomaly, and Dos Santos is believed to have become one of the richest people in the world since he took office.
The International Monetary Fund (IMF) said in a recent report there was a $32 billion discrepancy between receipts from oil companies and government revenues in the Angolan government’s accounts from 2007 to 2010.
For years, the IMF insisted on Angola opening up its oil accounts for public inspection as a condition for receiving an IMF loan, but this pressure now seems to have disappeared because of huge and unconditional Chinese loans or grants in exchange for oil.
Dos Santos’s regime is also widely accused of suppressing rights by cracking down on its political opposition and civil society, as well as keeping a tight control over the media.
In March last year, Dos Santos saw the first street protests against his rule, promoted by youth organisations. The protests were interpreted as a taste of the Arab Spring in the Middle East and north Africa.
Protesters wore T-shirts and carried banners that read “32 is enough”, a reference to Dos Santos’s time in office then.
On September 21 that will become 33 years in office, a record only surpassed (by a mere 27 days) by one other African leader still in office, Equatorial Guinea’s Obiang Nguema Mbasogo.
In those 33 years in power, Dos Santos has never legitimised his power by popular vote, and now never will. He has never faced the electorate since failing to win 50 percent of the vote in 1992, managing to defer that encounter – which he evidently fears – first with the excuse of the civil war, then by a series of political stratagems.
The final one of these was in 2010, when the MPLA-dominated parliament changed the constitution to do away with direct presidential elections. Henceforth, the president would be chosen by the party that won legislative elections.
The change provoked widespread criticism.
“By changing the constitution, the president denies direct scrutiny by the people and places himself under the MPLA’s skirt,” opposition leader Andre Mendes de Carvalho recently told a news conference.
Angola will hold its third parliamentary elections since independence – and the first under the new constitution – tomorrow.
The MPLA is expected to win comfortably thanks to its overwhelming campaign resources, tight control over the media and, according to opposition parties, substantial electoral fraud.
The opposition, led by Unita, now a conventional political party and the main opposition, has accused the national electoral commission (CNE) and the MPLA of preparing to steal the vote.
“We will not vote if freedom, equality and justice conditions are not set. Let’s protest so elections are held according to the law,” Unita leader Isaias Samakuva recently said.
“We will not allow another fraud, and will not recognise any government that comes from unfair elections.”
Samakuva said the data of 6.5 million of voters that the government provided to the CNE for the voters roll are illegal, because he claims the CNE has refused to allow its computerised voting roll to be audited by an independent agent, as required by law.
According to Samakuva, the CNE is also breaking the law by refusing to provide each voting station with communications equipment so that party agents can send the voting resultsto Luanda electronically.
Instead, the voting results will be transported to its Luanda headquarters by road.
Samakuva claims that the CNE has electronic equipment for this purpose, but has chosen not to use it, so opposition parties cannot verify the CNE’s national vote count.
Dos Santos is keeping Angolans guessing about his political future. In 2001, he announced that he would step down as presidential candidate in the next elections, whenever those might occur.
But this seemed to be no more than a Machiavellian device to expose his rivals in the party, because those who were foolish enough to present themselves as potential successors were swiftly blacklisted.
Eleven years later and now a septuagenarian, Dos Santos seems at last to be seriously contemplating retirement and has evidently chosen Manuel Vicente, ex-boss of the powerful state-owned oil company Sonangol, as his successor.
The MPLA has placed Vicente second to Dos Santos on its electoral list, which means he will become vice-president if the MPLA wins.
Analysts speculate that if the MPLA wins, as expected, Dos Santos will stay in office until some time during the coming parliamentary term.
But, of course, at 70, he is still a spring chicken compared with, say, Robert Mugabe. – Independent Foreign Service