Lourenço's Turn, The Past Hanging Over Angola's New President
João Lourenço succeeds José Eduardo Dos Santos, who ruled with an iron fist since 1979. But Dos Santos has been busy keeping his hands on the levers of power.
For the first time since 1979, Angola has a new president. João Lourenço was the obvious candidate to succeed José Eduardo Dos Santos: His long rise — first through the military, where he became general, and later through the People's Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), the governing party since the country's independence from Portuguese rule in 1975 — concluded in his easy victory in the election held on Aug. 23, 2017.
But far from being in a position of strength, Lourenço will find himself ruling with his hands tied over a ruined petrostate.
Lourenço, whose wife Ana is a former World Bank executive, will be assuming command over institutions designed to serve one man and his clan for decades. The entirety of ministries, local governments and the whole MPLA machinery have been subordinated to the almighty Dos Santos. The main economic levers are in the hands of the Dos Santos family. The now former president's daughter, Isabel, controls the oil and gas company Sonangol, the nerve center of the Angolan economy. Meanwhile, Dos Santos' son, Filomeno, is in charge of the opaque Angolan sovereign wealth fund.
Lourenço's honeymoon won't last very long.
Before leaving power, Dos Santos took all the necessary steps to prevent Lourenço from altering this institutional design. He passed decrees to prolong the mandates of the heads of national security and of the military to make sure his allies would remain in key positions. Bornito de Sousa, who acts as João Lourenço's vice president, is a historical ally of Dos Santos as well as an essential intermediary between the MPLA and the rest of the political system.
Beyond having his hands tied by his predecessor, Lourenço will find himself at the helm of a state engulfed in a financial crisis unprecedented since the end of the civil war, which lasted from Angola's independence in 1975 until 2002. The falling oil prices that began in 2014 choked public finances and led to the defection of most international partners. Like other BRICS countries, Brazil went from generous investor to bill collector for the regime, in just over two years.
Very early in his presidency, João Lourenço will have to sit down at the negotiating table with the International Monetary Fund to seek a new financial assistance package. The inevitable consequence will be a drop of the national currency, the kwanza, which will, in turn, add to the population"s financial difficulties, given Angola's heavy reliance on imports. In short, Lourenço's honeymoon won't last very long at all.
Despite the gravity of the situation, Lourenço understands better than most the importance of moving slowly, step by step. He saw up close his predecessor's aversion for radical change. Fifteen years ago, when Dos Santos first opened the debate on his succession, João Lourenço was among the first to declare his interest in taking over. The result was not what he'd expected: Dos Santos decided to stay on and forced Lourenço into a spell in the political wilderness, as punishment for his excessive ambition.
For decades, politics in Angola has been little more than disputes between wannabe leaders — disputes that, in the end, Dos Santos always won. Even being in charge, João Lourenço may soon find out that old Angolan habits die harder than most.