In an 1887 letter to Archbishop Mandell Creighton about holding leaders to universal moral standards, Lord John Action said that “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” For Angola’s José Eduardo dos Santos, who announced retirement in February 2017, the end of a thirty-eight-year reign may mark the start of a new phase of absolute power and corruption.
On Wednesday, August 23, Angolans headed to the polls to elect a new president. João Lourenco who is the candidate of the ruling party, the Movement for the Liberation of Angola’s (MPLA) is expected to win. He is also the Defence Minister and party Vice President.
In the event of his victory, Lourenco has promised to foster economic growth by partnering with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank. He also pledged to fight corruption by prosecuting corrupt government officials. But his allegiance to the cause has been questioned as many perceive him to be a proxy of the outgoing president.
With Lourenco at the helm, dos Santos is widely thought to maintain significant influence. Santos’ daughter, Isabel, is one of Africa’s richest women and the head of the nation’s oil company, Sonangol. His son, José Filomeno, is the chairman of Fundo Soberano de Angola, Angola’s sovereign wealth fund. Some of his other children also hold key positions in the finance and entertainment sectors. Besides, many government officials including judges are appointees of dos Santos.
Furthermore, dos Santos has opted to stay as leader of the ruling party, consequently giving him substantial influence on the affairs of the country. He has also been elected to the Council of the Republic, and therefore enjoys immunity from prosecution. As it is with many of Africa’s power-clinging leaders, dos Santos seems to have enjoyed the goodwill of the people. He is often hailed as the hero whose party ended the Angolan Civil War. Another MPLA victory may maintain the status quo.
However, the end of dos Santos’ presidency is a potential break from what has been a prolonged reign of authoritarianism, cronyism, and brazen corruption that has depleted the nation’s revenues and given rise to inequality.
In the unlikelihood of an opposition victory, especially if it wins a majority, there may be a purging of the old guard. The new president will seek to gain control by prosecuting or ousting dos Santos’ appointees in all arms of government. Perhaps economic diversification will follow. But the prospect of an opposition victory is far-fetched.
In the letter to the Archbishop Creighton, Lord Action also said that “Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority.” Although dos Santos may no longer have official authority, he seems to have considerable influence on many who do.