Seeing is Believing — reassessing Angola’s ‘Implacable Exonerator’

Image via Eu sou João Lourenço Flickr.

When Angolans went to the polls in late August, many observers felt wary and jaded about the results. Even though President José Eduardo dos Santos was stepping down after 38 years in power, how much could we realistically expect to change? Dos Santos would remain the head of the ruling MPLA party, potentially until 2022, and his appointed successor, João Lourenço, appeared like an unlikely driver of change given his past as party cadre, Defense Minister, and dos Santos loyalist. Especially when the results proclaimed by the National Electoral Commission that gave the MPLA an overall 61% majority seemed fabricated out of thin air (despite notable, officially confirmed opposition gains in Luanda and Cabinda), many, including myself, expected more of the same.

The re-appointment of key figures in the state security services and the executive by dos Santos just before the elections, the initial composition of the cabinet, as well as the continued control of the dos Santos family over key sectors of the Angolan economy led many to believe that the new president, João Lourenço, had little leeway or interest to emancipate himself from the shadow of dos Santos. It would take more than a change of the figure at the top to seriously change the system, the current political and economic dispensation that was put into place by the MPLA in its decades of political dominance. 

However, three months after the elections, I spent nearly four weeks on new fieldwork in the capital, Luanda, and the northern province of Uíge, and from my conversations and observations a slightly different, more optimistic picture has begun to emerge.

Many people I talked to were positively swooning over “JLo” — how he was nicknamed during the election campaign — and his “simplicity” and “humility.” While dos Santos would bring the city to a standstill when his motorcade rushed through, blocking all street corners with heavily armed Presidential Guards and army soldiers, JLo now travels with one or two cars and one motorcycle outrider only — “and he even ordered his convoy to stop at the red light!” He also, so I was told in a mixture of wonder and glee, queued at the KFC, and made a private visit to a friend who was in hospital, driving his own car and entering the premises of the hospital unguarded, and only in the company of his wife.

At first, this all seemed like purely symbolic politics. But the importance of such symbols should not be underestimated. “O Angolano quer ver para crer” (Angolans want to see to believe), I was repeatedly told, “We need to see some improvements to our lives, otherwise why bother with elections? And I think João Lourenço has made a clear analysis of the situation, and he knows that he has to listen to the people in the current situation, otherwise the people will go out and protest. That’s why he’s acting closer to the people, more humbly — if he has the backing of the population, then the MPLA will not be able to oppose his plans. Conversely, if he listens to the MPLA and not the people, it will be very bad. The people will turn against the MPLA saying ‘let the man work!’”

Lourenço had campaigned under the motto “correct what is bad, improve what is good,” and while the “bad” things were never concretely identified during the campaign, his inaugural State of the Nation speech deliberately targeted the ills he wanted to correct — not naming individual figures, but still leaving little doubt to Angolans, trained over decades to read between the lines, who was meant. And thus the effects of the practice of preemptively obeying the infamous, unwritten “higher instructions” (orientações superiores) started showing. However, this time there were unexpected openings, such as when Lourenço stated that the public media should be at the service of Angolans and not the ruling party. This led to the front-page publication of negative news in Jornal de Angola, the state-run daily newspaper hitherto mainly known for its increasingly absurdist denial of reality. Weeks later Lourenço formally replaced the boards of directors at the Jornal and the public television channels, but the change had already been set in motion.

This echoes what a friend working for an oil multinational told me: “even if he’s not a real reformer, there are so many people like us everywhere, willing to seize whichever small space they are granted by new laws, regulations, or simply a new ‘spirit’ (cue the public press) that the change cannot be undone.” This has also opened up spaces for people, including party loyalists, to openly criticize dos Santos for his failings over the past ten years: “Esse camarada assegurou a paz, muito bem. Mas a factura ficou muito pesada…” (This Comrade secured peace, alright. But the bill was very hefty.)

In the week leading up to Independence Day (11 November) Lourenço visited the restive province of Cabinda — “and he slept in the province, can you imagine? The Old Man never did that in 38 years — if he went to the provinces, he would stay for 3 to 4 hours maximum, and then quickly escape back to his palace!” The official celebrations of Dipanda were then staged in the municipality of Matala, in the southern province of Huíla. When Lourenço’s plane touched down in the provincial capital, Lubango, a welcome committee of MPLA, OMA (Organização da Mulher Angolana, the MPLA’s women’s wing) and OPA (Organização Pioneiros Agostinho Neto, the youth/pioneer movement of the party) were waiting for him, waving party flags. Allegedly Lourenço refused to leave the plane until they all had left, saying he was here as president for the entire country, not of the party.

The week after his return, he then dismissed Isabel dos Santos from her post as President of the Board of state oil company Sonangol. Isabel dos Santos had been appointed in mid-2016 by her father, officially on the strength of her track record as “Africa’s first woman billionaire” to restructure the company that, following the drop in world oil prices, was in crisis. Not only did she fail to turn around Sonangol, continuing to milk its revenues for the profits of her own business empire, the appointment also proved deeply unpopular among the population and the ranks of the MPLA. This further bolsters Lourenço’s popularity, now much higher than before the elections, and raises hopes that the new team at Sonangol will help address the country’s most pressing economic problems. In addition, Lourenço also rescinded an existing contract between the public TV channel TPA2 and the regime-affiliated, private channel Zimbo and Semba Communications, a production company owned by two other children of dos Santos, that until now provided most of the content of the two broadcasters. As such, only José Filomeno “Zénú” dos Santos remains untouched of the former president’s children — for now — continuing at the head of the controversial US$5bn Sovereign Wealth Fund. This, together with a string of dismissals over the past few weeks, earned President Lourenço the nickname “implacable exonerator,” and indicates changes that go beyond mere cosmetics.

It is probably too early to speak of an “Angolan Perestroika.” It remains, for example, doubtful whether Vice-President Bornito de Sousa will truly push for the holding of local elections — as several people euphorically ensured me he would — given his track record as Minister of Territorial Administration, where he successfully delayed local elections for the past seven years since they were enshrined in the new constitution. And the dos Santos family were certainly the most visible, but by far not the only beneficiaries of the system, and it is for from certain that Lourenço will attack the monopolies of the army’s “business generals” with the same zeal as he appears to tackle the interests of the dos Santos. The long-promised “diversification of the economy” will also take more than just the removal of Isabel dos Santos to happen.

Still, the potency of these highly symbolic changes is evident, and Lourenço seems willing to use the near-absolute powers the 2010 constitution gives the president. While central elements of Angolan political culture — the deference to hierarchy, the importance of family links, the weight of history, and the manifest destiny of the MPLA (in its own perception) to lead the country — are likely to be more durable than just the next electoral cycle, JLo for many now incarnates the possibility of change from within the ruling party. After 38 years of ditadura dos kotas (dictatorship of the elders) this has raised justified hopes amongst Angolans that o poder (“power”) might just become a little more responsive to their everyday needs.

Jon Schubert

Jon Schubert is a political anthropologist and the author of Working the System: A Political Ethnography of the New Angola (Cornell University Press 2017). He is currently a Senior Research Fellow at the Global Studies Institute, University of Geneva.

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