José Eduardo dos Santos from Angola dies at the age of 79

José Eduardo dos Santos, who presided over Angola during a brutal civil war and navigated the cold war countercurrents to serve 38 years as president and become one of Africa’s longest-serving and most greedy tyrants, died in a Barcelona hospital on July 8 . He was 79.

The Angolan government announced his death on its Facebook page. According to news reports, he had traveled to Spain for cancer treatment for several years.

During his nearly four decades in power, from 1979 to 2017, Mr. dos Santos guided his resource-rich nation through seemingly endless conflict and an uneasy peace marred by corruption that brought vast fortunes to his family and a few favored few while he most Angolans were left behind in desolate poverty.

More than half a million people were killed in a civil war that displaced more than 3 million and left much of the country in ruins or littered with landmines, while Angola became Africa’s second largest oil producer and third largest diamond producer.

An intensely private, even reclusive figure, Mr. dos Santos largely eschewed any cult of personality. Even his image on the country’s currency was partially obscured by another portrait. He gave few speeches or interviews and revealed little of his personal life. He sported a tight-lipped smile in official photos, none of which showed his office or home.

Mr dos Santos was eventually forced into exile – to a $7.2 million mansion in Barcelona – after his successor, President João Lourenço, unexpectedly launched a crackdown on corruption affecting the long-untouchable dos Santos family and their family employees recorded.

The main target of the investigation was Isabel dos Santos, the former president’s eldest daughter and reportedly the richest woman in Africa. She was charged in 2020 with money laundering, counterfeiting and other financial crimes stemming from her tenure as head of Sonangol, Angola’s national oil company.

Prosecutors relied in large part on a vast trove of leaked financial and business records uncovered by news organizations working with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, a Washington-based nonprofit. The Luanda Leaks scandal linked Isabel dos Santos or her husband to more than 400 companies in 41 countries and offshore tax havens.

She had opulent homes in London and Dubai and built a secret business empire estimated to be worth $3.5 billion, but denied wrongdoing. Two of her half-siblings fled abroad. A half-brother, José Filomeno dos Santos, was arrested in 2018 and later sentenced to five years in prison for embezzling up to $500 million from Angola’s sovereign wealth fund, which he managed.

Overall, the Lourenço government estimated that more than $24 billion was looted during Mr dos Santos’ rule, allegedly through illegal diversion of oil revenues, sweet government contracts, entrenched patronage and other schemes.

Mr. dos Santos “allowed his immediate and extended family and associates to dominate commercial activities in a stagnant economy [and] a textbook kleptocracy,” said Alex Vines, head of the Africa program at Chatham House, a British think tank.

Despite his reserved public appearance, Mr. dos Santos wielded almost unlimited power. He directed the armed forces, oversaw security agencies and directed the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), the forces that have dominated almost every facet of Angolan life since the Portuguese colony gained independence in 1975.

At that point, Mr dos Santos’ group was supported by Cuba and the Soviet Union. The United States and apartheid-era South Africa backed the MPLA’s main military rival, known by the acronym UNITA, and fomented a ruinous superpower proxy war for control of Angola. The country’s civil war survived the Cold War and only ended in 2002.

During his long tenure, Mr. dos Santos’ regime relied on what have been described in State Department human rights reports as arbitrary arrests, torture and extrajudicial killings, a murky trial and restrictions on freedom of assembly, speech and the press.

A shrewd dealmaker, Mr dos Santos achieved his political longevity by swapping allies and ideologies as the world shifted around him. As the Soviet Union began to implode, the former Marxist-Leninist allowed a partial market economy, allowing Chevron, Texaco and other US companies to tap Angola’s vast offshore oil fields, the country’s main source of income.

In time he abandoned Marxism-Leninism entirely, expelled the Cuban armed forces and allowed the country’s first multiparty elections. The United States became Angola’s largest trading partner and Mr. dos Santos made four working visits to the White House by 2004.

Since then, a growing share of the country’s oil has gone to China. According to Portuguese news agency Lusa, China has invested more than $20 billion in roads, schools, power plants and other infrastructure in Angola under a loan-for-oil scheme.

Still, the World Bank estimates that more than half of Angola’s more than 30 million people live on less than $1.90 a day. Life expectancy in Angola remains among the lowest in the world and infant mortality among the highest.

José Eduardo dos Santos was born on August 28, 1942 in the capital Luanda, the son of a bricklayer. His good grades secured him one of the few places for African students in a school attended by Portuguese elite children. Amid rising anti-colonial sentiment on the continent, he enlisted in the MPLA army at the age of 20, determined to end four centuries of Portuguese rule.

Like many African militants, he found support in Moscow. He received a petroleum engineering degree from a college in Baku, Azerbaijan, then a Soviet republic, in 1969.

He was a member of the MPLA Central Committee when Portugal agreed to grant independence to Angola in 1975. The interim government in Luanda collapsed as fighting broke out between the MPLA and rival guerrilla groups, including the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola, or UNITA.

With help from Havana and Moscow, the MPLA managed to secure a shaky new government under President Agostinho Neto, but his death from cancer in 1979 made Mr dos Santos – then a key cabinet member – president, commander of the armed forces and head of the People’s Assembly .

Angola – a country twice the size of France – remained in dire straits. The currency was almost worthless and the civil war, often fought by child soldiers, destroyed the infrastructure and drove millions to flee.

The 1992 multiparty elections, conducted under a ceasefire and monitored by the United Nations, marked the first real chance for peace. But when Jonas Savimbi, the US-backed UNITA leader, lost decisively to Mr. dos Santos, he falsely claimed fraud and reignited the war.

Savimbi’s forces soon seized much of the territory and cut supply lines to the cities, causing famine in some areas. As casualties and atrocities mounted, Alioune Blondin Béye, the UN special envoy for Angola, called the war “the worst war in the world”. A peace deal was only reached after Angolan forces killed Savimbi in February 2002.

Mr dos Santos was married to Ana Paula dos Santos, a former model and flight attendant. He was reported to have fathered four to eight children with various wives and relationships, but no official list of survivors was immediately available.

Mr dos Santos, who suffered from poor health, voluntarily resigned in the 2017 general election, handing over power to Lourenço, his former defense minister and political protégé.

A year later, Mr dos Santos sat in stunned silence at an MPLA conference as his elected successor denounced recent “corruption, nepotism, flattery and impunity” in a thinly veiled attack on the former ruling family.

At the gathering, Mr dos Santos made no apology, acknowledged unspecified mistakes and said he was going with his head held high. José Eduardo dos Santos from Angola dies at the age of 79

James Brien

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