Soren Kirk Jensen
Associate Fellow, Africa Programme
President José Eduardo dos Santos's announcement that he will step down in 2018 raises questions of succession and the country's political future.
Jose Eduardo dos Santos Angolan greets the crowd during his final election campaign rally in 2012. Photo by Getty Images.Jose Eduardo dos Santos greets the crowd during his final election campaign rally in 2012. Photo by Getty Images.

President José Eduardo dos Santos announcement that he will step down and leave politics in 2018 after almost four decades in power is a watershed − ending a presidency that has run since 1979. It is a surprise − most observers expected him to finish a second electoral mandate and retire in 2022.

But is it a mirage? President dos Santos has signalled several times since 2001 that he was considering retirement, and used these occasions to smoke out competitors for the presidency and moved to stunt their aspirations. Two years is a long time, even for Angolan politics, and this could happen again. There are, however, strong indications – including his advancing age and recent political positioning − that he will hand over power.

Succession uncertainties

The presidential announcement opens a series of questions related to succession. One of the more controversial aspects of the 2010 Angolan constitution was that it abolished direct presidential elections. In the presidential-parliamentary system adopted, the leader of the list of the party that wins most seats in the legislative elections automatically becomes the president and head of government. The second candidate on the list becomes vice-president. In case of a vacancy of the president within a mandate the vice-president assumes power until the next election. What is certain is that President dos Santos will be nominated by his party, the ruling MPLA, as its presidential candidate for the 2017 elections and most likely win the presidency. The big question will of course be who will be second on the list when the campaign for the next elections kicks off in 2017. Predicting who will get the vice-presidency after the 2017 elections is impossible currently but the viable candidates will become clearer as 2017 progresses. Formally, it will be determined by a sub-committee of the MPLA but the president will most likely have a say in this matter.

The question of succession has become ever more present with age and possible health issues. President dos Santos will turn 80 in 2022 when the next mandate expires. Positioning of close family members in central positions has also been seen as a sign of facilitating succession − and with fresh corruption allegations against current Vice-President Manuel Vicente in Lisbon, protection beyond the constitutionally guaranteed immunity to former heads of state might be warranted.

The legacy?

Has President dos Santos doomed himself to two years as a ‘lame duck’ by making the announcement at this stage? This is not likely in a system where the president has achieved cult status within the apparatus and holds vast formal powers over almost any aspect of governance. Fear of being perceived as a potential successor while the mais velho (elder) still holds sway will make any politically manoeuvring unlikely.

Behind all of this President dos Santos will be most concerned about his legacy. He will be remembered as having ended the civil war through the defeat of UNITA on the battlefield in 2002. But some will see it as a missed opportunity that he didn’t step down in 2012 when Angola was arguably at the peak of its post-civil war recovery. Currently the end of the era of unnaturally high commodity prices threatens to expose the unsustainability of the post-war recovery. The current crisis runs deep and the president lamented in his speech that the implementation of the 2013-17 National Development Plan is behind schedule and insufficient supervision and regulation of commercial banks has negatively affected the interests of companies and families. The president will have to promote serious reforms in the next two years to change this situation and lay the foundation for a sustainable development of the Angolan economy.

The president’s announcement is also significant because it could indicate that Angola is shifting to the southern Africa path of liberationist dominant parties that debate and choose their presidents, rather than the central African path where many presidents seek dynastic succession, change term limits and seek to rule indefinitely. Dos Santos’ decision to step down, despite some of the short term uncertainties, signals that senior level political change is coming to Angola. 

To comment on this article, please contact Chatham House Feedback