LISBON, Portugal — José Eduardo dos Santos, once one of Africa’s longest-serving rulers who during almost four decades as president of Angola fought the continent’s longest civil war and turned his country into a major oil producer as well as one of the world’s poorest and most corrupt nations, died Friday. He was aged 79.
Dos Santos passed away in Barcelona after a lengthy illness. The Angolan government posted the news on Facebook.
The announcement said dos Santos was “a statesman of great historical scale who governed … the Angolan nation through very difficult times.”
Dos Santos, who had lived in Barcelona most of his life since 2017’s resignation, had received treatment for various health issues there.
Angola’s current head of state, João Lourenço, announced five days of national mourning starting Saturday, when the country’s flag will fly at half-staff and public events are canceled.
Dos Santos was elected to power in 2004 after Angola became independent of Portugal. It also entered the Cold War as an intermediary battlefield.
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His political career included single-party Marxist rule during postcolonial years, and then a democratic government in 2008. When his health started to decline, he voluntarily decided to step down.
Publicly, dos Santos appeared unassuming. Behind the scenes, he was a skilled operator.
He kept a tight grip on the 17th-century presidential palace in Luanda, the southern African country’s Atlantic capital, by distributing Angola’s wealth between his army generals and political rivals to ensure their loyalty. Anyone he felt was gaining popularity could be dangerous to his command.
Dos Santos’ greatest foe for more than two decades was Jonas Savimbi, leader of the UNITA rebels whose post-independence guerrilla insurgency fought in the bush aimed to oust dos Santos’ Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola, or MPLA.
In its war against UNITA, the MPLA received financial and military support from Cuba. South Africa and the United States supported Savimbi.
The war would go on for a while, with brief U.N. peace periods, up to 2002, when Savimbi, an eastern Angola native, was captured by the army. He was then killed.
Dos Santos abandoned all Marxist views immediately after the collapse in 1990s of Soviet Union. Dos Santos moved closer to Western countries, where the oil corporations invested billions of dollar in mostly offshore exploration.
His supporter hailed his ability to adjust to new circumstances. He was criticized by his critics for being unscrupulous.
Dos Santos, then-president George W. Bush invited him to the White House as part of the United States’ efforts to decrease its dependency on oil from the Middle East.
Angola became sub-Saharan Africa’s second-largest oil producer after Nigeria, producing close to 2 million barrels per day. The country also found more than $1B worth of diamonds every year.
But the Angolan people didn’t receive the wealth. They lived in areas with unmapped minefields, and were unable to have access to running water and roads. Education and health care were — and remain — sparse.
New York-based Human Rights Watch stated that Angola lost more than $4Billion in oil revenue between 1997 and 2002. Based on analysis from figures provided by the International Monetary Fund, this 2004 report was written by Human Rights Watch.
The U.S. State Department said that wealth in Angola is “concentrated in the hands of a small elite, who often used government positions for massive personal enrichment.”
Dos Santos had valuable properties in Brazil and France as well foreign bank accounts.
Under his rule, and despite the general poverty, street protests were rare and quickly broken up by the heavily armed riot police known popularly as “Ninjas.” A well-paid and well-equipped presidential guard was garrisoned inside dos Santos’s palace and lined the city’s grimy, potholed streets whenever he emerged.
A bricklayer’s son from Luanda, Angola’s coastal capital, dos Santos began his political life with boots and a rifle in 1961 as an 18-year-old guerrilla for the MLPA in the fight for independence from Portugal.
In 1963, his MPLA bosses rescued him from combat and sent him to Russia for training as an oil engineer and military communication specialist.
When he returned to Angola in 1970, he skillfully negotiated compromises to keep the MPLA from breaking up into splinter groups and as a reward was appointed to the party’s central committee.
In 1975 independence was achieved. Dos Santos assumed the role of foreign minister. Later, he became planning minister. Finally, he was made deputy prime minister.
In a surprise choice, the MPLA elected dos Santos at 37 as president upon the death of Agostinho Neto, Angola’s first leader, in 1979. Dos Santos was viewed as an agreement figure by squabbling party veterans but no one expected his political longevity.
Dos Santos didn’t seek to form a personality-cult. He remained mysterious. He once claimed that in private, he had said that his real vocation was to be a monk.
He was also not known for his political sensibility: He constructed a multimillion dollar mansion in Luanda, while Angolans starved during civil war.
He was considered a sure loser against Savimbi in the country’s first democratic elections in 1992, following a peace treaty signed the previous year.
Margaret Anstee was a U.N. Special Representative to Angola. She described dos Santos nearly as the antithesis of Savimbi.
“His demeanor was grave and reserved, to the point that I traced a sense of shyness or timidity, absurd as this seemed. The contrast with Dr. Savimbi’s flamboyant personality could not have been more vivid,” she wrote in her 1996 book on Angola entitled “Orphan of the Cold War.”
Dos Santos remained strong and won again the election, beating Savimbi by a narrow margin. He also led the MPLA to the majority of the simultaneous legislative elections.
After Savimbi took his defeat at the poll box and returned to his armed fight, Western support slowly shifted towards dos Santos.
In 1994, the United Nations brokered another peace agreement between foes, which was also dissolved four years later.
Meanwhile, dos Santos—with an army of around 100,000 troops, many with years of jungle combat experience—essayed a role as a regional power broker, starting with neighboring countries.
He sent 2,500 troops to Republic of Congo in 1997 to help President Denis Sassou-Nguesso seize power and the following year sent a contingent to Congo to help President Laurent Kabila’s government fight rebels backed by Rwanda and Uganda.
The end of Angola’s civil war in 2002 brought an opportunity for broader economic development in the southern African country, which is more than three times the size of California.
But public infrastructure was devastated; 4 million people—about one-third of the population at the time—had fled their homes because of the fighting; and oil and diamond wealth continued in the hands of the political and military elite.
Berlin-based Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index 2005 named Angola as one of the world’s 10 most corrupt countries.
“As land mine-maimed children begged in the streets, politicians’ wives flew to New York on the government health budget for nip-and-tuck cosmetic surgery,” wrote John McMillan, a Stanford University economics professor, in a 2005 study on Angolan corruption.
Dos Santos, under pressure to hold a vote, announced that legislative elections would be held in 2008, and then a presidential election next year.
Dos Santos’s MPLA won the most votes for parliamentary seats. The head of state then changed his mind, postponing first the presidential election and then scrapping it.
The constitution was changed to ensure that the president of the country is elected by the winning party in the parliamentary elections. This kept him in power for an additional eight years.
Dos Santos decided to retire because of his health problems.
He was replaced by Lourenço, an MPLA stalwart, who has made an anti-corruption drive his flagship policy. He has targeted dos Santos’ grown children, who possess fabulous personal wealth, but not his predecessor.
That change in fortune for dos Santos’s family has prompted one of his daughters to suspect that a conspiracy was behind her father’s illness and death. Spanish prosecutors and police are looking into allegations by Tchizé dos Santos that people close to the ex-president have tried to kill him, failed to care for him properly and acted negligently.
Dos Santos had been married four times and is survived by Ana Paula his current spouse. Ana Paula with whom he had three kids. At least three additional children were born to him and he has numerous grandchildren.
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