The rather understated announcement from Luanda last Friday, December 2, that the ruling Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) presidential candidate at elections scheduled for next year would be the current minister of defence, João Lourenço, signals a dramatic fall from grace for current national Vice President Manuel Vicente.
He is deemed disgraced and blamed by President Eduardo dos Santos for the financial collapse of state-owned oil company Sonangol.
There were also rumours that Mr Vicente – until a few months ago the apparent chosen successor to Mr Dos Santos – may have some allegations of corruption to answer for and that Mr Dos Santos was helped to believe that Mr Vicente would not be able to properly protect him and his family after retirement.
In addition, it is thought that the president felt a military person with close ties to him would be preferable.
Enter Mr Lourenço.
Last week’s announcement, quoting documents from the ruling MPLA, stated without fanfare that Mr Dos Santos would not stand for re-election should the MPLA win elections next year (a virtual certainty) and that MPLA Vice President Mr Lourenço would be the party’s candidate should the MPLA emerge victorious. The Angolan president is no longer directly elected but is elected by the majority party in Parliament.
Mr Lourenço, the former political commissar of the armed wing of the MPLA – the People’s Armed Forces of Liberation of Angola (FAPLA) – replaced Roberto de Almeida as MPLA vice president last August.
While not regarded as particularly intellectual, he is a seasoned political street fighter who previously served as secretary for information and secretary general of the ruling party and has a sound knowledge of MPLA structures and apparatus – something Mr Vicente never managed given his relatively recent (2012) move to politics from Sonangol.
Angolan sources said that Mr Dos Santos had a “notion” that he had hurt many in Angola and that he feared reprisal after retirement, so he needed someone with unquestioned loyalty to ensure there would be no “future problems” for himself or his family. There was only one place to turn to for that – the military and a former liberation struggle combatant.
Mr Vicente, since 2012 regarded as heir apparent (putativo delfim in Portuguese) was caught in the crossfire of the collapse of the state-owned oil company he once ran – apparently into the ground – and was thus discredited.
He was stuck with most of the blame for the disastrous series of loan agreements that were concluded on his watch and exposed when the oil price crashed.
Angolan sources said his fate was all but sealed earlier this year when Mr Dos Santos sacked the entire board of the oil company and his daughter Isabel dos Santos took over the reins at Sonangol. Despite his fall from grace, Angolan sources said they did not expect him to resign from his position as national vice president nor was he expected to be fired.
A few critical issues arise here. First, it was obvious from the moment he was brought in from Sonangol in 2012 as the chosen successor that many in the old guard of the MPLA were not amused and actively campaigned against him. There was considerable resentment that an “outsider” had been brought into the MPLA hierarchy and groomed as successor while other older MPLA loyalists were side-lined.
The collapse of Sonangol and the resultant fallout provided the MPLA stalwarts with the ammunition they needed to undermine him, and the unfolding events at Sonangol blamed on decisions he took were the last straw.
However, in turning to an old military liberation struggle comrade to succeed him, Mr Dos Santos will ensure that the political environment in the country does not fundamentally change as it might have done under the younger, struggle-free Mr Vicente.
Mr Lourenço is old school, old guard, a security man and political commissar who simply does not have the tools needed to reform the closed and repressive political system. By turning to the militaristic, generally paranoid, old guard Mr Dos Santos may have protected his own future, but he has imperilled that of Angola.