Angola's President Jose Eduardo dos Santos speaking in July (photo:dpa)

Geopolitics: Could civil unrest spread to Angola?

Unrest against Angola's president and his 32-year rule is spreading. Could this be the catalyst for a new leader or spark a People's Revolution demanding a better deal from the country's oil wealth? asks a GIS expert in this briefing.

A DEMONSTRATION by young people against the 32-year rule of Angola’s President Jose Eduardo dos Santos erupted into a 12–hour battle with police.

There has been anti-Government sentiment for some months. This demonstration was called by a group of dissidents who were mainly young, disaffected and unemployed

Now Africa experts are questioning whether the authorised protest in the Largo da Independencia (Independence Square) in Angola’s capital, Luanda, on September 3, 2011, could be the start of something bigger - even leading to a people’s revolution in Angola, one of Africa’s major oil producers but also one of the world’s poorest countries.

There has been anti-Government sentiment for a long time. This demonstration was called by a group of dissidents who were mainly young, disaffected and unemployed but also including children from some important families. The Angolan authorities have obstructed or banned the majority of planned anti-government demonstrations since 2009.

Many of the several hundred protesters were from Sambizanga, one of the city’s dangerous slums where four million people live in degraded shanty towns. They coexist with the wealth and the foreigners who work in the country’s oil industry, banks and services.

Crucial questions

This demonstration was under the slogan ‘32 e muito’ or '32 is too much', referring to President dos Santos’ years in power.

Two crucial questions need addressing:

First about the origins of the protest – was it a spontaneous movement or was it promoted and coordinated?

Second about the consequences – in the event of further protests, will President dos Santos react with repression or concession?

What we do know is that the 69-year-old president faces a difficult dilemma. If social uprisings persist it is likely he will be unable to control them.

Looking at Luanda`s geography and social reality it is clear the police, Intelligence services and the army would be unable to stop a ‘people`s revolution’ without bloodshed.

Most of these young people have nothing to lose.

Interesting parallel

Experts, and concerned political and intelligence decision-makers, have been analysing the possibilities of uprisings and demonstrations in Sub-Saharan Africa following the wave of democratic revolution in Tunisia and Egypt. They have looked particularly at countries where the political and social conditions reflect those in the Maghreb.

Angola presents an interesting parallel. It has a long-serving president who is said to be building an enormous personal fortune. This contrasts with the poverty and marginalisation of the urban population.

President dos Santos and his top brass continue to blame Portuguese colonialism and the civil war, between 1975 and 2002, for the current situation.

But he is a survivor. He succeeded President Agostinho Neto, the country’s first president, in 1979, after its independence from Portugal in 1975.

Growing opposition

His then-Marxist People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), initially backed by Russia and Cuba, won the civil war against the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola’s (UNITA) leader Jonas Savimbi. UNITA was supported by South Africa and the United States.

Jonas Savimbi was killed in a gun battle in 2002, and UNITA signed a peace deal.

UNITA has been unable to rally popular criticism against President dos Santos and is embroiled in internal disputes.

The president has been cautious to avoid food riots by providing generous subsidies to Luanda’s population by using revenues from the 1.8 million barrels of oil a day Angola is producing.

Map showing the location of Angola
Map showing the location of Angola

Today, President dos Santos’ main problem is not with UNITA, but with growing opposition within the MPLA.

His critics dislike the apparent nepotism with the president’s family in key economic jobs. They are also critical of Angola’s economy which was more open and liberal in the days of ‘socialism’ and the ‘one party system’.

Well-sourced reports

Critics consider it politically dangerous to have a long-serving president at a time of Arab Spring uprisings against long-term autocratic leaders. Angola has only had one election, in 2008, since the end of the civil war. Another is planned for 2012

There are rumours and well-sourced reports that the president will soon initiate changes to bring in a vice-president as a clear sign of his intention to retire, possibly as early as next year.

Manuel Vicente, 55, the chairman of Angola’s state-owned oil company, SONANGOL, and a member of the MPLA’s political bureau is likely to be the successor.

But he would not be welcomed by senior figures in the MPLA, who consider him close to the president and lacking charisma or political experience.

But he would not be welcomed by senior figures in the MPLA, who consider him close to the president and lacking charisma or political experience

Others think there is no safe way out for people who retain power for so long. In some sense, like the famous tyrant of Greek philosopher Xenophon's classic essay about tyranny ‘they are prisoners of their own past and they can’t afford to aspire to a normal life as normal citizens’.

Jose Eduardo dos Santos

  • Born 28 August, 1942, in Luanda
  • Angola’s second president since 1979
  • Went into self-exile in 1961 and completed education in engineering at Azerbaijan
  • Former liberation fighter who joined the guerrilla army aged 19
  • MPLA and UNITA fought a bitter civil war for 27 years until 2002 costing half a million lives
  • His party the MPLA won a landslide victory in 2008, the first election for 16 years
  • New constitution approved in 2010 abolishing direct elections for president
  • He can remain in office until 2012
  • Reports of social media campaigns and anti-government protests since early 2011

Manuel Vicente

  • Born 19 May, 1956, in Luanda
  • He studied electrical engineering at Agostinho Neto university
  • Chairman of SONANGOL, Angola’s state-owned oil company, since 2007
  • Angola is Africa’s largest supplier of oil to China
  • President of SONANGOL’s administration council since 1999
  • He has been the target of extensive corruption allegations
  • He is on the board of Portugal’s Galp Energia and Angola’s Banco Africano
  • He is vice-president of the president’s charity Fundacao Eduardo dos Santos
  • He runs Angola’s largest mobile phone operator, Unitel, with the president’s daughter Isabel dos Santos
  • Tipped in September, 2011, to be named vice-president and the successor when Jose Eduardo dos Santos retires

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