José Eduardo dos Santos of Angola dies at 79

José Eduardo dos Santos, who presided over Angola during a brutal civil war and navigated the counter-currents of the Cold War to 38 years as president, becoming one of Africa’s longest-serving and most predatory tyrants, died July 8 in a clinic in Barcelona. He was 79.

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

During his nearly four decades in power, from 1979 to 2017, Mr. dos Santos are a country rich in resources through seemingly endless conflict and an uneasy peace marked by corruption that transferred vast wealth to his family and some privileged, while most Angolans live in dire poverty.

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

A fiercely private, even withdrawn figure, Mr. dos Santos largely shunned any cult of personality. Even his depiction on the country’s currency was partially hidden by another portrait. He gave few speeches or interviews and revealed little of his personal life. He smiled hard in the official photos, which were not seen in any of his offices or homes.

Dos Santos was eventually forced into exile — to a $7.2 million mansion in Barcelona — after his successor, President João Lourenço, unexpectedly launched an anti-corruption crackdown that targeted the long-untouchable dos Santos family and its associates. .

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

Prosecutors relied in large part on a massive amount of leaked financial and business data revealed by news organizations working with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, a Washington-based nonprofit investigative organization. The “Luanda Leaks” scandal linked Isabel dos Santos or her husband to more than 400 legal entities in 41 countries and offshore tax havens.

She had lavish homes in London and Dubai and built a secret business empire worth an estimated $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 state wealth fund, which he headed.

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

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

Despite his understated public image, Mr. dos Santos had almost unbridled power. He led the armed forces, oversaw security forces and led the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola, or MPLA, the armed forces that have dominated almost every facet of Angolan life since the Portuguese colony gained independence in 1975.

At the time, Mr. dos Santos’ faction was supported by Cuba and the Soviet Union. The United States and apartheid-era South Africa supported the MPLA’s main military rival, known by the acronym UNITA, and fueled a devastating proxy war for control of Angola. The civil war in the country lasted longer than the Cold War and did not end until 2002.

During his long tenure, Mr. dos Santos’ regime relied on what the Foreign Ministry’s human rights reports described as arbitrary arrests, torture and extrajudicial killings, as well as a shady legal process and restrictions on free assembly, expression and the press.

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

In time, he abandoned Marxism-Leninism completely, expelling Cuban troops and allowing the country’s first multi-party elections. The United States became Angola’s largest trading partner and Mr dos Santos made four working visits to the White House in 2004.

Since then, an increasing amount of the country’s oil has gone to China. As part of a loans-for-oil program, China has invested more than $20 billion in roads, schools, power plants and other infrastructure in Angola, according to Portuguese news agency Lusa.

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

The son of a mason, José Eduardo dos Santos was born in Luanda, the capital, on August 28, 1942. His high grades earned him one of the few places available to African students in a school frequented by children. of the Portuguese elite. 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 degree in petroleum technology in 1969 from a university in Baku, Azerbaijan, then a Soviet republic.

He was a member of the MPLA’s central committee when Portugal agreed to grant Angola independence in 1975. The transitional 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 establish a shaky new government under President Agostinho Neto, but his death from cancer in 1979 elevated Mr. dos Santos—then an important cabinet member—to president, commander of the armed forces and head of the People’s Assembly.

Angola – a country twice the size of France – remained in trouble. The currency was virtually worthless and the civil war, often fought by child soldiers, destroyed infrastructure and displaced millions.

The 1992 multiparty elections, held under a ceasefire and under the auspices of the United Nations, presented the first real chance for peace. But when Jonas Savimbi, the US-backed UNITA leader, lost decisively to Mr. dos Santos, he falsely claimed to have committed fraud and rekindled the war.

Savimbi’s forces soon conquered large swaths of territory and cut supply lines to towns, causing famine in some areas. As the number of casualties and atrocities mounted, Alioune Blondin Béye, the UN Special Envoy to Angola, called it “the worst war in the world.” A peace agreement was only reached after Angolan troops killed Savimbi in February 2002.

Mr. dos Santos was married to Ana Paula dos Santos, a former fashion model and flight attendant. He is believed to have fathered four to eight children with different women and relationships, but an official list of survivors was not immediately available.

Suffering from ill health, Dos Santos resigned voluntarily in the 2017 parliamentary elections and handed power over to Lourenço, his former defense minister and political protege.

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

At the meeting, Mr dos Santos made no apologies, acknowledged unspecified mistakes and said he left with his “heads up”.

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