The African Autocrat You Never Heard Of: Why Dos Santos Is Likely To Win Again As Angola Votes

ANALYSIS

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Angola's President Jose Eduardo dos Santos talks to journalists after a signature agreement ceremony held at Sao Bento Palace in Lisbon, Portugal
Angola's President Jose Eduardo dos Santos talks to journalists after a signature agreement ceremony held at Sao Bento Palace in Lisbon, Portugal, March 11, 2009.

One of Africa's quietest dictators will be put to the test when the country of Angola goes to the polls on Friday.

There is little dispute about the expected outcome --- for President Jose Eduardo dos Santos, this will most likely be an easy victory.

You could call it a belated birthday gift; Dos Santos just turned 70 on August 28. Re-election is what he wants, and he's more than likely to get it. Analysts everywhere expect an easy win for his party, the People's Movement for the Liberation of Angola, or MPLA.

But within Angola, many critics of Dos Santos doubt whether the president should be entitled to another term. He has ruled the country for 33 years, and most of that was during Angola's 27-year civil war.

The first free and fair peacetime elections did not take place until 2008; MPLA won a whopping 82 percent of the popular vote. This time around, a couple of things have changed.

For one, the country implemented a new constitution in 2010. It abolished direct election for the president -- now, voters will choose the 220 members of the Angolan National Assembly, and the leader of the plurality-winning party will become the president.

Secondly -- and more importantly -- a growing opposition movement has emerged to challenge the authority of Dos Santos. This was motivated in part by the ‘Arab Spring’ revolutions that have swept through Egypt, Libya and Tunisia. It also has much to do with growing social inequality; Angola's incredible oil wealth has not filtered down to benefit the general population.

Oil was Angola's saving grace after it emerged from a brutal civil war -- about 500,000 people had died over a period of 27 years. The violence goes back to colonial times, when the various groups that fought against Portuguese control also vied for dominance over one another.

When the country achieved independence in 1975, the internal violence was only just beginning.

The MPLA, then a Marxist group, emerged victorious after that decades-long struggle and set up what amounted to a one-party government. With stability, Angola was able to focus on forming international partnerships -- mainly with China -- to extract and export the country's vast reserves of crude oil.

Over last decade, that oil has made Angola the second-largest producer of crude on the continent, after Nigeria. It also boasts the fifth-largest economy in Africa. Angola saw its GDP grow by double digits each year beginning in 2004, until the recession hit in 2008. Growth then slowed to the single-digit range, but seems to be picking up again.

Dos Santos himself deserves credit for the country's economic liberalization over the years.

Still, poverty affects about half of Angola's population. Hunger remains a major problem, and country-wide infrastructure -- especially in rural areas -- remains underdeveloped. In the face of increasingly bold criticism, the government has lately begun paying lip service to the amelioration of these problems, and some development projects are already underway.

But the heavy-handedness of the Dos Santos administration is no secret. The past few years have seen the increasing centralization of power in the executive branch, at the expense of the court system. Today, Dos Santos appoints all senior judges himself.

The president also controls the military. And in the National Assembly, 191 of the 220 seats currently belong to MPLA politicians.

The press is tightly muzzled, either by state control or by legal actions taken against media personalities who criticize the government.

And cronyism has become a common allegation, since it is clear that Angola's fabulous wealth is enriching upper class elites but has not created any real change for the majority of the general population.

Angolan youths are losing patience. They are drawing attention to the fact that Dos Santos, an authoritarian ruler by most standards, has not attracted much notice from the international community.

Other African dictators haven't been so lucky. Robert Mugabe, the authoritarian 88-year-old president of Zimbabwe, has earned his country economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation. Charles Taylor, a former president if Liberia, was convicted of war crimes by an international tribunal this May for his participation in the brutal guerilla war that killed tens of thousands of people in West Africa. Muammar Gaddafi, Libya's former leader, was deposed by his own people -- with help from NATO -- last year.

Dos Santos, on the other hand, has been a quiet despot. He was never one to give interviews, forbids cameras into his offices, does not make frequent public appearances, nor veer from his well-worn talking points.

But his image has suffered as more and more as Angola's youths become vocal about their country's severe wealth inequities. Dos Santos knows it, and he's working to change that.

During these last few months of campaigning, the dictator has opted for the “hip grandpa” look. He wears bright colors, smiles more often, and even flashes peace signs. He speaks directly to disaffected youths during his rallies, according to the BBC, promising better university access and more jobs. The MPLA has even started using the internet to market itself.

But for Friday's elections, Dos Santos doesn't have much to worry about. The main opposition party -- UNITA, which was one of the groups that fought against MPLA during the civil war -- gained only 10 percent of the popular vote in the last election. And although resistance activism has increased lately, it is still limited to a small percentage of the general population.

Most Angolans, having known only a decade of peace since 1961, are simply unwilling to rock the boat just yet. For them, the best-case scenario is one in which Dos Santos achieves an uncontested victory in a fair election, and then listens to the dissenters who have become more vocal in their demands for Angola's oil wealth to be put to good use.

"I do agree our president has been in power for a long time, but if you think about it, we have only been at peace for 10 years so he's not had much chance to govern," said Henrique Pedro, a 25-year-old bank employee, to the BBC.

"For me, he is the best person and the most experienced."

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