BBC NEWS Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific Arabic Spanish Russian Chinese Welsh

 You are in:  World: Africa
Front Page 
Middle East 
South Asia 
From Our Own Correspondent 
Letter From America 
UK Politics 
Talking Point 
In Depth 

Commonwealth Games 2002

BBC Sport

BBC Weather

Thursday, 23 August, 2001, 22:18 GMT 23:18 UK
Profile: Jose Eduardo dos Santos
Angolan President Jose Eduardo dos Santos
Mr dos Santos was not a likely candidate for power
By Justin Pearce in Luanda

Angolan President Jose Eduardo dos Santos is as inscrutable as his ever-placid expression and measured tone of voice.

The young former liberation fighter was not a likely candidate for the presidency when Angola's founding president, Agostinho Neto, died in 1979 - and many were surprised when Mr dos Santos's MPLA party was returned to power in the country's first multi-party election in 1992.

The current constitutional law places the president of the republic in an embarrassing situation

President dos Santos
Yet for a man whose current position of power depends on having beaten the odds at least twice, he has displayed remarkable political dexterity in staying there.

Thursday's revelation that he was to step down from the presidency at the next election left diplomats puzzling over his motives - yet those close to the MPLA say the announcement has been expected for some time.

His friends say he is weary after 22 years in office. His detractors say that he is choosing to extricate himself from the presidency while he still has a choice in the matter.

Not leaving now

Mr dos Santos clearly does not intend to leave office right now.

In his speech to the MPLA central committee, he made it clear that elections were dependent on a return to stability in Angola.

Angolan refugee
The war has left over one million displaced people
Although he spoke of military gains by government forces, he emphasised the enormous job that it will be to return displaced people to their places of origin, and to allow the free movement of people and goods - conditions that both Mr dos Santos and his opponents would agree are necessary for a fair election to take place.

Mr dos Santos said that peace was not an absolute condition for elections, and that if necessary the government would deploy force to make sure the vote could go ahead whatever the military situation in the land.

But calling out the troops is still his own prerogative.

Options open

Hence while presenting himself as someone who is humbly preparing to step down, Mr dos Santos is still able to keep his options open.

Ultimately, he will have the final say over when conditions are eventually right for voters to go to the polls, and hence for him to bow out.

But there is also in another sense in which much of Mr dos Santos's grip on power depends on the abnormal situation in Angola.

Unita leader Jonas Savimbi
Mr Savimbi lost the 1992 election
He narrowly failed to secure an outright majority in the 1992 presidential elections, which normally would have resulted in the need for a second round between himself and Unita leader Jonas Savimbi.

Mr Savimbi's return to war ruled out the second round - but it still leaves Mr dos Santos, technically, as an interim president for the last nine years.

After dismissing several prime ministers, Mr dos Santos then took on the duties of prime minister for himself, as well as remaining as head of state and president of the ruling party.

Relying on crisis

He has sought to justify this concentration of power - which critics have condemned as unconstitutional - in terms of the state of crisis prevailing in the country.

But increasingly, his tenure as president has come to rely on a delicate balancing act involving the party, the government, and the presidential inner circle.

A gradual withdrawal from power, as one would normally expect from a man in his position, would involve him relinquishing one role at a time - and there has been talk that he might yet appoint a prime minister before the elections.

But on Thursday Mr dos Santos hinted at the difficulties that have arisen from wearing three hats at once.

Schoolboy learning next to a ruined building
The people of Angola have learned to make the best of their situation
"The current constitutional law places the president of the republic in an embarrassing situation because (according to the constitution) the president of the republic may not take the initiative of forming the government, despite the fact that he was elected in 1992 as the leader of the majority party," he said.

"If today for example, I were to nominate someone for the position of prime minister, the current government will consider itself dismissed and this prime minister would propose his own government to the head of state.

"It is evident that not all people that have the confidence of the prime minister are the same ones that have the confidence of the head of state."

Having woven the web that keeps him in power, a man whom one diplomat dubbed "Africa's Machiavelli" is now having to use all his political cunning to extricate himself from it if he is to enjoy a happy, peaceful and prosperous retirement.

See also:

26 Jul 01 | Country profiles
Country profile: Angola
Internet links:

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Links to more Africa stories are at the foot of the page.

E-mail this story to a friend

Links to more Africa stories