José Eduardo dos Santos, who died at the age of 79, was president of Angola for nearly four dramatic decades, commander-in-chief of the armed forces and leader of the party. A desperate struggle for independence from Portugal was followed by another 27 years of war as Angola supported liberation struggles in southern Africa, paying an extremely high price for its principles.
Dos Santos led a long and ultimately successful resistance, together with Cuba, to repeated military offensives by apartheid South Africa. However, his legacy is indelibly marked by his family’s extravagant level of corruption and his oil-rich country’s failure to address extreme inequality.
In April 1974, the fascist regime in Portugal, the colonial power, fell. In September, Dos Santos was elected to the central committee and political bureau of the MPLA (Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola), while serving as a telecommunications officer. After independence in 1975, he became minister of foreign affairs and then minister of planning under the first president, the poet, doctor and intellectual Agostinho Neto, a veteran of Portuguese prisons.
The War of Independence turned into the ugliest of decolonizing confrontations when the United States, under Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, chose to protect the white regime of South Africa and its occupation of Namibia from growing resistance in the region.
They had their own candidate for the head of independent Angola, Jonas Savimbi of Unita (the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola). As Portugal withdrew in 1975, the South African army, with the support of the CIA, invaded Angola to prevent the MPLA, with its support for the African National Congress and the Namibian independence movement, Swapo, from taking over. power.
Cuba brought a military force across the Atlantic to support the MPLA, halting this plan, and Angola declared independence, led by the MPLA, on November 11, 1975. However, a new war was soon unleashed against the Angola by South Africa, using Unita as a Proxy.
Meanwhile, the country was plunged into crisis by a violent coup attempt in May 1977 by pro-Soviet militants hoping that their claimed sympathies for Moscow would provide them with outside support.
When Neto died suddenly in 1979, Dos Santos, aged just 37, was elected his successor in the political office partly because of his loyal behavior during the attempted coup, but also as a representative of a younger generation.
Dos Santos inherited a paralyzed country and an active war. Under President Ronald Reagan from 1981, the United States openly assisted Unita. Angola withstood many South African invasions and attacks with help from Cuba. The massive destruction of the country’s infrastructure and hundreds of thousands of destitute, injured and displaced people was the reality.
But at the end of 1987, Cuba reversed the trend by sending its best planes, its best pilots, its weapons and 30,000 soldiers to southern Angola to relieve the cream of 12,000 men of the encircled Angolan army in Cuito Cuanavale by a South African army with air superiority.
At the end of March 1988, the battle of Cuito Cuanavale was won and the South African army was forced to withdraw. Later that year, in a tripartite agreement, which gave Namibia independence, Cuban troops also agreed to withdraw.
Dos Santos led the country into a new phase with UN-monitored elections, which the MPLA won. But Unita returned to war again when it lost the elections. In the 1990s, as the conflict dragged on, corruption scandals plagued senior Angolan officials over arms deals with the former Soviet bloc, and French politician Charles Pasqua was found guilty, then acquitted, of profiting from the illegal sale of arms to Angola, while he was in the At the same time, there were curious transactions on the repayment of a 5 billion dollar debt to the Russian government by Boris Yeltsin.
Several peace agreements were again signed by the government of Dos Santos with Unita, and in 1997 a government of national unity was created with Unita and another former group, the FNLA. Dos Santos and other members of the MPLA leadership wanted and imposed tolerant behavior towards former Unita fighters – revenge and persecution could easily have emerged.
However, Savimbi, with a group of his soldiers, continued the war until his death in February 2002; a final peace agreement was signed two months later. Despite the military victory, as an indicator of the possibility of reconciliation, those who had followed Savimbi to the end were eventually reinstated into national politics.
Born in the capital, Luanda, José was the son of Jacinta José Paulino and Avelino Eduardo dos Santos. While studying, he joined the MPLA, which sent him to the Soviet Union to earn degrees in petroleum engineering and radar transmission in Azerbaijan. In 1970, he returned via the Republic of Congo (Congo-Brazzaville) and joined the MPLA guerrillas as a wireless operator in the inhospitable equatorial forest of Cabinda.
The MPLA’s involvement with Cuba had begun five years earlier, when Neto and another leader, Lucio Lara, met Che Guevara in Brazzaville. A handful of Cuban guerrillas went to Cabinda as military advisers. Dos Santos then served as a deputy commander in the telecommunications unit and became the MPLA’s representative in Yugoslavia, Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) and China, before joining its central committee.
In the wake of the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, in 1991 Dos Santos told an MPLA congress that Marxism was over and social democracy was the way forward. The party was then moving into a mood of political paralysis and a degree of demobilization evident at the end of the Civil War.
From 2002, significant infrastructure was built, especially with Chinese aid, Brazilian cooperation and help from the oil boom that had begun in the 1990s. But an air of corruption was embedded in these achievements which s is accompanied by an erasure of the MPLA’s original principle of placing political commitment above personal interests.
In a sign of the times, Dos Santos appointed his daughter Isabel in 2016 to head Angola’s national asset, the oil company Sonangol. His son José Filomeno (Zenú) ran the $5 billion national asset fund.
In 2017, the president decided not to run again. As part of the anti-corruption campaign launched by her successor, João Lourenço, Isabel was expelled from Sonangol and in 2020 Zenú was sentenced to five years in prison, after paying back large sums of money sent abroad. He appealed.
Ongoing court cases point to a massive level of embezzlement of public funds to private interests and bank loans of hundreds of millions of dollars that have never been repaid. The Dos Santos family and several generals close to the former president who profited from these transactions have now lost their fortunes and are awaiting trial. Isabel, whose business empire once spanned a supermarket chain, telecommunications, brewery and banking interests, has denied any wrongdoing. The former president spent his last years in exile in Barcelona.
Isabel was the daughter of his first marriage, with Tatiana Kukanova, whom he had met in Azerbaijan. This marriage ended in divorce, and two others followed before in 1991 Dos Santos married Ana Paula de Lemos, who survived him, and with whom he had three children, Eduane, Joseana and Eduardo. His children Tchizé and the musician Coréon Dú (José Eduardo Paulino dos Santos) come from his relationship with Maria Luisa Abrantes; Zenú came from one with Filomena Sousa.