At football’s Africa Cup of Nations, currently being held in Angola, one man has been everywhere. Large portraits of the country’s president, Jose Eduardo dos Santos, hang from every side of the ground in Luanda’s new 11 November stadium.
When the host nation was playing, until they were knocked out on Sunday, dos Santos was there in person too, smiling and waving whenever the camera panned to the presidential suite; something which happened rather a lot.
Angola is touting the tournament, which ends on Sunday 31 January, as the country’s re-entry into the global economy. Eight years after the end of a 27-year-long civil war, and with Angola poised to overtake Nigeria as Africa’s largest oil producer, the country’s economy is booming.
But for dos Santos the tournament is also about solidifying his support. He has been president since 1979 but has never been elected. His MPLA party won more than 80 per cent of the vote in 2008′s parliamentary election but a planned presidential poll was put off. Some analysts wondered if dos Santos was worried that he might not be as popular as his party. Now he never needs to find out. Parliament approved a new constitution a week ago which abolished direct presidential elections. From now on the president will be chosen by parliament, something which should mean dos Santos – whose party has a tight grip on parliament – will continue in office.
Dos Santos is already one of Africa’s longest-serving leaders. South of the Sahara only Equatorial Guinea’s Teodoro Obiang has been in power for longer. The new constitution limits presidents to two five-year terms but, conveniently for the incumbent, dos Santos will be allowed to start from scratch. If all goes to plan he won’t have to leave office until 2022, 43 years after taking power.
Dos Santos refuses all interview requests with international media and – cameos at the Africa Cup of Nations aside – rarely makes public appearances. ”Dos Santos is an introverted individual,” said Alex Vines, head of the Africa programme at Chatham House. “He doesn’t feel comfortable going out and campaigning. A party list system is far better for him.” It will also make it easier for Dos Santos to groom his successor, Vines said.
The tournament has helped to cement Dos Santos’s position, despite the attack on the Togolese team in the enclave of Cabinda, which left three people dead. ”It was a significant embarrassment for the government,” said Vines, “but on the whole the tournament has gone smoothly. It is a statement that Angola is normalising post-conflict.”
There is a sense of unease among some Angolans that the country has not made enough of its immense oil wealth. Billions of dollars have gone missing and large chunks of the budget have no parliamentary oversight. Dos Santos’s family and close allies have been accused of corruption. But the opposition remains divided and journalists who criticise the government run the risk of prosecution.
When the constitution was changed the main opposition party, UNITA (National Union for the Total Independence of Angola), branded it a form of “tyranny” but few Angolans were listening. Everyone has been too absorbed with the football.