Angola: 'Deep State' Coup Against Dos Santos?

Angola: 'Deep State' Coup Against Dos Santos?

Sarah Tseba Sarah Tseba

Long-serving Angolan President Jose Eduardo dos Santos peacefully handed power over to former Defense Minister and fellow MPLA party member João Lourenço after elections earlier this summer, but far from being the uneventful leadership transition that most observers had expected, the new President is making bold moves which suggest that a "deep state” power struggle might be going on behind the scenes in Luanda.

 Angola hadn’t seen a leadership change for decades until a few months ago when former President Jose Eduardo dos Santos, who had been in office for 38 years, was replaced by his former Defense Minister João Lourenço after the country’s August legislative elections. The ruling People's Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) nominated Lourenço as party leader in December 2016, which indicated that they must have had incumbent dos Santos’ prior approval given his omnipotent influence over all aspects of Angola’s political affairs. The country’s constitutional system was reformed in 2010 so that the leader of whichever party obtains the most seats in the National Assembly ends up becoming president, and since the MPLA’s victory was never in doubt, it was already presumed by the end of last year that dos Santos was essentially ceding power to Lourenço as part of a phased leadership transition.

 Lourenço was considered to be very loyal to dos Santos, hence why the incumbent tacitly agreed to have him become his successor. Although there’d be a visible "changing of the guard” from one Angolan leader to another, it was widely presumed that the permanent military, intelligence, and diplomatic bureaucracies ("deep state”) would remain unchanged, and that the MPLA’s existing power structure would also stay the same. The dos Santos family is known to have an extensive stake in the economy, with the former president’s daughter Isabel being Africa’s first female billionaire and presiding over a diverse conglomerate of enterprises, mostly recently the country’s state-owned oil company Sonangol, so it was thought to be very unlikely that the new government would ever make any kind of move against her, whether substantial or symbolic. That, however, is exactly what Lourenço did recently when he designated Carlos Saturnino as Secretary of State for Oil, despite the new energy head having previously been dismissed by Isabel.

  This move was all the more surprising because Saturnino technically has a more senior position than Isabel now, which prompted some commentators such as former Angolan prime minister Marcolino Moco to question whether "Lourenço is sending a sign that the excesses of the dos Santos era will not continue.” If this is an accurate reading of the situation, then it would have profound implications for Angola because it would confirm that there’s a "deep state” power struggle going on behind the scenes in Luanda. At this point, it’s impossible to know the arrangements of the various factions that might be vying for more influence in the country, or even whether such a competition objectively exists or not, but the strong symbolism behind Lourenço’s move to appoint Saturnino to a higher position than Isabel certainly provides a reasonable cause to speculate about what might be happening through a thought-provoking mental exercise aimed at exploring the various scenarios that will be described below.

 Dos Santos daughter said that she was in "full alignment” with the new President, but nevertheless, Reuters noted that Lourenço has been making other big moves as well, including parting with what the outlet described as "heavyweights from the previous administration” and vowing in mid-October to break up monopolies in a wide variety of spheres such as the cement industry which Reuters wrote coincidentally happens to be in the realm of Isabel and her husband’s business interests. Not only that, but the outlet also commented that the abolishment of the government communications department GRECIMA would negatively impact on the dos Santos family’s business interests because a company affiliated with the former president’s other daughter Welwitschia supposedly enjoyed lucrative contracts with the said state entity. Reuters then goes on to say that Lourenço’s actions might be part of a larger overall reform initiative designed to breathe fresh life into the country’s economy and set the basis for diversifying away from its energy-exporting dependency.

 Angola is Africa’s top oil producer and China’s third-largest supplier of the resource, and it’s a valuable bastion of multipolarity in the South Atlantic due to its close partnerships with both the People’s Republic and Russia, the latter of which has a strong military-technical and mining component. The geostrategic importance of this crucially positioned state was explored at length in the author’s Hybrid War vulnerability study on Angola from earlier this year, and the reader is encouraged to skim through it if they’re interested in learning more about this tangent, but the scope of the present analysis is limited to talking about the possibility of a "deep state” coup against the dos Santos family and its potential implications. That said, it appears unlikely at this moment that Angola’s foreign policy would change even if there was indeed a "deep state” power struggle taking place, as it would only be between the MPLA elite who understand the need to retain excellent relations with these two multipolar Great Powers.

 What’s more relevant to look at, then, are the domestic consequences of inter-elite strife in Angola, assuming of course that there is in fact such a conflict and that neither side peacefully submits. The entrenched power interests of the dos Santos family and their allies are thought to be vast and all-encompassing, but the progressive easing of their tight control over many economic sectors could provide the necessary space for a new MPLA elite to form. For example, if the unofficial monopolies that Reuters wrote about are broken up, then lower-ranking MPLA political and military figures could easily fill the void, thereby diluting the dos Santos family’s power and diversifying the number of stakeholders in the country’s success. Instead of directly saying that he’s dismantling the dos Santos-controlled "deep state”, Lourenço could capitalize on popular sentiment by publicly saying that he’s trying to rejuvenate the economy and fight corruption, even though the end result would nevertheless be disadvantageous to the dos Santos clan and their allies.

 The new President will probably encounter some degree or another of institutional resistance from the vested dos Santos-aligned power interests in the "deep state”, but it’s unclear whether this would succeed in getting him to slow down or reverse his campaign. It’s also unknown at this time what the risk is that this possible inter-elite competition could take a violent turn, as that eventuality would be utterly devastating for the country because it could create a power vacuum that might be easily filled by hostile non-state actors, be they rebel movements in the interior or along the Cabinda coast, or cross-border threats like "Weapons of Mass Migration” ("refugees”) and terrorist groups spilling over into the country as a result of the neighboring Congolese state’s slow-motion collapse. Another threat is that any exacerbated inter-elite conflict could see one or both of the competing parties accepting the patronage of foreign powers in order to gain an advantage over their rivals, which might turn Angola’s "deep state” into a shadowy proxy battlefield in the New Cold War.

 None of these outcomes looks likely at the moment, but they should at the very least be countenanced and kept in mind in case the situation evolves in that direction. A "black swan” event that could change the entire dynamic of this speculated rivalry would be if Angola opted to stage a decisive military intervention into the Congo, whether to prop up embattled President Kabila just like they did in support of his father roughly two decades ago, or this time to depose of him like some have suggested might be in the cards if Lourenço comes to see the neighboring country as becoming "a Libya on his doorstep”. Still, this remains a far-off and very improbable scenario, but it can’t be ruled out that Angola might be compelled to resort to some selective and very limited use of military force in the future if the security situation rapidly deteriorates in the Congo and the country slides back into all-out civil war.

 All of this is important to keep in mind because the loyalty of the military is always the first and foremost factor determining the outcome of any "deep state” conflicts, and as of now, nobody can reliably say where their loyalty lies, if anywhere at all. The ideal would be for the military to be subservient to the constitution, not any individual per se, but Lourenço’s "deep state” shake-up might end up both endangering some military men’s previously privileged economic-political positions but also creating space for others below them to rise up and replace them as a new cadre of national elites more loyal to Lourenço than dos Santos. Again, it can’t be emphasized enough how all of the above is nothing more than a thought-provoking exercise which attempts to obtain as forward-looking and comprehensive of an overview of Angola’s changing political situation as possible, and isn’t necessarily a forecast in the traditional sense.

Therefore, everything that was written should be taken with a grain of salt because there’s a chance that none of it will happen at all, though it any of it does, then this article could be relied on as a guide for understanding the broader contours of what’s unfolding and where it might be headed in the future.


Andrew KORYBKO -  Moscow-based poitical analyst specializing in the relationship between US strategy in Afro-Eurasia, China's One Belt One Road global vision of New Silk Road connectivity, and Hybrid Warfare  (30.10.2017)

DISCLAIMER: The author writes for this publication in a private capacity which is unrepresentative of anyone or any organization except for his own personal views. Nothing written by the author should ever be conflated with the editorial views or official positions of any other media outlet or institution.

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