Angola's new president picks apart the dos Santos empire

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Joao Lourenco (File: AFP)
Joao Lourenco (File: AFP)

Luanda - The start of the clean-up operation did not take long.

Within three months of taking control of Angola, President Joao Lourenco sacked his predecessor's daughter as head of the state-run oil company and set about dismantling the empire built by Jose Eduardo dos Santos.

A presidential decree in mid-November swiftly ended the reign of Isabel dos Santos - Africa's richest women - as boss of Sonangol, the country's troubled economic flagship which supplied three-quarters of its revenue.

A little over a year ago, the 44-year-old "Princess", was named by her father as head of the company, sparking outcry among the opposition.

But despite her standing, Lourenco dismissed her, later saying: "Sonangol is Angola's golden goose, we are going to take care of it very carefully."

A long-standing pillar of the regime, the new president had promised to distance himself from the dos Santos family during his successful campaign ahead of the August 23 poll.

"No one will be above the law... I will be the only president," he said, although few took him seriously.

But they were mistaken, because as soon as he took the reins of the south-western African nation, Lourenco kicked off a raft of appointments.

'Pact broken'

Within a few weeks, the bosses loyal to dos Santos heading critical institutions and sectors -- including the central bank, oil, diamond industry and the media -- were replaced by allies of the new leader.

"Joao Lourenco is setting up his team," the journalist and opponent Rafael Marques said.

"What is out of the ordinary is that he is demonstrating that he is the president, not the MPLA (People's Movement for the Liberation of Angola)," the ruling party since independence in 1975.

The police and the army did not escape the clear-out either.

Before retiring, dos Santos took care to freeze by law the hierarchy of the security forces for several years. But Lourenco replaced the chiefs of police and military intelligence anyway.

"He's tearing up the original compromise government that he negotiated with dos Santos around the time of his inauguration as head of state," said Alex Vines, an analyst at the British think tank Chatham House.

"He has demonstrated that the dos Santos family is no longer protected."

The initiatives of Angola's new boss have sent shockwaves through the MPLA, where "Comrade Number 1" dos Santos has kept a number of supporters.

His other daughter, Welwitschia, herself a member of the central committee, complained publicly about the treatment of the family.

"In Angola, citizens who promote the image of the motherland... are persecuted and stripped by the president," said Welwitschia, who made her fortune as the head of a television production and advertising company.

'Same gang'

A lawmaker of the ruling party, Joao Pinto, warned the new head of state, telling Radio Ecclesia: "We must avoid witchhunts and revenge."

The opposition and civil society are observing the clan war with interest, but remain sceptical.

"The president wants to win the trust of global financial institutions and foreign governments by pretending that he is attacking corruption," said journalist Mussa Garcia.

Stripped of Sonangol, the dos Santos family still retains control of another jewel in the crown, the sovereign wealth fund of the country, led by the former ruler's son Jose Filomeno.

But rumours of his resignation are already well under way, especially since he was implicated in the "Paradise Papers" offshore tax scandal.

And now another question is forming, that of the fate of Jose Eduardo dos Santos himself.

Aged 75 and weakened by sickness, the former head of state announced he will retire from politics in 2018, until then keeping the presidency of the powerful MPLA as a guarantee of his protection.

"Once he is no longer MPLA president, or his health worsens further, additional political pressure could be brought upon the dos Santos family," Vines said.

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