December 5, 2022

Late Angolan President José Eduardo dos Santos leaves behind mixed legacy of peace, poverty and corruption

José Eduardo dos Santos with George W Bush at the White House in 2004. Photograph: Gerald Herbert/AP
José Eduardo dos Santos with George W Bush at the White House in 2004. Photograph: Gerald Herbert/AP

Former Angolan president José Eduardo dos Santos passed away Friday at the age of 79, leaving behind a mixed and complex legacy in the minds of millions. The nation’s second president, he was in power for nearly four decades from 1979 to 2017.

Former Angolan president José Eduardo dos Santos with President Vladimir Putin of Russia

A longtime figurehead in Angolan politics, dos Santos’s political career was filled with both failures and successes. He was regarded highly by some Angolans for his role in the nation achieving independence from Portugal in 1975 fighting for the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola.

In Angola’s nearly 47 years of independence, José Eduardo dos Santos was in power as president for roughly 38 of these years. The face of Angola for decades, the majority of the nation’s highs and lows both occurred under his watch.

José Eduardo dos Santos was named the 2014 Man of the Year by Africa World magazine for his role in leading Angola toward recovery after bringing an end to its bloody 27-year-long civil war that left at least half a million dead.

However, there are also many Angolans that do not view the former president as an architect of peace but rather as the man who failed to find peace for years as war raged on for decades following Angola’s independence.

During José Eduardo dos Santos’s tenure as president of Angola, the nation grew dramatically and its economy came a long way. The man who was once a fairly strict marxit-lenninist adhering to communist economic principles learned to transition Angola toward a more market-based economy following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Angola’s annual gross domestic product was just $5.93 billion in 1980 and grew to $122.1 billion by the time dos Santos left office. The longtime president is credited by many in part for the success of Angola’s oil industry, upon which it has grown dependent. According to data from the World bank, Angola’s oil sector accounts for one third of its gross domestic product and roughly 95 percent of its exports.

While Angola’s economy and oil sector both grew dramatically under José Eduardo dos Santos’s leadership, he is also widely criticized for failure to do more to combat Angola’s pervasive poverty. The world bank reported that in 2018, 47.6 percent of Angolans were living below the international poverty line of less than $1.90 per day.

Despite Angola’s economic gains over the decades, many have been left wondering the extent to which José Eduardo dos Santos’s successes as president actually translated to better lives for everyday Angolans.

Regarded by his supporters as an “architect of peace”, dos Santos’s regime was hallmarked by repression and corruption rather than peace in the eyes of many Angolans. With dos Santos at the helm of the nation, democracy struggled to take hold in Angola as heavy restrictions were placed on speech and assembly. Simultaneously, corruption and human rights abuses have been rampant in Angola for decades since its independence.

José Eduardo dos Santos’s successor and current Angolan president João Lourenço has made substantial advancements in many areas since coming to power in 2017. Under his guidance, Angola’s corruption index score has increased from 19 in 2018 to 29 in 2022, according to Transparency International, which indicates that corruption has improved by over 50 percent. In doing so, he has shed light on some of the previous administration’s shortcomings.

While former Angolan president José Eduardo dos Santos became known to many as a man of peace, the legacy he leaves behind is much more complicated and his time in office was filled with imperfections.

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