José Eduardo dos Santos, who has died aged 79, was president of Angola for almost four dramatic decades, commander in chief of the armed forces and party leader. A desperate struggle for independence from Portugal was followed by 27 more war years as Angola supported the liberation struggles in southern Africa, paying an extremely high price for its principles.
Dos Santos led a long and finally successful resistance, 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 by his oil-rich country’s failure to remedy extreme inequality.
In April 1974 the fascist regime in Portugal, the colonial power, fell. That September Dos Santos was elected to the central committee and politburo of the MPLA (People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola), while serving as a telecommunications officer. After independence in 1975 he became minister of foreign affairs and later minister of planning under the first president, the poet, doctor and intellectual Agostinho Neto, a veteran of Portugal’s prisons.
The independence war turned into the ugliest of decolonising confrontations as the US, under presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, opted to protect South Africa’s white regime, and its occupation of Namibia, from the growing resistance in the region.
They had their own candidate for leader of independent Angola, Jonas Savimbi of Unita (the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola). As Portugal retreated in 1975, the South African army, with CIA support, invaded Angola to prevent the MPLA, with its support for the African National Congress and Namibia’s independence movement, Swapo, from taking power.
Cuba brought a military force across the Atlantic to support the MPLA, stopping that plan, and Angola proclaimed independence, led by the MPLA, on 11 November 1975. However, a new war was promptly unleashed on Angola by South Africa, using Unita as a proxy.
Meanwhile, the country was thrown into crisis by a violent coup attempt in May 1977 by pro-Soviet militants hoping their claimed sympathies for Moscow would provide them with external support.
When Neto died suddenly in 1979, Dos Santos, aged only 37, was elected his successor from within the politburo in part because of his loyal behaviour during the coup attempt, but also as representing a younger generation.
Dos Santos inherited a crippled country and an active war. Under President Ronald Reagan from 1981 the US openly aided Unita. Angola resisted numerous South African invasions and attacks with Cuban assistance. Massive destruction of the country’s infrastructure, and hundreds of thousands of destitute, wounded and displaced people was the reality.
But in late 1987 Cuba turned the tide by sending their best planes, best pilots, weapons and 30,000 troops to southern Angola to relieve the 12,000-strong cream of the Angolan army surrounded in Cuito Cuanavale by a South African army with air superiority.
By late March 1988 the battle of Cuito Cuanavale was won and the South African army 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 again returned to war when they lost the election. In the 1990s, as the conflict dragged on, corruption scandals touched senior Angolans concerning arms deals with the ex-Soviet bloc, and the French politician Charles Pasqua was convicted, and then acquitted, of profiting from illegal arms sale to Angola, while at the same time there were curious transactions over repayment of a $5bn debt to Boris Yeltsin’s Russian government.
Several peace accords were again signed by Dos Santos’s government with Unita, and in 1997 a government of national unity was created with Unita and another former group, the FNLA. Dos Santos and others in the MPLA leadership wanted and imposed tolerant behaviour towards Unita former combatants – 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 a pointer to the possibility of reconciliation those who had followed Savimbi to the end were finally reintegrated into national politics.
Born in the capital, Luanda, José was the son of Jacinta José Paulino and Avelino Eduardo dos Santos. While at school he joined the MPLA, which sent him to the Soviet Union to gain degrees in petroleum engineering and radar transmission in Azerbaijan. In 1970 he returned via the Republic of Congo (Congo–Brazzaville) and joined the MPLA’s guerrillas as a wireless operator in the inhospitable equatorial forest of Cabinda.
The MPLA involvement with Cuba had begun five years previously, 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 went on to serve as a sub-commander in the telecommunications unit, and became the MPLA’s representative to Yugoslavia, Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) and China, before joining its central committee.
In line with the fall of communism in eastern Europe, in 1991 Dos Santos declared at an MPLA congress that Marxism was over and social democracy was the way forward. The party was by then heading towards a mood of political paralysis and a degree of demobilisation, evident by the end of the civil war.
From 2002 onwards, important infrastructure features were constructed, notably with Chinese aid, Brazilian cooperation and the help of the oil-fuelled boom that had started in the 90s. But an air of corruption was embedded in these achievements that went along with a fading of the MPLA’s original principle of putting political commitment above personal interests.
It was a sign of the times when in 2016 Dos Santos appointed his daughter Isabel to head Angola’s key national asset, the oil company Sonangol. His son José Filomeno (Zenú) headed the $5bn national asset fund.
In 2017 the president decided not to seek re-election. Under the anti-corruption campaign initiated by his successor, João Lourenço, Isabel was removed from Sonangol and in 2020 Zenú was sentenced to a five-year prison term, after repaying substantial sums of money sent abroad. He appealed.
Continuing court cases indicate a massive level of diversion of state funds for private interests, and bank loans of hundreds of millions of dollars that have never been repaid. The Dos Santos family and a number of generals close to the former president who profited from these deals have now lost their fortunes and are awaiting court hearings. Isabel, whose business empire once spanned a supermarket chain, telecoms, 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, to Tatiana Kukanova, whom he had met in Azerbaijan. That marriage ended in divorce, and two others followed before in 1991 Dos Santos married Ana Paula de Lemos, who survives 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) came from his relationship with Maria Luisa Abrantes; Zenú came from one with Filomena Sousa.
• José Eduardo dos Santos, politician, born 28 August 1942; died 8 July 2022