, LUANDA, Aug 29 – In three decades as Angola’s leader, Jose Eduardo dos Santos has consolidated power in his office while his family has amassed a vast business empire — all without ever winning an election.
Although he shuns the spotlight, Dos Santos dominates Angolan politics, staying on top by shrewdly managing the country’s powerful military and its fabulously wealthy oil businesses.
But after nearly 33 years in power, Dos Santos faces growing rumblings of discontent from the nation’s youth.
Dos Santos, who turns 70 on Tuesday, is Africa’s second-longest serving leader — just one month shy of the record held by Equatorial Guinea’s Teodoro Obiang Nguema.
Yet he has never won a presidential vote. The 1992 presidential election was aborted before a re-run as civil war re-ignited and he remained in the position. In 2008 no presidential election was held and he simply carried on in office.
In the meantime he re-wrote the constitution to abolish direct presidential elections, and the leader of the party that wins the parliamentary vote automatically becomes the head of state.
Hence Dos Santos is likely to stay on as president for another term since his party is expected to win Friday’s polls.
However, a Gallup poll in April found his approval rating by Angolans was the lowest of the 34 nations surveyed, making him less liked than Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe or Swaziland’s King Mswati III.
Just 16 percent said they approved of Dos Santos’s performance.
“Against all odds, he has remained in power since 1979, overcoming challenges of war, elections and at the same time displaying a highly-refined political craftsmanship,” said Alex Vines of the British think tank Chatham House.
He is “an accomplished and shrewd economic and political dealmaker with an instinct for political survival.”
From humble beginnings as the son of a bricklayer, Dos Santos joined the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) as a teenager and rose quickly up party ranks during Angola’s fight for independence from Portugal.
In 1979, following the unexpected death of Angola’s liberation president Agostinho Neto from cancer, Dos Santos, then planning minister, was sworn in as president.
The majority of his rule was during Angola’s civil war, which only ended in 2002, but during this time Dos Santos has been credited for moving away from hard-line Marxism, allowing multi-party democracy and opening up the country’s economy to foreign investment and growth.
As head of the military, police and cabinet, the president has an iron grip on all aspects of power in his oil-rich country.
He also chooses the senior judges and has MPLA allies in all public agencies, including the supposedly independent electoral commission.
The state keeps a firm grip on the media and his picture often appears on the front page of newspapers.
Few publicly criticise him. Independent journalists who express their opinions risk criminal charges.
The length of his time in office — with Dos Santos having contested presidential polls just once in 1992 — may be questioned by opposition and rights groups, who say he is deliberately delaying elections to prolong his rule.
But to foreign investors tired of upheaval in places like Nigeria, the continuity of his power provides welcome stability.
Among ordinary Angolans he also appears extremely popular, with the MPLA winning with more than 81% of votes in the 2008 legislative elections — the first to be held in 16 years.
Married to the glamorous former air hostess Ana Paula, who is 18 years his junior, his children include two high profile daughters who are involved in businesses and media ventures in Portugal and Angola.
The always immaculately-dressed Dos Santos spends his time between his presidential palace in Luanda and a second residence south of the capital. He speaks French, Russian and Portuguese.
He is said to enjoy music and poetry and was a keen footballer until an injury stopped him playing.