NEW YORK (July 19, 2022) — José Eduardo dos Santos, Angola’s former dictator, died on July 8 in a Barcelona hospital after a long illness. Dos Santos ruled Angola from 1979 to 2017, through decades of a devastating civil war and a peace and reconstruction process fueled by an oil boom. He will be remembered for orchestrating the systematic plundering of Angola’s wealth to enrich himself and his family, and for leaving his oil- and diamond-rich country as one of the poorest nations on earth.
“José Eduardo dos Santos will be remembered for his grotesque corruption and how, with his children, he stole so much of Angola’s oil wealth with complete indifference for the conditions of ordinary Angolans,” said Human Rights Foundation (HRF) CEO Thor Halvorssen. “The greed of the Dos Santos family is legendary, but it wasn’t just the greed that made Dos Santos such a dreadful man. It was also the brutality with which he punished his critics, the human rights violations that became state policy, and how illustrative was his hypocrisy of the self-styled socialist dictator who says one thing and does another. He should forever be remembered as an indelible stain on Angolan history.”
Dos Santos became president in 1979 following the death of Angola’s first president, Agostinho Neto. He took the helm of a one-party Marxist Leninist state, which had been mired in a civil war with rival factions since the country gained independence in 1975. The war — which evolved from a Cold War proxy conflict between the Soviet Union and the United States to a struggle for control of Angola’s natural resources — lasted 27 years and killed half a million Angolans, with both the Dos Santos regime and rebels accused of committing war crimes and other atrocities. Dos Santos emerged victorious in 2002, and with the defeated rebels forming a weakened political opposition, Dos Santos’ party won the 2008 and 2012 legislative elections by landslides, tightening his grip on power.
As the civil war ended and Angola’s once state-controlled economy underwent partial privatization, Dos Santos used his power to take out controlling stakes in emerging private companies involved in joint ventures with the state. To cover his tracks while enriching his family, he manipulated and amended laws, and arranged for his daughter, Isabel dos Santos, to have large holdings in public-private ventures in key industries such as telecommunications, banking, diamonds, and oil. He also appointed Isabel as head of the national oil company and his son, José Filomeno, as head of a sovereign wealth fund. Dos Santos and his family thus captured the state and amassed immense wealth — with Isabel Dos Santos becoming a billionaire and Africa’s richest woman.
“Dos Santos’ legacy will be one of a man who weaved corruption into the fabric of Angolan society, enabling him to hold onto power while maintaining popular support for his regime,” said prominent Angolan investigative journalist Rafael Marques de Morais. De Morais is a former Oslo Freedom Forum speaker and the director of Maka Angola, an organization dedicated to fighting corruption in Angola.
During Dos Santos’ rule, rampant corruption, and money laundering hollowed out the state’s coffers. For example, as Angola became Africa’s second-largest oil producer, the International Monetary Fund estimated that at least $32 billion in oil revenue — or approximately one quarter of the GDP — went unaccounted for between 2007 and 2010. Angolan journalists, civil society groups, and activists who spoke out against corruption, power abuse, and other human rights violations suffered arrests and intimidation by the Dos Santos regime.
In 2011, inspired by the Arab Spring, Angolans took to the streets to demand greater freedom of expression and better living conditions, but the Dos Santos regime violently put and end to the protests. In June 2015, during one of the Dos Santos regime’s most infamous crackdowns on dissent, the government jailed 17 human rights defenders, and charged them with rebellion after gathering to read and discuss of Gene Sharp’s From Dictatorship to Democracy.
By the time Dos Santos stepped down in 2017 and handed over power to his hand-picked successor, João Lourenço, Dos Santos was Africa’s second longest serving head of state. Lourenço turned against his mentor and placed Dos Santos and his family under corruption probes, which estimated that over $24 billion of public funds were siphoned during Dos Santos’ rule. In 2020, the groundbreaking international investigation Luanda Leaks detailed the far reaching corruption and capture of the Angolan state and economy by Dos Santos and his daughter Isabel. As a result, charges were brought against Isabel dos Santos, and her assets were frozen in both her home country and Portugal.
Dos Santos’ legacy of authoritarianism, corruption, and kleptocracy have turned Angola into a basket case of striking inequality. According to the World Bank, while the capital Luanda ranks among the most expensive cities in the world, almost one out of two Angolans still live on less than $2 per day; and according to the United Nations, Angola is among the world’s “Least Developed Countries” in the world. Angola also ranks at the bottom of indices of human development and corruption.
The Human Rights Foundation (HRF) is a nonpartisan nonprofit organization that promotes and protects human rights globally, with a focus on closed societies. For interview requests or further comment, please email [email protected].