José Eduardo dos Santos

José Eduardo dos Santos (born 1942) was a leader of the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) and the second president of Angola following independence in 1975. He guided the country from a Marxist to a democratic socialist form of government.

José Eduardo dos Santos was born on August 28, 1942, in Luanda, the capital of Angola, where his father was a stonemason. Even in school he was an ardent nationalist and worked clandestinely among students for the overthrow of Portuguese colonial rule.

In 1961, at the age of 19, he joined the African nationalist organization, Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), although it had been banned by the Portuguese authorities and its members persecuted by the political police. Later that same year he fled into exile in Léopoldville (now Kinshasa, Congo) where MPLA had an office. His ability was soon recognized in his appointment as deputy president of the party's youth wing. Two years later he was attached to the MPLA office in Brazzaville, capital of French Congo (now Republic of the Congo).

In 1963 dos Santos, together with several other young Angolans, received a scholarship for study in Moscow at Patrice Lumumba University. In 1969 dos Santos graduated with a degree in petroleum engineering. Mindful of the struggle to which he was returning at home, he stayed another year in the Soviet Union and took a military course in telecommunications and radar. During his student years he also married a Soviet woman.

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Young Military and Political Leader

Dos Santos returned to Angola in 1970, and for the next three years he served in the liberation army of MPLA on the war front in Cabinda, a northern territory of Angola. He was appointed as second-in-command of telecommunication services. In 1974 a coup in Lisbon toppled the dictatorial regime, and the independence of Portugal's African colonies at last seemed possible. The rise of dos Santos to the top ranks of MPLA continued. In 1974 he was recognized as number five in the leadership and was appointed to the party's executive committee and to its political bureau.

At the independence of Angola in November 1975, President Agostinho Neto appointed José Eduardo dos Santos as minister of foreign affairs in his first government. For Neto, close colleagues like dos Santos were essential, for they provided a link with the old days when MPLA was chiefly a military organization. In addition, they had the education and skills to turn the party into a governing body which could direct the political and economic reconstruction of the country. In 1977, in a cabinet reshuffle, dos Santos received the important assignment of planning minister and secretary of the National Planning Commission. He also served briefly as first deputy prime minister.

Thrust into Presidency

In September 1979 Angolans were shocked by the death of Agostinho Neto after a battle with cancer. The ruling Central Committee unanimously approved the appointment of José Eduardo dos Santos as the country's second president, as head of MPLA, and as commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces. The appointment was confirmed by a party congress in May 1980. At 37 years of age, dos Santos was one of Africa's youngest presidents.

Although relatively unknown outside of his country, the appointment of dos Santos was less of a surprise in Angola itself. He had been a close adviser of Neto; he was a Kimbundu from Luanda, the ethnic group that had dominated MPLA; he had a wide range of administrative experience compared to many colleagues; his loyalty and service to MPLA over the years were unquestioned; and he was not closely identified with any of the factions within the party.

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Reformer Sought Peace, Challenged by War

As president, dos Santos continued the task of economic and political reconstruction begun by his predecessor. His biggest problem was the continuing war against the National Union for the Total Integration of Angola (UNITA), a rival liberation movement during the period of Portuguese rule which never recognized MPLA as the legitimate government of Angola. Many of the human and material resources which Angola desperately needed for internal development had to be diverted to the war against UNITA led by the rebel Jonas Savimbi, who was supported by South Africa and the United States. Within his government, President dos Santos, generally considered to be a moderate, had to balance different viewpoints between those who were committed to supporting Marxist ideology and those who were more pragmatic and willing to sacrifice some ideological purity in order to achieve peace.

Despite dos Santos' efforts to negotiate an end to the war, it raged on. Angola's fate was to be positioned geographically in the midst of other turmoil that fueled continued insurgency within. In 1984 the Angolan and South African governments agreed to a cease-fire to the nearly two-decade-long war along the Angola-Namibia border. An agreement by dos Santos and Cuba's President Fidel Castro to withdraw Cuban troops from Angola quickly followed. The proposition was based on the withdrawal of South African troops from Angola, South African recognition of Namibian independence, and an end to support of Savimbi and UNITA.

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New Political Philosophy Emerged

Even though Angola and South Africa maintained their cease-fire agreement, negotiations for Cuban troop withdrawal from Angola and Namibian independence dragged on for years. Meanwhile, Angola's civil war took hundreds of thousands of lives and decimated the economy. As the 1980s went by, the government gradually began to change its Marxist philosophy, established a free market economy, joined the International Monetary Fund, and announced that Angola would adopt a multiparty system and hold elections within three years after reaching a peace settlement. These steps led the United States to join Portugal and the former Soviet Union in actively brokering negotiations between the MPLA and UNITA. Savimbi and dos Santos first agreed to stop fighting in 1989—in what became an off-and-on again cease-fire—which, after a cooling off period, led to free elections.

The long awaited elections took place September 29 and 30, 1992 under United Nations supervision. Dos Santos was the undisputed winner with almost 50 percent (49.7%) of the popular vote versus 40.1 percent received by Savimbi. Savimbi claimed the vote was rigged, and by October 30th UNITA had taken the country into civil war again. More killing and economic devastation followed, further depleting the country of its rich natural resources. The United States continued to hold peace talks to work out an acceptable power-sharing arrangement between UNITA and the dos Santos government. Savimbi refused to give up the territory won through battle, and in so doing lost the United States' support as the U.S. officially recognized the dos Santos government in the Spring of 1993.

Dos Santos addressed the United Nations on its 50th Anniversary, October 22, 1995, expressing appreciation for the understanding and assistance given Angola, particularly its humanitarian aid to refugees and economic assistance to restructure the country. He also praised UN peace keeping forces in Angola for their continued role in disarming UNITA guerillas, as well as for monitoring the long process toward reconciliation within the country.

A good-looking man who smiled easily, José Eduardo dos Santos was reported to be somewhat reserved and not given to speaking or appearing in public more than necessary. One commentator noted, however, that the apparent shyness masked an inner sureness and indefatigable spirit.

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Further Reading on José Eduardo dos Santos

Recommended for general background on Angola are Lawrence W. Henderson, Angola: Five Centuries of Conflict (1979) and Basil Davidson, In the Eye of the Storm (1972). On the liberation struggle in which dos Santos participated, see John Marcum, The Angolan Revolution, two volumes (1969 and 1978). Also, Michael Wolfers and Jane Bergerol, Angola in the Front Line (1983) gives an excellent account of events since independence. Shorter articles in periodicals that offer additional details of the Angolan conflict include: Time (April 2, 1984 and October 17, 1988); The Economist (July 1, 1989, September 28, 1991, October 10, 1992, and November 7, 1992); the US Department of State Dispatch (September 23, 1991 and October 5, 1992); (November-December 1992); and Presidents & Prime Ministers (January/February, 1996).