José Eduardo dos Santos, who presided over Angola during a brutal civil war and navigated the crosscurrents of the Cold War to last 38 years as president, becoming one of Africa’s longest-serving and most rapacious tyrants, died July 8 at a clinic in Barcelona. He was 79.
During his nearly four decades in power, from 1979 to 2017, Mr. dos Santos led his resource-plentiful nation through seemingly endless conflict and an uneasy peace marked by corruption that funneled vast riches to his family and a favored few while leaving most Angolans in dismal poverty.
More than half a million people were killed in a civil war that displaced more than 3 million and left much of the country in ruins or pocked with land mines, even as Angola became Africa’s second-largest oil producer and third-largest producer of diamonds.
A fiercely private, even reclusive figure, Mr. dos Santos largely eschewed any cult of personality. Even his image on the country’s currency was partly concealed by another portrait. He gave few speeches or interviews, revealing little of his personal life. He offered a tight-lipped smile in official photos, none of which showed his office or homes.
Mr. dos Santos was eventually forced into exile — to a $7.2 million mansion in Barcelona — after his successor, President João Lourenço, unexpectedly launched an anti-corruption crackdown that closed in on the long-untouchable dos Santos family and its associates.
The chief target of the probe was Isabel dos Santos, the former president’s eldest daughter and reputedly Africa’s richest woman. She was charged in 2020 with money laundering, forgery and other financial crimes stemming from her tenure as head of Angola’s national oil company, Sonangol.
Prosecutors relied in large part on a massive trove of leaked financial and business records revealed by news organizations working with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, a Washington-based investigative nonprofit. The “Luanda Leaks” scandal tied Isabel dos Santos or her husband to more than 400 corporate entities in 41 countries and offshore tax havens.
She had opulent homes in London and Dubai and built a secretive business empire worth an estimated $3.5 billion, but denied wrongdoing. Two of her half siblings fled abroad. A half brother, José Filomeno dos Santos was arrested in 2018 and later sentenced to five years in prison for embezzling up to $500 million from Angola’s sovereign wealth fund, which he had led.
In all, the Lourenço government estimated that more than $24 billion was looted during Mr. dos Santos’s rule, allegedly through illegal diversion of oil revenue, sweetheart government contracts, deeply entrenched patronage and other schemes.
Mr. dos Santos “allowed his immediate and extended family and associates to dominate commercial activity in what became a stagnating economy [and] a textbook kleptocracy,” said Alex Vines, head of the Africa program at Chatham House, a British think tank.
Despite his understated public image, Mr. dos Santos held nearly unfettered power. He headed the armed forces, oversaw security agencies and led the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola, or MPLA, the forces that have dominated nearly every facet of Angolan life since the Portuguese colony won independence in 1975.
At that point, Mr. dos Santos’s faction was backed by Cuba and the Soviet Union. The United States and apartheid-era South Africa supported the MPLA’s chief military rival, known by the acronym UNITA, fueling a ruinous superpower proxy war for control of Angola. The country’s civil war outlasted the Cold War, sputtering to a close only in 2002.
During his long tenure, Mr. dos Santos’s regime relied on what State Department human rights reports described as arbitrary arrests, torture and extrajudicial killings, as well as a murky judicial process and limits on free assembly, speech and the press.
A shrewd dealmaker, Mr. dos Santos achieved his political longevity by swapping allies and ideologies as the world changed around him. As the Soviet Union began to implode, the onetime Marxist-Leninist permitted a partial market economy, allowing Chevron, Texaco and other U.S. companies to tap Angola’s vast offshore oil fields, the country’s chief income source.
In time, he abandoned Marxism-Leninism completely, expelled Cuban forces and allowed the country’s first multiparty elections. The United States became Angola’s largest trading partner, and Mr. dos Santos made four working visits to the White House by 2004.
Since then, an increasing share of the country’s oil has gone to China. As part of a loans-for-oil program, China has invested more than $20 billion in roads, schools, power plants and other infrastructure in Angola, according to the Portuguese news agency Lusa.
Nevertheless, the World Bank estimates that more than half of Angola’s more than 30 million people survive on less than $1.90 a day. Life expectancy in Angola remains among the world’s lowest, and infant mortality ranks among the highest.
José Eduardo dos Santos, the son of a bricklayer, was born in Luanda, the capital, on Aug. 28, 1942. His high grades secured him one of the few spots available to African students at a school attended by children of the Portuguese elite. Amid rising anti-colonial sentiment on the continent, he enlisted in the MPLA’s army at age 20 determined to end four centuries of Portuguese rule.
Like many African militants, he found support in Moscow. He received a degree in petroleum engineering in 1969 from a college in Baku, Azerbaijan, then a Soviet republic.
He was serving on the MPLA’s central committee when Portugal agreed to grant independence to Angola in 1975. The transitional government in Luanda collapsed when fighting broke out between the MPLA and rival guerrilla groups, including the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola, or UNITA.
With help from Havana and Moscow, the MPLA managed to secure a shaky new government under President Agostinho Neto, but his death from cancer in 1979 elevated Mr. dos Santos — then a key cabinet member — to president, commander of the armed forces and head of the People’s Assembly.
Angola — a country twice the size of France — remained in dire straits. The currency was all but worthless and the civil war, often fought by child soldiers, destroyed infrastructure and sent millions fleeing.
The 1992 multiparty elections, which were conducted under a cease-fire and supervised by the United Nations, marked the first real chance for peace. But when Jonas Savimbi, the U.S.-backed UNITA leader, lost decisively to Mr. dos Santos, he falsely claimed fraud and reignited the war.
Savimbi’s forces soon captured vast swaths of territory and cut supply lines to cities, producing starvation in some areas. As casualties and atrocities mounted, Alioune Blondin Béye, the U.N. special envoy to Angola, called it “the worst war in the world.” A peace deal was achieved only after Angolan troops killed Savimbi in February 2002.
Mr. dos Santos was married to Ana Paula dos Santos, a former fashion model and flight attendant. He was reported to have fathered four to eight children by various wives and relationships, but no official list of survivors was immediately available.
Suffering from poor health, Mr. dos Santos voluntarily stepped down at the 2017 legislative elections and handed power to Lourenço, his former defense minister and political protege.
A year later, Mr. dos Santos sat in stunned silence at an MPLA conference as his chosen successor denounced recent “corruption, nepotism, flattery and impunity” in a barely veiled attack on the former ruling family.
To the gathering, Mr. dos Santos offered no apologies, acknowledged unspecified mistakes and said he was leaving with his “head high.”