The August 2017 elections in Angola represented a case of electoral succession in the sense that the new president comes from the same party of the outgoing president; however, it is a case of nonhereditary succession. João Lourenço was not Dos Santos’ first choice (he even tried to revert the MPLA candidates’ list for the 2017 elections) and speculation around the leadership succession pointed to his eldest son, José Filomeno dos Santos (aka Zénu).
In less than a year in office, the new president began to remove members of the Dos Santos clan from Angola’s epicenter of political and economic power. João Lourenço deposed Dos Santos’ daughter and one of the richest woman in Africa, Isabel dos Santos, from the presidency of the state oil company, Sonangol. Also, her half-brother, José Filomeno dos Santos, was removed from the chairmanship of Angola’s $5 billion USD sovereign wealth fund (FSDEA).
… these removals have been effortless, as the former president’s family neither receives the MPLA’s support nor enjoys popularity. Furthermore, João Lourenço’s actions affecting Dos Santos’ family increased his popularity levels inside and outside the ruling party and thus didn’t allow the former president to stand up for his targeted family members, as pointed out by Ismael Mateus.
Angola’s political transition is an important lesson on the dangers of institutionalized autocracy. Dos Santos’ investment in a strong MPLA made possible the seamless transition and the power shift to the new president. Convinced of continued stability in the absence of the old president and the party’s ability to handle the transition, Angolan elites were willing to let Dos Santos step down and to bandwagon with the new president once he ascended to power.
“Smarter” (and arguably weaker) autocrats know to ensure that there is no alternative focal center of power around which elites can mobilize — whether in the form of an institution or individuals. This is the Biya/Museveni/Obiang/Eyadema/Afeworki playbook.
All to say that autocracies with strong ruling party traditions on the Continent (in Angola, Ethiopia, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe) are different from the individual-centered operations across the region — in places like Cameroon, Chad, Burundi, Rwanda, Togo, and Uganda.
More broadly, across the Continent turnover dynamics are interesting in autocracies and democracies alike. Botswana’s incumbent Mokgweetsi Masisi quickly fell out with his predecessor Ian Khama after taking office. South Africa’s Cyril Ramaphosa will likely go after Jacob Zuma after this month’s election. Policy and personal differences between incumbents and their predecessors hold the promise of creating stronger incentives for institutionalized rule and constitutional protections of retired elites’ civil liberties (and the wider population as well).