On 14th August, an Angolan court sentenced former President José Eduardo dos Santos’s son – José Filomeno dos Santos – to five years in prison for fraud. Three days later, former Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz was detained by police and questioned over alleged embezzlement. Both incidents were part of anti-corruption campaigns being waged by the countries’ current leaderships, which have targeted the inner circles of the former presidents. While such campaigns are not necessarily unusual, it is significant that the current leaders of both Angola and Mauritania were not only close allies of their respective former presidents but also their chosen successors.
When President João Lourenço succeeded José Eduardo dos Santos in 2017 and President Mohamed Ould Cheikh El Ghazouani replaced Aziz in 2019, they were similarly portrayed as little more than puppets of the former presidents, who would continue to exercise influence behind the scenes. In Mauritania, it was even suspected that Ghazouani was only meant to hold the position for one term, so as to allow Aziz to circumvent constitutional term limits and return as president in 2024. However, after being handed the reins of power, both Lourenço and Ghazouani took unexpected courses, wresting control of important institutions away from their former allies and initiating anti-corruption campaigns targeted at their predecessors and their inner circles.
In Angola, this has led to the imprisonment of José Filomeno dos Santos and the side-lining of the once powerful daughter of the former president, Isabel dos Santos. She has had her assets in Portugal seized and has been forced to resign from numerous company boards after being embroiled in an international corruption scandal at the start of this year. This included Angola’s leading telecommunications operator – Unitel – from which she resigned a day before her brother’s sentencing. Although no action has been brought against José Eduardo dos Santos in Angola, he has been living in self-imposed exile in Spain since April 2019 and the new administration seems intent on diminishing his role in Angola’s history, reportedly removing images of the former president from government buildings.
In Mauritania, Ghazouani appears to be following a similar course. After assuming the presidency, Ghazouani quickly saw off Aziz’s attempts to exert influence, positioning his allies within the ruling Union pour la République party structures and the military. After consolidating his position, Ghazouani went on the offensive, proposing the formation of a parliamentary committee to investigate alleged corruption under the former government. A report produced by this committee implicated Aziz and many of his inner circle in wrongdoing, leading to the former president being detained by Economic Crimes Police for a week in August. It is expected that legal proceedings will be brought against Aziz in the coming months and he has been banned from leaving the capital.
For both José Eduardo dos Santos and Aziz, their former defence ministers and long-term allies appeared to be safe choices to succeed them. But, as these former presidents have come to learn, succession is rarely straightforward. Ageing presidents, or those reaching constitutionally imposed term limits, must walk the tightrope of presidential succession, not only choosing a candidate that is acceptable to the ruling party, military and wider populace, but also ensuring that their chosen successor will not turn on them after assuming the presidency. This is a predicament in which presidents across the continent are finding themselves. Having observed developments in Angola and Mauritania, and if unable to engineer presidential dynasties, it seems increasingly likely that leaders such as Paul Biya in Cameroon and Yoweri Museveni in Uganda will seek to avoid the question of succession by remaining in office for the rest of their lives.