Angolans and world leaders gathered on Sunday for the state funeral of former strongman president Jose Eduardo dos Santos, whose nearly four-decade rule of the oil-rich nation was marred by allegations of plunder and nepotism.
The memorial service was held at the historic palm tree lined Praca da Republica in the seaside capital Luanda on what would have been dos Santos’s 80th birthday.
It comes days after his party, the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) — which has ruled the country for nearly half a century — saw its worst results at the polls in the most hotly contested elections since independence.
Dos Santos — who died last month following a cardiac arrest — will be remembered as a “statesman and devoted pan-Africanist,” former Namibian president Sam Nujoma, 93, told the hundreds of mourners in attendance.
A choir sang dirges while flags flew at half-mast around the square, which houses an imposing concrete mausoleum where the country’s founding president Agostinho Neto is interred.
Dignitaries including South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa, the Democratic Republic of Congo’s President Felix Tshisekedi and Portugal’s President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa filled rows of white and gold seats.
Josiane dos Santos, the late leader’s daughter, sobbed while recalling her father’s love for music.
During Angola’s war for independence, the young “Zedu”, as he was called, began his career as a revolutionary by recording LPs that encouraged the fight against coloniser Portugal while he took refuge in the neighbouring DRC, she said.
‘Architect of peace’
Dos Santos was referred to by many, particularly MPLA members, as the “architect of peace” who brought democracy and multiparty politics to the country.
On the streets of Luanda, some people were more critical of his legacy.
“He left a high rate of youth unemployment… extreme poverty and one of the most unequal societies,” said Mariana Quissanga, 42, a businesswoman selling furniture and clothes.
Dos Santos led the country from 1979 to 2017 under the MPLA banner. His party notched up its worst electoral performance in this week’s polls.
After 97 percent of the results were tallied, an initial count showed the MPLA had won 51.07 percent of the vote, with 44.05 percent for the party’s main rival, the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA).
UNITA — which fought a bitter 27-year civil war against the MPLA government — has rejected the results.
Five members of the 16-strong election commission have threatened not to sign off the results.
“Let’s hope that… a solution can be found to what is happening in the country”, commissioner Francisco Vieira told a press conference on Saturday.
Dos Santos died at a clinic in Barcelona, and some of his children were at loggerheads with the government and his estranged wife over where and when he was to be buried.
But a Spanish court last week ruled that the body be returned to his wife in Angola.
His eldest daughter Isabel dos Santos, who has faced a slew of investigations into her multinational business dealings, last week wrote on social media that she would not be able to attend the funeral.
But as the ceremony was under way, Isabel posted a picture of herself and her father on Instagram, captioned in Portuguese “Happy birthday papa”.
Under dos Santos’s tenure, Angola became one of Africa’s top oil producers. While dos Santos and his family reaped vast wealth from Angola’s resources, most of the country’s 33 million people remain among the poorest in the world.
As one of the longest-ruling African leaders, he established himself as a political heavyweight beyond the country’s borders.
Weakened by age and illness, he stepped down in 2017, appointing Joao Lourenco as his successor, who now stands to gain a second term in office.
Dos Santos passed a series of laws before his departure from government, granting himself broad judicial immunity.
Manuel Kalunga, a 57-year-old public servant, will miss dos Santos.
“His death leaves a great vacuum in the political, social and cultural landscape,” Kalunga said.