JOHANNESBURG — Voters in Angola go to the polls Friday to choose the nation's next president. It will be only the third election since the country gained its independence from Portugal in 1975. It will also be an important moment for candidate and incumbent president José Eduardo Dos Santos, whose 32 years at the helm of Angola makes him the second longest-serving African leader.
José Eduardo Dos Santos celebrated his 70th birthday amid a heated electoral campaign. He is an African icon, tied to the fate of his country. His 32 years in power, through war and peace, has made this son of a mason and of a maid one of the most important people in Angola's tormented history.
Born in a poor neighborhood of Luanda, Dos Santos was only a teenager when he entered a clandestine group to fight Portuguese rule in Angola. He joined the People's Movement for the Liberation of Angola. He then spent seven years studying petroleum engineering in the Soviet Union.
When he returned to Angola, he rose through the ranks of the MPLA, eventually taking over its leadership after the death of Agostinho Neto.
In 1979, the 37-year-old Dos Santos began his long reign in the newly-independent and already war-torn country.
After 27 years of civil war with the opposition party UNITA, Dos Santos's party, backed by the the Soviet Union and its successor, Russia, and Cuba, crushed its opponent, bringing the country to peace in 2002. Four years later, he was elected president with 82 percent of the vote.
According to Ana Alves, senior researcher at the South African Institute of International Affairs, this accomplishment still strongly shapes his image among the older population.
"I think the height of his popularity was 2008. He was really popular because he brought the end of the civil war," says Alves. "I think he still got a lot of support from his peers during the war and and the people who supported the MPLA during the civil war. There was a lot of constructions, until now there is a lot of of construction."
Rebuilding the country's infrastructure has been a priority for Dos Santos. But despite of the country's current booming economy, Alves says that Dos Santos has alienated the nation's youth, who feel left out of the economic boom.
"The youth, they are not attached to that anymore," says Alves. "They grew up until they were 10 or so, and then the war is over. So that detachment formed the old leadership to the new one will cause some problems to Dos Santos. Forty percent of the Angolan population is under 18. So those ones, they don't count now, because they don't vote. But, in 10 years time, that will be the biggest part of the population. In five years time even. And, they will want to have their problems addressed. And, this is mostly living conditions, salaries, employment and all that."
This election could be the last for Dos Santos.
Last year, the media claimed that he was already preparing his succession by naming Manuel Vicente, the former leader of the Sanangol national oil company, into the political bureau. The MPLA denied this but, on Friday, Vicente will be the on the MPLA ballot for vice president.