After years of prolonged illness, the former president of Angola, José Eduardo Dos Santos, died on Friday in Barcelona, Spain at age 79. A controversial figure, Dos Santos will be missed by many Angolans who praised him as the architect of the peace negotiations that ended the country’s 27-year civil war in 2002. But to victims of human rights abuses during his 38-year rule, Dos Santos was a ruthless leader who did not hesitate to use law enforcement agencies and the judicial system to intimidate his critics, independent journalists, and human rights defenders.
Before his retirement in 2017, Dos Santos was the second-longest serving president in Africa, having come to power in 1979. His rule was characterized by unprecedented economic crisis, a very poor and unequal society, and entrenched impunity for serious human rights violations, including unlawful killings, politically motivated detentions, and crackdowns on the press.
His administration was notorious for persecuting activists, including Rafael Marques, who exposed a range of high-level corruption cases and human rights violations, and who also pursued sensitive investigations into human rights violations in Angola’s diamond areas. In 2015, the Dos Santos-led government arrested a group of academics, students, and artists who were attending a book club to discuss peaceful protests and democracy. The authorities charged them with crimes of “preparatory acts of rebellion” and “plotting against the president and state institutions.”
For decades, his administration ensured impunity for security force members implicated in excessive use of force, torture, and enforced disappearance, as well as mass killings. This includes those allegedly responsible for the 2015 massacre of members of a Christian sect, known as the Seventh Day in the Light of the World, at Mount Sume in Huambo province. The same forces were accused in 2012 by the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights of abuses against Congolese migrants, including beatings, torture, and unlawful anal and vaginal searches.
The legacy of human rights abuses during the Dos Santos era still haunts Angolans today, five years after he left power. His successor, President João Lourenço, has yet to introduce meaningful security sector reforms, emboldening forces to continue serious violations, including violent attacks on activists and crackdowns of peaceful protests.