MALANJE, Angola (Reuters) – On a hot morning in August, João Lourenço, a man more used to army barracks and the closed doors of party politics, rose awkwardly to address thousands of rural supporters.
For most in the crowd, trucked in from surrounding villages and kitted out in red T-shirts, the stern-faced man before them was an unknown quantity, a quiet man who used to be defense minister.
But they will almost certainly be calling him their president after next Wednesday’s election — the first new head of state in oil-producer Angola in 38 years, going back to when Jimmy Carter ran the United States and Leonid Brezhnev the Soviet Union.
In common with many of Angola’s Soviet-trained leaders, Lourenço’s rhetoric to the crowds was conservative, even in the face of economic crisis.
“There is much that still needs to be done,” he told the rally as a loud speaker encouraged applause. “We will put you to work,” he said, vowing to grow agricultural production in this poor farming community.
Indeed, beyond common campaign promises to combat corruption, diversify the economy and attract more investment, few know what to expect from the 63-year-old when he is in office.
There are some who question how much freedom he will have.
His predecessor, José Eduardo dos Santos, who accumulated huge power and his family great wealth, ruled Angola from 1979, four years after independence from Portugal, and will continue to exert influence as leader of the MPLA party.
But those who know Lourenço say he may be quiet, but he is no puppet.
“He’s a man of conviction,” said João Melo, a party lawmaker from 1992 to 2017 who worked with Lourenço on several parliamentary commissions. “He represents change and change is absolutely vital for the long-term survival of the MPLA.”
Corruption and a deep economic crisis have put pressure on the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), a party that has led comfortably since the end of civil war in 2002.
After years of rapid growth, the economy of Africa’s second largest crude producer contracted 3.6 percent last year.
Unemployment is officially over 20 percent, while a shortage of foreign currency due to suppressed oil prices has forced companies to pull back operations.
Corruption is rampant, inequality brutal. Transparency International ranks Angola as the 164th most corrupt country out of 176.
There are hopes among reformers that Lourenço can bring change, But he is undoubtedly of the…