LUANDA (Reuters) - Angolan President Jose Eduardo dos Santos confirmed on Friday he will not run in this year's presidential election, calling an end to 38 years as head of state, but he will retain control of the powerful ruling party.
Dos Santos, aged 74, said in March last year he would not run in elections due in August but opponents remained suspicious given he had reneged on similar pledges during nearly four decades running Angola.
The ruling People's Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) approved 62-year-old Defence Minister Joao Lourenco as its presidential candidate at a meeting on Dec. 2, dos Santos said in a televised speech.
Dos Santos, a communist-trained oil engineer and a veteran of the guerrilla war against Portuguese rule, will remain president of the MPLA, retaining sweeping powers that include choosing parliamentary candidates and appointing top posts in the army and police.
His inscrutable public demeanour belies his tight control of Angola, where he has overseen an oil-backed economic boom and the reconstruction of infrastructure devastated by a 27-year civil war that ended in 2002.
"The real news is Dos Santos hanging on," said Gary van Staden, political analyst at NKC African Economics.
"He is going to stay in a very powerful position in the party, which means he is going to stay in control and the president will defer to him."
Despite its oil wealth, most of Angola's 22 million people live in poverty and they have become increasingly frustrated in recent years as low crude prices hammered growth in sub-Saharan Africa's third largest economy.
Critics accuse Dos Santos - Africa's second longest-ruling leader after Equatorial Guinea's President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo - of mismanaging Angola's oil wealth and making an elite, mainly his family and political allies, vastly rich in a country ranked amongst the world's most corrupt.
Married to former model and air hostess Ana Paula, 18 years his junior, dos Santos has been accused of trying to build a family dynasty to control Angola beyond his lifespan.
Isabel dos Santos was appointed by her father as head of the state oil company Sonangol last year and his son Jose Filomeno is chairman of Angola's sovereign wealth fund.
"He's pursuing a legacy plan with family members retaining control of key financial institutions," said Darias Jonker, Africa Director at Eurasia Group. "We see signs that he plans to retain some power behind the throne."
The MPLA won parliamentary majorities in the three elections since the end of the war.
Lourenco, a former soldier and deputy president of the MPLA, is a close ally of dos Santos. Also a veteran of the indepedence struggle, Lourenco studied history in the Soviet Union from 1978 to 1982 before starting a long career in politics.
"Lourenço has proven himself as competent technocrat without major scandals in his past and he's probably the best selection the party could have made," Jonker said.
As well as being a MPLA stalwart, Lourenco speaks Russian, Spanish and English, plays chess and practises Shotokan karate in his spare time, a personal biography says.
Additional reporting by Ed Stoddard in Johannesburg, Writing by Joe Brock, Editing by Angus MacSwan