Since then, the 62-year-old Lourenco has convinced key regime players and analysts he is the right man to succeed President Jose Eduardo dos Santos, who has ruled the oil-rich southwest African nation for 37 years.
Currently defence minister and deputy president of the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) party, Lourenco is firmly “part of the inner circle of power”, according to Didier Peclard, Angola specialist at the University of Geneva.
Dos Santos on Friday named Lourenco as the party’s presidential candidate in the general election expected in August 2017.
Lourenco previously failed to hide his desire to succeed Dos Santos when the president hinted in the 1990s that he might step down.
Dos Santos and his closest aides considered the ex-general was being opportunistic — and Lourenco was forced into several years of “political purgatory”, according to Peclard.
Dos Santos’ apparent flirtation with resignation was merely “a political manoeuvre to bring those in the party with ambitions out of the woodwork, and Joao Lourenco paid the price,” said Peclard.
As a young man, Joao Manuel Goncalves Lourenco fought against Portugal’s rule of Angola and in the civil war that erupted between the MPLA government and UNITA rebels after independence in 1975.
Like Dos Santos, he was a student in the former Soviet Union, which trained a number of rising young African leaders during decolonisation.
Lourenco became political chief of the armed wing of the MPLA in the civil war — a long and bloody Cold War proxy conflict involving Cuban forces and CIA-backed militias.
– ‘A hardline MPLA general’ –
In 1984, he was appointed governor of Moxico in the country’s east, Angola’s largest province, quickly rising through the MPLA ranks.
The ex-artillery general later led his party’s group in parliament before becoming deputy speaker of the National Assembly.
His appointment as defence minister in 2014 secured his position as favoured successor to Dos Santos, who oversaw the country’s move from Marxist rule to limited cooperation with the United States.
Angola has struggled with the shift to free market capitalism with volatile oil prices taking a heavy toll on the crude-dependent economy in recent years.
Lourenco “has a reasonable reputation as a moderate, not an extreme character,” said Soren Kirk Jensen of the Chatham House study group in London.
“He is probably the right person to be the bridge as Angola goes through a transition.”
Rumours abound that Dos Santos had hoped to hand over the reins of power to one of his children, who include Isabel dos Santos — Africa’s first billionaire woman according to Forbes magazine.
“There is speculation that high-ranked people in the party put their foot down against this,” Jensen said.
The few vocal opponents of Dos Santos’ all-powerful regime hold little hope that Lourenco offers a new chapter for Angola.
Activist and journalist Rafael Marques, a leading regime critic, said that Lourenco is at heart “a hardline MPLA general”, while former political prisoner Nuno Alvaro Dala said that under Lourenco “power in Angola will continue to be militarised”.
Lourenco was born on March 5, 1954 in Lobito in west Angola, and is married to a local employee of the World Bank.