By Shrikesh Laxmidas
LISBON (Reuters) - Angola's government on Monday approved a decree by President Jose Eduardo dos Santos for the departure of Manuel Vicente from his role as chief executive of state oil firm Sonangol, state news agency Angop reported.
The government did not provide any detail on the reasons behind the decision, but Vicente's departure from the company is likely to fuel speculation that he has been selected to succeed Dos Santos at the presidency.
In September, weekly newspaper Novo Jornal cited ruling MPLA party sources to report that Dos Santos had selected Vicente, 55, as his successor to take over before or after an election later this year.
Vicente's reappointment as Sonangol CEO for a third term last month quashed some of the speculation, but analysts said the president still held the option to remove him from the company at any time.
"Vicente should not be discounted as a possible candidate for the succession. He is very close to the president, an ally who the president trusts," said Markus Weimer, an Angola expert and analyst at London-based think tank Chatham House.
Dos Santos also reshuffled the cabinet, creating the new role of Minister for Economic Coordination, with wide ranging policy-making powers and responding directly to Dos Santos.
The government did not say who will take the role.
"The fact that top positions in Dos Santos' inner circle are being changed in the run up to an election doesn't surprise me. It's part of his strategy, to keep his cards close to his chest and keep everyone guessing about his plans," Weimer said.
The parliamentary election, to be held in the third quarter, will be only the second in Angola since the end of a devastating 27-year civil war in 2002, with the head of the winning party's candidate list becoming president.
Dos Santos, who has been in power since 1979 and is Africa's second-longest serving leader after Equatorial Guinea's President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, has signaled he is ready to lead the party in the ballot, but has yet to confirm his decision despite promising to do so in January.
Angola is Africa's second-largest oil producer after Nigeria, and Sonangol plays a huge role in an economy in which oil revenues represent over 95 percent of export income and almost half of the gross domestic product.
Dos Santos' government and Sonangol have, however, long been accused of mismanaging oil revenues. Last month Human Rights Watch urged the government to account for $32 billion missing from state funds thought to be linked to Sonangol.
The government later denied the funds were missing and the IMF said last week it expected the authorities to account for most of the funds.
Angop added that Vicente, who built a strong reputation among international oil companies during his 13 years at the head of Sonangol, will be replaced by board member Francisco de Lemos Jose Maria.
"Vicente was respected by Angola's international oil partners, he was seen as someone they could do business with. That has now changed with his exit, so we'll have to see whether his replacement can build the same type of relations," Chatham House's Weimer said.
Jose Maria joined Sonangol's executive board in late 2008, working as chief financial officer and was also selected for a second term in December.
He takes over the company at a time when it starts exploring ultra-deepwater or "subsalt" offshore blocks which mirror those off Brazil where major volumes of high-quality light oil have been discovered in recent years.
Last month the company signed 11 deals with seven oil majors to drill thousands of meters under the Kwanza Basin seabed.
(Reporting by Shrikesh Laxmidas; Editing by Phumza Macanda)