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The Challenges of Reform in Angola

While João Lourenço has made headlines for high-profile corruption indictments against the dos Santos family patronage network, Angola’s authoritarian political system remains largely unchanged.

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Ships moored in the container terminal and port of Luanda. (Photo: Rodger BOSCH / AFP)

Ships moored in the container terminal and port of Luanda, Angola. (Photo: Rodger BOSCH / AFP)

After José Eduardo dos Santos stepped down as president in Angola after 40 years in power, his successor, former General João Lourenço, took office with promises of reform. Rooting out corruption in the government and the ruling Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) was his number one stated priority, “even if the first to fall are militants or even senior officials of the party that have committed crimes.” Since taking power in 2017, Lourenço has overhauled the MPLA’s political bureau, gaining firm command of the party and, through it, the executive branch, armed forces, and intelligence services. His anticorruption drive has recovered over $5 billion in looted assets. Does this herald a new beginning for Angola and a decisive shift away from the corruption and authoritarianism of the past? Or will these reforms turn out to be window dressing aimed at securing Laurenço’s hold on power? To gain some perspective, the Africa Center for Strategic Studies consulted with several independent Angola experts for analysis.

Massive Challenges

Angola’s per capita GDP of $4,422 classifies it as a middle-income economy. Yet Angola remains a country of paradoxes. Despite its wealth, Angola is among the world’s most inequitable countries. In 2017, Luanda was the most expensive city in the world to live in, despite the fact that 75 percent of the country’s population lives on less than $2 a day.

Non-coincidentally, Angola is also considered one of the world’s most corrupt countries, ranking 146th out of 180 countries in Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index. Oil income accounts for 95 percent of the economy. The oil and gas boom of the 1990s bankrolled an extensive patronage network that reached into the highest levels of the MPLA, government, and military and continued through dos Santos’ time in office. Local elites and individuals close to the dos Santos family also held stakes in mining, housing, services, and banking.

“State capture involves private individuals and companies gaining undue influence over policies, regulations, and legislation for the specific purpose of appropriating public resources for private gain.”

Angola’s corruption problem is also rooted in state capture. While “ordinary” corruption usually depends on the selective application of existing laws, state capture involves private individuals and companies gaining undue influence over policies, regulations, and legislation for the specific purpose of appropriating public resources for private gain. The looting of the public purse has thus become part and parcel of how the government machinery functions.

South African constitutional lawyer Andre Thomashausen, the principal drafter of the Angolan and Mozambican constitutions and a long-time advisor to both countries, says that the capture of key sectors of the Angolan economy by private interests “is a systemic characteristic of the unreformed, neo one-party state, reconfigured during the 1990s into a dominant party state. Nobody doing business in Angola can escape this grip.”

This problem was laid bare when Angola’s relationship with the multibillion dollar Brazilian conglomerate, Odebrecht, was exposed. Angola’s largest private employer, Odebrecht is at the center of what has been called “the biggest multinational corruption scandal in history.” In 2017, a New York court slapped it with a $2.6-billion fine after the company acknowledged to paying close to $1 billion in bribes to politicians, regulators, and lawmakers in Angola, Mozambique, and 10 Latin American countries over several years.

(Photo: Jeso Carneiro)

These bribes were offered to government officials in exchange for favorable laws, policies, and regulations that funneled millions of dollars to Odebrecht and its subsidiaries across a wide range of highly regulated sectors such as energy and public utilities. In one instance, a top Angolan official received $1.19 million from Odebrecht to craft regulations that would send business its way, according to court documents. In return, Odebrecht secured $261.7 million in contracts. In another case, Odebrecht paid $8 million to an Angolan regulator to craft tendering procedures that channeled numerous construction projects to it worth millions of dollars.

Angolan human rights activist Rafael Marques de Morais launched a campaign in 2017 demanding a public investigation into Odebrecht’s state capture in Angola, but none has been opened yet. “There has been absolute silence…. The Angolan justice system wants this to go away because of the involvement of senior officials,” said Marques de Morais.

Besides colluding with foreign actors like Odebrecht, Angola’s government borrowed heavily over the years. Despite being one of Africa’s richest countries, Angola is also one of its most indebted, with a debt-to-GDP ratio of 91 percent. Between 2005 and 2019, Angola had borrowed $40 billion from China, representing about half of its total external debt, including $4.4 billion in support of work on China’s One Belt One Road initiative. Managing these debts will be paramount for Angola’s long-term economic recovery.

Optimism and Uncertainty

Some of Lourenço’s anticorruption promises have been fulfilled, though their effectiveness is spotty. Under his watch, dozens of officials have been indicted on corruption charges. New tendering laws have abolished a requirement for foreign investors to have a local partner, a policy that saw local elites receive kickbacks from foreign firms in exchange for market access. Between 50 and 300 state-owned enterprises—sources of widespread patronage schemes under the dos Santos regime—have been marked for privatization.

New tendering laws have abolished a requirement for foreign investors to have a local partner, a policy that saw local elites receive kickbacks from foreign firms in exchange for market access.

In addition, Lourenço has sought to replace some entrenched officials from positions that are central to implementing the reforms and replacing them with a younger, more diverse cadre. “He has taken risks by appointing early mid-career women into key reform positions,” says Alex Vines of Chatham House. “It may pay off, but these smart technocratic women will need to deliver quickly as an older generation of MPLA elite has found itself leap-frogged over and are unhappy.”

In a September 2018 interview, Marques de Marais remarked that he would rate Angola’s president “8 out of 10, simply because he inherited a country where corruption was so ingrained, so institutionalized, that it became the institution itself.”

But Thomashausen warns that the anticorruption campaigns could merely be a means to “expunge the former grafting elite to make room for a new grafting elite.” Jon Shubert, author of Working the System: A Political Ethnography of the New Angola, suggested that Angola’s economic reforms have had little impact and could in fact cause more harm than good for some. “The recipes prescribed by the International Monetary Fund, such as the introduction of value-added taxes in July 2018, could impact the lower and middle classes hardest.”

Moves to hold officials to account have also had mixed reviews. The former president’s son, José Filomeno dos Santos, who ran Angola’s sovereign wealth fund, is on trial for money laundering charges. His sister Isabel, Africa’s richest woman, was removed as head of Sonangol, the multibillion dollar state oil company. A similar fate befell Valter Filipe da Silva, the former head of Angola’s central bank. He is now in court trying to explain how $500 million was moved from the Treasury to a private British account during the final weeks of the dos Santos government.

However, Shubert questioned other decisions, such as the government’s insistence that Angola, rather than Portugal, try Manuel Vicente, the former vice president of Angola and head of Sonangol. Vicente allegedly gave an $850,000 bribe to a Portuguese magistrate to suspend an inquiry into his dealings in Portugal. Questions remain over whether Angolan courts will hold him to account since he and other dos Santos insiders continue to wield significant sway over government institutions. “This points to the continuing weight of old networks,” explained Shubert.

“Power … was personalized around the figure of dos Santos, not institutionalized, and it operated through informal hierarchies of personal loyalty, some of which continue.”

Increasingly, these insiders are pushing back against what they see as “coordinated attacks” against them. In January 2020, Isabel dos Santos accused Lourenço of orchestrating a purge of her father’s associates, hinting she would fight back by running for president in 2022. This was in response to the government freezing her assets in Angola and announcing that it would use “all possible means” to bring her back to the country to account for her estimated $3 billion fortune. Isabel’s sister, Welwitschia dos Santos, once a powerful MPLA lawmaker, fled the country in May 2019 amid alleged threats from Angola’s secret service and was suspended from Parliament. Meanwhile, her brother, José Filomeno dos Santos, went on trial in December 2019 for siphoning $1.5 billion off of Angola’s Sovereign Wealth Fund.

Angola’s anticorruption drives are politically selective, says Vines, and susceptible to public opinion. “High-profile cases like against dos Santos’ son were popular among the middle class. The jailing of ex–Transport Minister Augusto Tomás played well. But this process is political and the president’s allies, such as Manuel Vicente, have not come under such scrutiny. Although these investigations are legitimate, an over-focus on going after dos Santos allies could backfire and be seen as a witch hunt.”

Cambridge University’s Justin Pierce said that Angola’s authoritarian political system may undermine the sustainability of reforms in the long term. “Precisely because power was so centralized under dos Santos, Lourenço has been able to do a lot quickly…. This power, however, was personalized around the figure of dos Santos, not institutionalized, and it operated through informal hierarchies of personal loyalty, some of which continue.”

The Face and Content of Reforms

The government has moved more slowly on political reforms. Lourenço rejected calls to revise the Constitution to limit presidential powers. His criminal justice reforms are limited to the recovery of stolen assets and fall short of making the judiciary independent of the executive, a key demand by Angolan civil society activists. Meanwhile, the government has not bowed to public pressure to disband the hugely unpopular Angolan Social Communications Regulatory Body, the MPLA branch that monitors all broadcasting.

Angola analyst Peter Fabricius questions whether the MPLA, one of Africa’s oldest liberation movements, will relinquish its stranglehold on Angolan politics and society. He warned that Angola may be following a trend where new leaders of liberation parties such as Tanzania’s John Magufuli, Emmerson Mnangagwa of Zimbabwe, and Filipe Nyusi of Mozambique launched populist anticorruption drives but kept a firm lid on democratic space.

João Lourenço at a rally of the MPLA.

João Lourenço at a rally of the MPLA. (Photo: Eu sou João Lourenço)

Fabricius traces this emerging trend to policies adopted by the MPLA and other ruling liberation movements at the 2016 Summit of the Former Liberation Movements (FLMs) of Southern Africa. The summit report titled “War with the West,” describes how rampant corruption “is seriously damaging the image of the FLMs” and calls on members to “uproot corruption to safeguard the revolutionary parties.” Revealingly, the report also notes that the main threat facing Africa’s liberation movements is “externally inspired regime change working with opposition parties and civil society.” Said Fabricius, “It is clear, then, that FLMs have for some time been aware of the threat to their power posed by corruption and vowed to get rid of it. Whether this explains the new breeze blowing through the region and a turn to real democracy is hard to say.”

Lourenço’s views on reform offer additional insights into the MPLA’s calculus. He told Angolans he “wants to be remembered as the person who performed an economic miracle” and frequently makes analogies between Angola’s development model and the “Chinese economic miracle.” After the 2017 elections, he compared the MPLA’s reforms to China’s “reform and opening up policies” and likened himself to their architect, China’s former Paramount Leader Deng Xiaoping.

“This is revealing,” said Ricardo Soares de Oliveira, author of Magnificent and Beggar Land: Angola since the Civil War. The Chinese reform model and ongoing anticorruption purges in his view do not envision loosening the ruling party’s grip on power. If anything, it is a “means to an end: a way of keeping the party in power,” a strategy echoed in the FLM policy document.

“We can’t rule out that Lourenço’s rule might in the future take a more authoritarian turn if he felt it necessary,” warns Justin Pierce. Many Angolan civil society members share his concern. Human rights lawyer Zola Bambi warns that Lourenço might be tempted to replace the so-called “dos Santos kleptocracy” with a new one of his own making.

What Would Far-Reaching Reforms Look Like?

“Angola urgently needs accountable and more effective government,” says Vines. “Institutions remain weak and vulnerable, and the concentration of power in the presidency makes them prone to abuse, especially if the reforms fail and the President embarks on a more authoritarian path.” Civil society leaders have called for the depoliticization of the Supreme and Constitutional Courts, the Office of the Ombudsman, and National Assembly. Although their independence is guaranteed by the constitution, they have been staffed by MPLA loyalists for decades. Angola’s civil society organizations also continue to push for the expansion of the media space and the reform of Angola’s heavily politicized security services. “Younger and more professional officers should be given a chance,” says Thomashausen. “There might also be a need for a National Political Rehabilitation Commission, similar to the South African Truth Commission process, to instill new ethos of accountability.” Going forward, many Angolans agree that there are no meaningful alternatives to serious reforms. For these to be long-lasting and impactful, however, they need to take place within a larger process of democratization that makes a decisive break with the past.

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