Angola exposé: Joining the dots

In depth
This article is part of the dossier: Angola: on the trail of stolen billions

By Patrick Smith, Zoe Eisenstein

Posted on Wednesday, 13 May 2020 13:36, updated on Thursday, 14 May 2020 10:50
Rafael Marques

In the first of a five-part series on Angola's campaign to find its stolen funds, we meet the man central to the country's hunt to retrieve its missing billions.

Sunlight streamed through the tiny window of a cell in a Luanda’s maximum security prison. Beneath it lay a corpse covered by a flimsy white sheet and a band of men playing cards.

“How can you play cards next to a corpse, [with] the smell and everything?” Rafael Marques asked his fellow inmates.

“Oh, it’s your first day – on the third day you’ll be here playing cards with us,” one of them shot back.

“And will the corpse still be there?” asked Marques, one of Angola’s most celebrated journalists.

READ MORE Life after power: the bitter exile of Angola’s ex-president Dos Santos

“No, there will be another one. Every day there’s a new corpse. They just stay here until they get buried,” said another inmate.

“And on the third day I sat down with them to play cards. The corpse was just there, next to us,” Marques told The Africa Report in a macabre account of his arrest and detention at Viana maximum security prison back in 1999.

“Central player in Angola’s hunt”

Today, Marques is a central player in Angola’s hunt for its missing billions which is pitting President João Lourenço against the Dos Santos clan, especially Isabel dos Santos, daughter of the former president.

Isabel Dos Santos, in London, Britain, January 9, 2020. REUTERS/Toby Melville

For years, Marques cut a solitary path, exposing the procurement scams and wholesale transfer of state assets overseas.

READ MORE Angola: Where did all the money go? Part 1, a family feast

Once vilified by regime sycophants and criminal business people, and under surveillance by state security, these days Marques is walking through the corridors of power for meetings with President João Lourenço.

President João Lourenço wants the return of the more than $100 billion reckoned to have been plundered between 2002 and 2017.

Last year, along with another long-time dissident Sousa Jamba, Marques was awarded a medal for services to the nation in a ceremony at the presidential palace.

Credible fight against corruption

For now, Marques views the government’s fight against corruption as credible. He rejects accusations from the Dos Santos camp that Lourenço just wants political vengeance. “It’s not a selective campaign … they are going after many different officials and business people.”

READ MORE Angolans feel let down two years into new presidency

With one of the biggest searches for stolen assets in the world  (compared to countries such as Portugal, Britain and its tax haven dependencies, United Arab Emirates, Russia, China and Hong Kong) Angola’s money chase could break the mould.

A decree passed in 2018 allowing a voluntary repatriation of assets has yielded a little over $2bn, barely 2% of the target.

Casting the net far and wide

Angola’s prosecutors are touring western capitals, setting up exchanges of financial information, urging regulators to freeze assets and accounts. Specialist asset tracing companies are talking to officials in Luanda to start the painstaking process of finding, then negotiating the return of the looted assets. If successful, Angola will have scored a first.

Attempts in Egypt, Indonesia and Nigeria to claw back resources have floundered, derailed by compromised officials or tied up in legal procedure.

This time in Angola, Marques thinks there is a strong chance of success. One of the toughest reporters in Africa, his reports on rights abuses and grand theft in the diamond business, frauds linked to the oil industry and defence procurement are a route map for state investigators and foreign journalists tracking Angola’s stolen funds.

After exposing the depredations of the war, forced recruitment, massacres, Orwellian-style manipulation of news, Marques had turned a spotlight on the gangs of war profiteers. He had countless enemies – on all sides of the political scene.

Angola then…

Back in 1999, Marques had been collecting signatures for a peace manifesto.  He accused President Jose Eduardo dos Santos and UNITA rebel leader Jonas Savimbi of being warlords. “I was trying to explain how the war became profitable for these individuals”.

READ MORE Lourenço is changing Angola. But the end destination isn’t clear

One of the few journalists to join the dots between the brutality of the war and the fast-growing wealth of Luanda’s political elite, Marques had become an irritant to the regime.

One morning at five o’clock he heard an insistent rapping at his front door.

“The neighbourhood was full of special police forces …the back street, the main street,” said Marques. “I had seven officers pointing guns at me, one pressed his pistol against my temples … After hours of interrogation, [I was taken] to the forensic laboratory that has a special prison. I was locked up as a captured guerrilla fighter.”

…Angola now

Now Angola is another country, says Marques. This year, walking through the cobbled streets of Lisbon’s old town, he explains why Angola’s fight against grand corruption could reverberate across the international financial system.

READ MORE Isabel dos Santos indicted for embezzlement and more

A lot of powerful financial and corporate interests benefitted from doing business with the Dos Santos clan, he says. If the Luanda government has the political will, it can get cooperation from western governments and financial institutions to track and return the funds.

Looking at the list of top ranking corporate consultancies, law firms and accountants tied up in successive scandals in Angola, Marques says: “It’s time the enablers – who have earned rich fees from these frauds – were held to account. They should contribute to civil society.”

LISTEN The Africa Report podcast on Angola: Where did all the money go?

“Angola is in financial meltdown”

Much as the chase for the missing billions could roil international corporate interests, it will also transform Angola, according to a senior official in Luanda, as the old order faces a reckoning: “If you’ve had any role during the Dos Santos years – a long time –  you run the risk of being confused for a marimbondo (a type of hornet or bloodsucker). It’s quite serious what’s happening.

This is part 1 of a 5-part series 

For the complete series, click here.

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