Even before taking over the leadership of Angola in 2017, João Lourenço knew that the fight against corruption in his country would be difficult.
Every day that passes confirms this a little more.
In recent days, the Angolan president, who succeeded the former strongman José Eduardo dos Santos, has been the victim of a boomerang effect: while he was elected on the promise of leading an anti-corruption crusade, launched as soon as he came to power, he is under fire from critics for keeping his chief of staff, Edeltrudes Costa, suspected of a conflict of interest and of enriching himself by obtaining public contracts.
The affair comes at a terrible time when Angola is finds itself in great financial difficulty due to the fall in oil prices and the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, is pleading for an extension of the moratorium on debt service with international donors, including the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank (WB).
On 16 September, the IMF reaffirmed its support, increasing by nearly $800m the $3.7bn package approved for 2018. And, at the beginning of the week, at the opening of the annual meetings of the two international institutions, Lourenço for the first time put a figure of $24bn on the evasion of public funds under the dos Santos regime, while highlighting, in the Wall Street Journal, the reforms undertaken – including with the help of the United States – in favor of transparency.
Questionable public contracts and offshore companies
Is it enough to erase the disorder caused by the Costa file? Nothing is less certain as this case is emblematic of the delicate situation in which João Lourenço finds himself, as head of Angola and the presidential party, the MPLA.
It all started with a report of almost nine minutes broadcast in mid-September by the Portuguese public television channel TVI, implicating the Angolan president’s chief of staff.
According to TVI, Costa, a man of confidence of Lourenço but also former Minister of State of José Eduardo dos Santos, would have benefitted from public contracts granted, with the approval of the presidency Lourenço, to his consulting company (EMFC Consulting) and invested through offshore companies a part of the receipts in real estate in Portugal.
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The report has triggered a wave of indignation in Angola within the opposition parties as well as civil society, especially among groups of young activists. At the beginning of October, the latter organised a demonstration demanding the departure of Costa before sending a petition to the Angolan justice system to demand an investigation.
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The Angolan presidency seems to want to minimise the case. Neither the Angolan presidency nor Edeltrudes Costa reacted publicly when a well-known economic journalist, Carlos Rosado de Carvalho saw his participation in a televised debate – during which he planned to discuss the subject – get cancelled.
Hyper-sensitive social context
The affair gives credence to those who, since Lourenço’s arrival in power, have deplored the fight against selective corruption, attacking some – notably the dos Santos family and their close supporters – but sparing others, including former vice-president Manuel Vicente, who is suspected of corruption.
While João Lourenço had just gotten rid of the criticism, strong at the beginning of his mandate, about maintaining close ties with Manuel Vicente, the Edeltrudes Costa affair is taking over in a social context of hyper-sensitivity to corruption and conflicts of interest since the departure of the dos Santos clan.
Nevertheless, the story is a little more complicated than it appears. In order to understand it, we need to look back at the career of Edeltrudes Costa, a jurist who emerged under the dos Santos presidency. A key figure in the 2008 elections (as Vice-Minister of Administration), he played a key role during the 2012 elections, serving as interim president of the National Electoral Commission after the departure of a first president accused of favoring the MPLA.
Immediately after his re-election, José Eduardo dos Santos rewarded him by appointing him as Minister of State, a status then granted to his other confidant, General Kopelipa. This lasted until 2015 when Costa was demoted, due to his involvement in a case of corruption, according to some sources. With the change of power in 2017, the jurist, known for his knowledge of the sensitive files from the dos Santos era, was taken over by Lourenço by his entourage at the presidency.
Political settling of scores?
Knowing all this, the recent emergence of the Costa affair, already incriminated at the beginning of the year within the framework of the Luanda Leaks on suspicion of corruption during the dos Santos presidency, could also be the result of a political settling of scores.
Surely those spreading the affair are not oblivious to the negative effect it will have on the presidency of the current head of state.
More information will not be known until the reins of justice take over, but this case shows how difficult it is for President Lourenço to find solid pillars within his administration and his party to carry his reform agenda forward.
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