Angola: Is Lourenço using his anti-corruption fight to settle scores?

In depth
This article is part of the dossier: João Lourenço’s Angola

By Estelle Maussion

Posted on Wednesday, 12 May 2021 13:24
During the VII Extraordinary Congress of the MPLA, in Luanda, 15 June 2019. AMPE ROGERIO/ EPA/MaxPPP

On the campaign trail, Angola's João Lourenço had promised a stark break with the Dos Santos era. But since taking over the presidency, his anti-corruption crusade has proven extremely difficult to execute and has given rise to tensions. Not to mention, the whole thing could backfire.

This is part 3 of a 6-part series.

The television series O Banquete (The Feast) made its début in late 2020 on TPA, an Angolan public channel. Since then, it has created quite a stir in the country. Taking an accusatory tone and revealing incriminating documents, the 12-part series shows “how a minority of Angolans enriched themselves by embezzling public money” – that “minority” being well-known people like Isabel dos Santos and Manuel Vicente.

READ MORE Angola: on the trail of stolen billions

For some, the very existence of a programme that would have been unthinkable a few years back is a sign of the progress President João Lourenço, nicknamed “JLo”, has made in anti-corruption efforts. For others, it is a ham-fisted attempt to obscure the anti-corruption crusade’s shortcomings.

These observers see his efforts as veering on a settling of political scores and think they don’t give the courts a chance to do their job. One thing is certain, and that is the crusade José Eduardo dos Santos’s successor has undertaken has revived the old demons of an entire country and the party that governs it, the Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola (MPLA).

JLo’s anti-corruption drive got off to an energetic start. Fighting corruption had been a core issue in his presidential campaign, but when he took office in September 2017, it became a top priority.

In the span of a few months, the leader made a series of dramatic moves, including dismissing the former president’s eldest daughter, Isabel dos Santos, who faced criticism over the way she ran the state oil company Sonangol; firing her half-brother, José Filomeno dos Santos, then head of Angola’s sovereign wealth fund and under suspicion of embezzlement; and showing the door to a host of senior officials accused of fraud.

Witch hunt

This spate of activism, along with the cancellation of opaquely awarded contracts and the opening of corruption investigations by justice officials, has earned the president a new nickname, “The Terminator”.

In recent months, however, the anti-corruption crusade has stalled. Predictably, the first round of verbal attacks were fired by the Dos Santos clan, with the ex-president’s two eldest daughters, Isabel and Tchizé, leading the charge. They condemned Lourenço’s anti-corruption drive, calling it a witch hunt fuelled by “politically motivated” allegations.

The president’s administration countered that the former first family isn’t being targeted because of their name, but due to their significant business interests in the country, and proceeded to call attention to a long list of local and national government officials who had either been suspended from their positions or were facing prosecution.

But that hasn’t been enough to appease critics or address the particularly nagging criticism regarding the selective nature of the anti-corruption drive.

Early in his term, President Lourenço was rebuked for maintaining ties with Manuel Vicente, José Eduardo’s former vice-president who allegedly engaged in wheeling and dealing. The fact that Angola’s ex-vice-president enjoys immunity under the constitution until 2022 makes no difference; JLo’s reputation as a champion of transparency has taken a hit.

And no sooner than the Vicente affair had fallen off the radar, another thorny matter cropped up, this time involving someone very close to Lourenço. His chief of staff, Edeltrudes Costa, is suspected of having conflicts of interest and using government contracts to enrich himself.

 What we’re seeing is a very slow, almost hesitant institutionalisation of anti-corruption measures. –Rafael Marques, journalist & activist

Despite public outcry and protests demanding Costa’s departure in late 2020, the president kept him on staff – a decision met with shock and disappointment. “Officials, even those in the president’s inner circle, are clearly being reported for wrongdoing, but nothing happens afterwards,” a legal expert told us. “And at the same time, people who refused to engage in questionable practices are being sidelined. It doesn’t make any sense.”

In light of these contradictions, what has Lourenço’s anti-corruption crusade accomplished exactly?

According to international and Angolan observers, such as the famous journalist and activist Rafael Marques, it has put an end to a system of institutionalised corruption, thereby improving the quality of governance in the country, including in provinces where many officials have gone to prison for their misdeeds. “What we’re seeing is a very slow, almost hesitant institutionalisation of anti-corruption measures,” Marques said. He argues that judges, police officers and society as a whole must also do their part to help maintain this new form of governance over the long term.

The MPLA under scrutiny

In spite of its chaotic rollout, the anti-corruption drive is already having an impact on society. While the government is taking a growing number of former ministers, senior officials and local leaders to court (generally in a proper way), the media has increased its coverage of the manifold corruption cases being unearthed.

Meanwhile, on social media, whistleblowers are reporting corruption right and left, running the risk of going too far and engaging in media lynching and mudslinging. With the taboo surrounding corruption finally lifted, it is as though Angolan society has become hypersensitive to the issue, opening the floodgates to all sorts of claims.

“President Lourenço’s anti-corruption efforts are simultaneously a great success and a patent failure,” said Alex Vines, an Angola expert and Africa programme director at the British think tank Chatham House. “They’re a success in that they’ve brought many high-profile individuals to justice. But they’re a failure in that the process is arbitrary and focused on the former president’s supporters and networks.”

The president’s party has had a hand in destroying Angola. For now, JLo is able to accommodate both sides, but the situation is untenable in the long run. Eventually, he’ll have to choose between Angola and the MPLA.                      –Luaty Beirão, rapper and civil society figure

Given the country’s history and Dos Santos’s legacy, could things have gone any other way? The question continues to be debated in Luanda. Beyond the division of society into pro- and anti-Lourenço camps, it is hard to ignore the tight spot in which the president finds himself, one that explains his crusade’s failures.

In declaring war against opaque practices, conflicts of interest and corruption, JLo has essentially called into question the way the country and his party have been run for several decades – a system set up and cultivated by his predecessor.

This same system has benefited Lourenço, just as a vast majority of the MPLA’s senior members, whether in a lawful, unreasonable or unlawful manner, making it difficult for party officials to renounce the past and overcome their reluctance to change. If Lourenço is too hardline in his crusade, he may find himself with no allies or with too many enemies in his own camp. But if he is too lax, he can expect to incur the wrath of the opposition, the public and the international community.

Genuine desire or complete sham?

It is easy to see why the anti-corruption drive scares the MPLA more than the Angolan public. Is Lourenço genuine in his desire to make a clean slate of the past? If this is the case, then no one is untouchable and the party could implode, which would, paradoxically, endanger the president’s future.

Or is he merely playing pretend? In this scenario, every party comrade, including the biggest beneficiaries of the Dos Santos era, has a certain amount of leeway as long as the sham isn’t revealed as such.

For many observers, Lourenço’s anti-corruption efforts have created a dilemma. This is a point brought up by Luaty Beirão, a rapper and civil society figure who has spearheaded youth protest movements in the country: “The president’s party has had a hand in destroying Angola. For now, JLo is able to accommodate both sides, but the situation is untenable in the long run. Eventually, he’ll have to choose between Angola and the MPLA.”

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