When João Lourenço’s took over as president, it marked a turning point in Angolan history. In September 2017, after 38 years of rule by José Eduardo dos Santos, he took the reins as president of Africa’s second biggest oil producer. And with that, inherited a Herculean project of turning around the country.
This is part six of a 6-part series.
It is no easy task to take over the reins after José Eduardo dos Santos’s presidency, given the ex-leader’s foreign-policy chops. He spent no less than half a century learning about the who’s who and inner workings of diplomacy, serving as foreign minister of the then newly formed republic of Angola and from 1979 to 2017, as its president. Calm and reserved, Dos Santos travelled little, but his political acumen and grasp of the issues worked wonders during the speeches that he gave.
While President João Lourenço has neither the experience nor the talent of his predecessor, he has a certain taste for – and a sound command of – matters of diplomacy, in addition to having a few high-level diplomats as advisers. Is he merely following Dos Santos’s playbook? The reality is not so simple.
If foreign policy is understood as an extension of domestic policy, then Lourenço’s anti-corruption crusade can be regarded as the founding – and breakaway – act of his diplomacy. When he dismissed Isabel and José Filomeno dos Santos – as head of the powerful oil company Sonangol and Angola’s sovereign wealth fund respectively – just a few months after being elected in 2017, he was signalling to the world’s chancelleries the major changes he wanted to make.
Lourenço’s foreign policy is ambitious and Angola’s embrace of the West is facilitated by efforts to root out corruption.
Full of good intentions, he embarked on a tour of (mainly) European capitals in May 2018 in an effort to drum up interest in new development projects in Angola and attract foreign direct investment (FDI). This strategy of FDI diplomacy, which has supplanted petrodollar diplomacy, is no accident and fulfills a need; at a time when the government’s coffers are dangerously low and oil prices offer no glimpse of a brighter future.
Rebalancing to the benefit of the West
This policy of openness, directed mainly towards the West, has in a short space of time made Angola respectable again. European countries, the EU and international institutions have embraced the shift and helped Luanda restore a certain balance to its international relations, which had become overly focused on China.
Given the United States’ rivalry with Beijing, Angola’s change of tack received a warm welcome from Washington, as former US secretary of state Mike Pompeo said while on an official visit to Luanda in February 2020: “During his first two and a half years in office, President Lourenço has done great work to make corruption a ghost of the past … I’m optimistic that he will continue to liberate Angola from corruption.”
The praise has been so glowing that one has to wonder whether Lourenço’s anti-corruption crusade is more of a hit with his Western partners than in his own country, where it is often criticised for targeting individuals arbitrarily.
Key regional actor
Lourenço’s sub-regional diplomacy has, by contrast, stayed the course. This is in part due to Angola’s status as a regional power, as well as to a kind of ‘uninhibitedness’ that no doubt is a product of its international standing, which allows it to assert itself more forcefully in the sub-region.
As a key regional actor, Luanda conducts its diplomacy through bilateral channels and regional organisations alike, such as the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) and the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR). Several diplomats describe Angola as a ‘loyal and transparent’ participant in these institutions.
Luanda is especially active in conflict resolution, as demonstrated during the Rwanda-Uganda conflict and the crisis in the Central African Republic. But it has gone a step further by expressing its desire to reform ECCAS and ICGLR to bolster the organisations and increase their credibility.
Two seasoned diplomats were recently appointed to advance these goals: João Caholo – who notably served for 10 years as deputy executive secretary of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) – became executive secretary of ICGLR in November 2020, and Gilberto Da Piedade Veríssimo – a military man and professor who formerly represented Angola to the Experts Committee of the Gulf of Guinea Commission – took up office at the end of August 2020 as president of the ECCAS Commission.
Add to that, the appointment of Angola’s former foreign minister, Georges Chikoti, as secretary general of the Organisation of African, Caribbean and Pacific States (OACPS). He is the first Portuguese-speaking leader to serve in the role. This show of diplomatic dynamism has, however, yet to translate into military involvement in peacekeeping missions, as Angola remains chastened by its 2012 intervention in Guinea-Bissau.
Tensions with the DRC
The country’s relations with the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) are a must-address issue. Following the example of countries, like Belgium, that have a vested interest in the DRC and that Angola ‘gets on well with’, Luanda rallied behind Félix Tshisekedi’s presidential candidacy in the name of realpolitik and looked the other way when protests erupted over the outcome of the election.
Despite the fact that the Congolese president has paid several visits to Luanda, and that the two countries have released joint statements highlighting their good relationship, the Angolan government has had a hard time hiding its displeasure and disappointment with Tshisekedi’s presidency. For example, it has criticised his poor monitoring of certain issues, such as security along the Angola-DRC border and the setting up of a joint oil exploration zone.
Only recently has the situation changed, with Tshisekedi breaking free of the influence of the DRC’s ex-president, Joseph Kabila. President Lourenço sent a clear signal of his approval of such a development when, last November, the Angolan air force took part in a joint air show that featured fighter jets flying over Kinshasa and Kabila’s sprawling estate.
Russia, a strong ally
Lourenço’s foreign policy is ambitious and Angola’s embrace of the West is facilitated by efforts to root out corruption. That said, the country has moved cautiously in rebalancing relations with China, as the massive amount of debt it owes Beijing continues to shape their relationship dynamic. Then, there is Russia, which for historical reasons remains a strong ally. Will Angola manage to avoid having to choose sides? In any event, Luanda has long since learned to be pragmatic.
Ribant is the author of the books L’Angola de A à Z [Angola from A to Z] and Força Angola, both published by L’Harmattan.
Understand Africa's tomorrow... today
We believe that Africa is poorly represented, and badly under-estimated. Beyond the vast opportunity manifest in African markets, we highlight people who make a difference; leaders turning the tide, youth driving change, and an indefatigable business community. That is what we believe will change the continent, and that is what we report on. With hard-hitting investigations, innovative analysis and deep dives into countries and sectors, The Africa Report delivers the insight you need.View subscription options