After Zimbabwe, signs of transition in Angola’s kleptocracy?



A revolutionary anti-colonial leader who held power for almost four decades. A government rife with nepotism and corruption. A people beset by poverty. Hope for a democratic transition, but far more skepticism that it would ever happen. No, this isn’t Zimbabwe — it’s Angola, analyst Max Bearak writes for the Washington Post:

Three months ago, southern Africa’s oil-rich bastion of economic inequality held open elections, its first after 38 years under autocrat José Eduardo dos Santos. His chosen successor, João Lourenço, won handily. Lourenço promised an anti-corruption drive and swore he wouldn’t be a puppet of the deeply entrenched dos Santos family, but it seemed like the standard setup for more years of strongman rule.

Yet, contrary to expectations, Lourenço “seems to be on the right path,” said Zenaida Machado, who covers the region for Human Rights Watch. Lourenço has indeed made bold anti-corruption moves, especially in forcing sweeping personnel changes at the highest levels of government….He also removed dos Santos’s daughter, Isabel [right], the richest woman in Africa, as the chair of the state-owned oil behemoth.… These moves seem geared toward stripping the dos Santos family of its near-monopoly over state power and finances.

Civil society groups welcomed the sacking of Isabel dos Santos as head of state-owned oil firm Sonangol, analyst Arnaldo Vieira writes.

“President João Lourenço has restored constitutional legality against an act of nepotism made by José Eduardo dos Santos,” political analyst Fernando Macedo told VOA Radio. “The sacking means the restoration of ethics in governance,” said Mr Elias Isaac of the Open Society group in Angola.

Lourenço appointed Carlos Saturnino as his secretary of state for oil. Mr Saturnino had been sacked by Ms dos Santos from Sonangol last year. Now he has popped up again in a position of oversight and in charge of a 30-day review of the sector, the FT reports.

“Lourenço cannot govern without controlling the finances, particularly the oil revenues,” said Paula Roque, a political analyst at Oxford University specialising in Angola, adding that this helped explain his apparent circling of Ms dos Santos. “I think he will push for her to leave but there will be furious resistance.”

Initial disappointment at Mr Lourenço from civil society had given way to cautious expectation, said Ricardo Soares de Oliveira, an expert on Angola, also at Oxford.

But observers still urge caution, Bearak adds:

While hopes are high after Lourenço’s initial actions, it’s still too early to tell whether he is on a truly liberalizing path. For example, as revealed in the Panama Papers, the dos Santoses allegedly transferred $4 billion from Angola’s sovereign wealth fund to an account in Switzerland. Lourenço has been silent on this.

“All that we can be sure of is what we have seen: that Lourenço has moved quickly and boldly to remove dos Santos appointees from top positions in the economy, state security and the media,” said Justin Pearce, a professor of African politics at the University of Cambridge. “Many politicians the world over have come to power with promises of sweeping change, only to disappoint. Let’s give him credit for what he has done and remain vigilant to what is ahead.”

Others are sceptical still that anything substantive has changed, the FT adds:

Rafael Marques de Morais (right), a staunch critic of the Angolan kleptocracy, called Mr Lourenço’s government “a redux of the dos Santos one”. There had, he said, been no move to bolster anti-corruption laws nor to respond to allegations in the leaked Paradise Papers over the alleged transfer of four-fifths of the $5bn sovereign wealth fund’s assets to a Swiss-based investment manager who is a friend of José Filomeno. “For someone who talked about fighting corruption for months, the silence is deafening,” said Morais, a recipient of the National Endowment for Democracy’s 2017 Democracy Award.

former Reagan-Fascell Democracy Fellow, Marques’s writings have helped set the agenda for political debate in Angola by exposing abuses of power and endemic corruption through his journalism and his work with Maka Angola, an Angolan platform supported by the National Endowment for Democracy.

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