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New leader is changing Angola. But the end destination isn’t clear

Angolan President João Lourenço addressing a meeting of the governing party. EFE-EPA/Ampe Rogerio

João Lourenço’s presidency has blown many previous truths about Angola out of the water.

Take predictions about his ability to tackle the hold on power of the former President Jose Eduardo dos Santos who ran the country for 38 years. His children ran multiple businesses while also enjoying key appointments in the state. Despite numerous analyses claiming that he would continue to wield power (myself included), the fortunes of the family have in fact quickly fallen.

The former president is in unofficial exile in Spain, having controversially left on a commercial flight rather than through state channels. His second daughter Welwitschia lives abroad. She lost her parliamentary seat after failing to return to Angola.

The son, Filomeno, is on trial for his role in allegedly funnelling US$500 million out of the country. But it is the first daughter Isabel, until recently the international community’s favourite African female entrepreneur, who is now on the defensive. In December her Angolan assets were frozen. This was only the beginning of an international shift in attitude towards her wealth.

Recently, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and its partners released a slew of articles and documents titled “LuandaLeaks” that detail Isabel dos Santos’s financial activities.

The reporting suggests she has been involved in extensive high-level corruption, allegedly using family connections and shell companies to gain business deals, and funnel millions of dollars out of the country.

The Angolan government has formally charged her with money laundering, among other things. She has vehemently denied the veracity of the reports, threatening legal action.

The Dos Santos family and their supporters claim they are the objects of political persecution. They point to the comparative lack of action, for instance, against Lourenço’s allies.

While there is no doubt that there is a strategic political element to the focus on Dos Santos’s family, all anti-corruption campaigns must begin somewhere. In a context in which the former presidential family was the most prominent face of regime impunity, it seems like an obvious and necessary move to investigate them.

International complicity

While Isabel dos Santos is the figure at the centre of LuandaLeaks, the story is more broadly about how corruption is a product of transnational collaboration and facilitation.

The documents show that the siphoning off of Angola’s money would not have been possible without some of the world’s largest management consulting companies. They ignored flags that banks had paid attention to regarding Isabel dos Santos’s status as a “politically exposed person”. In some cases they were involved in clear conflicts of interest.

Until late 2017, for instance, the global consulting firm PwC was the auditor and primary advisor to Angola’s state-owned Sonangol, the parastatal that oversees petroleum and natural gas production. The head of tax at PwC’s Portugal office has resigned in the wake of LuandaLeaks.

The leaks have also highlighted the global community’s dismissive attitude towards African journalists and activists, whose concerns about the Dos Santos family went relatively unheeded. For example, companies and embassies systematically ignored ongoing reports by Rafael Marques de Morais, one of Angola’s most prominent investigative journalists, about the Dos Santos family’s suspect business practices.

Famous universities such as Yale and the London School of Economics invited Isabel dos Santos to speak about entrepreneurship and development, blatantly ignoring the controversy around her.

In 2015, the New York Times wrote a piece praising her husband Sindika Dokolo’s reclamation of stolen African art, without raising any questions about the source of his income.

These actions tell Africans that despite feigning concern about corruption and human rights, institutions outside of the continent don’t walk the talk.

How the new president has fared

The LuandaLeaks lend support to Lourenço’s anti-corruption drive. But the direction in which is he is taking the country remains difficult to assess. Are his anti-corruption measures and other interventions merely a tool to remove his enemies? Or, are they a sincere attempt to change the way in which politics has worked in Angola?

There are some clear signs of political and economic change.

Under Lourenço, the country has opened up. Visa regimes have become easier, Angola has joined the African Free Trade Zone, requirements that foreign investors have Angolan partners have been dropped, and the government is moving ahead with the privatisation of state-owned enterprises.

Read more: Angolans feel let down two years into new presidency

Equally important, Sonangol’s monopoly has been chipped away at with the recent creation of a new entity that will take over the role of national concessionaire in the oil industry.

That being said, the last time a slew of privatisations occurred in Angola was in the 1990s. These only served to buttress Dos Santos’ power by benefiting his favourites. Questions remain about the transparency of the new round of privatisation, and who the actual beneficiaries will be.

Lourenço problem

A major problem facing Lourenço is that many Angolans are unhappy with the austerity measures his government has introduced. And, public frustration with unemployment is fuelling instability.

While he has made symbolic overtures to civil society by meeting activists who were harassed by the Dos Santos regime, protests are still being suppressed by police.

Lourenço has also made no move to weaken the extremely centralised powers of the presidency. Such action, critics argue, would clearly show that he does not seek to replicate Dos Santos’s hold over the country.

Lourenço and others have cultivated a narrative that he faces significant opposition to change from entrenched interests within the governing party, the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA). This is most likely true, but it remains unclear what it means for the country’s politics.

The MPLA has historically presented a united front to the outside, and open discussion of fragmentation and discord is new. These apparent splits indicate a need to better understand the party as a political player, something that many scholars and analysts have failed to do in a substantive way for decades.

Looking to the future

With Dos Santos gone, it remains unclear to analysts used to focusing on one central figure to explain the country’s direction just what the future portends as the country faces a new era of austerity and growing economic challenges.

Read more: Angolans feel let down two years into new presidency

LuandaLeaks provides further support for Lourenço’s anti-corruption drive. The state’s firmness in pursuing suspects heralds a moment of change for Angola. But, it remains unclear what future the country is heading towards.

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