democraciaAbierta: Opinion

Luanda Leaks and the limits of liberalism: can anti-corruption work?

Critique of corruption must explicitly disrupt corporate globalism, imperialism, racism, authoritarianism, militarism, elitism and sexism.

Aharon de Grassi
9 February 2020
The President of the Republic of Angola, Joao Lourenço. escorted by the GNR on horseback during his State Visit to Portugal in November 2018.
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Gerardo Santos / Global Images/Sipa USA /PA Images

Corruption is bad. The detailed evidence in Luanda Leaks has rightly gained global news coverage. As has already been publicized and common knowledge for years in and outside of Angola, the actions by Isabel dos Santos (hereafter, IS) exacerbated poverty and injustice, were facilitated by ‘legitimate Western institutions’ (see here, here and here), and are part of wider sets of problematic practices and actors in Angola.

Luanda Leaks is also a valuable opportunity to reflect on how to improve anti-corruption work. Two areas stand out: understanding corruption’s relations with other development challenges, and ensuring anti-corruption work symbiotically bolsters global justice, equality, and participatory democracy. (The following comments also respond to wider and longer trends in global news and scholarship, and are not all specific to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and their crucial, welcomed work.)

On the first point, commentators must clearly situate corruption in relation to Angola’s utterly overwhelming long history of globalized armed conflict, rather than use it to overshadow that history. Various articles, as well as ICIJ’s key summary and their timeline, could be read as incorrectly suggesting that Angola’s poverty is largely a result of Isabel dos Santos’ corruption: “Two decades of unscrupulous deals made Isabel dos Santos Africa’s wealthiest woman and left oil- and diamond-rich Angola one of the poorest countries on Earth” (see also here, here, here and here).

This, moreover, erases from history the absolutely fundamental period in the 1980s when newly independent quasi-socialist Angola was intentionally debilitated by the US, IMF and other financial institutions who coordinated to use deliberately created war-driven economic crises as a means to leverage in ‘shock-therapy’ neoliberal reforms.

Destroying Angola’s economy and state institutions was the whole point. Angola’s large territory (twice the size of France) was a central proxy battlefield for the global Cold War, and indeed the US only recognized Angola as a sovereign country in 1992, some 17 years after its independence. By then, so much damage had been done it enabled 10 more years of brutal diamond-fueled rural insurgency. The destruction and cost of such war is often underestimated, perhaps by 300% or 400%, and are more likely at least $200 billion.

Consequently, poverty in Angola is overwhelmingly rural. It is caused by multiple inter-connected factors that include but are not limited to elite corruption (others are the complex legacies of colonialism and war, patriarchy, economic exploitation, mismanagement, undemocratic practices, etc).

Poverty in Angola is caused by multiple inter-connected factors that include elite corruption, the complex legacies of colonialism and war, patriarchy, economic exploitation, mismanagement and undemocratic practices, among others

In order to address these fundamental challenges, and for valuable work like Luanda Leaks to not risk being counterproductive, hard-working reporters and scholars need support for more in-depth research and need to commit to making more than just quick trips to Luanda to pluck out vivid decontextualized anecdotes about kleptocrats, consultants, and victims.

Everyday Angolans are understandably outraged by IS’ actions, particularly as a high-profile figure and official. And IS alone did not bankrupt the Angolan state. IS’ total ill-gotten wealth of $2 billion is equivalent to 5% of one year of Angolan state revenue (annual budgets are around $40 billion) – over IS’ 20 years, her wealth amounts to a fraction of 1% of the budget. $2 billion can build numerous schools and life-saving clinics, but redistributed would be a one-off $70 for each Angolan – nice, but not really life changing.

Additionally, efforts to root out IS’ sordid web of businesses in Portugal should be linked with – rather than distract from – addressing massive global inequality. Legitimate outrage inside and outside Angola about IS’ sumptuous ostentations must also be tied to redressing the practices of the world’s other 2,600 billionaires and the trillion-dollar-a-year US defense industry. We can and must do both.

So although Angolan businesses during the oil boom did involve Portuguese elite, nonetheless one estimate (albeit problematic) still put Portugal with 3500% more total wealth than Angola, per person ($1100 billion vs $49 billion). Such actual patterns of unequal resources have been obscured by some sensational global media headlines (headlines that are separate from and precede ICIJ’s work) that appeal to racialized postcolonial anxiety with florid stories that use undeniable examples like IS to then make broader incorrect depictions of oil-boom Angola as ‘reversing roles’ to ‘dominate’ crisis-ridden Portugal and make it a ‘financial colony.’ These and other tropes about Angola get recycled ad nauseum.

Can we improve anti-corruption work?

This brings us to the second point: in order for anti-corruption work to improve its long-term effectiveness by triangulating with other development challenges, it must marshal broad popular support, and do so by articulating multiple aspects of justice and democracy in ways that resonate with peoples’ lived experiences.

Broader anti-corruption work must commit to integrating explicit action against inter-twined sexism, imperialism, racism, militarism, and corporate globalism. Critiques of corruption are not inherently progressive; they must be proactively made so.

Such commitments now need to be explicit because although dedicated anti-corruption advocates do thankless, important, and often dangerous work, anti-corruption work also gets used for subtle and explicit right-wing agendas (often corrupt themselves) – as recent US and Brazilian politics illustrate. Selectively using anti-corruption as a pretext to consolidate exploitation is hardly new, in Angola or elsewhere. To prevent such scenarios as much as possible necessitates careful preemptive framing of anti-corruption critiques in progressive ways.

Commentators need to join critiques of corruption with explicit progressive commitments

What does not resonate broadly with the public, what rings hollow, and what alienates people when it smacks of oblivious privilege at best and self-serving hypocrisy at worst, are top-down name-and-shame critiques by elite white men that rely on liberal ‘rule of law’ legalese that is abstracted from – and blatantly contradicted by – complex realities of patriarchy, sexism, racism, and inequality (here and here). If commentators are to build progressively on existing popular critiques in Angola (and elsewhere) of the complicity between consultants, celebrities and corrupt figures, then they need to join critiques of corruption with explicit progressive commitments, rather than root evaluations in abstract liberalism (‘liberalism’ here as a general philosophy, not the peculiar US label for left-leaning perspectives).

Anti-corruption rhetoric unfortunately sometimes relies on and gets hijacked for pernicious racially tinged myths in order to quarantine an artificially separated ‘good (Western) liberal rational capitalism’ from a ‘bad (non-Western) political capitalism’ – witness how Forbes’ influential headline reduced IS to “an African princess.”

That particular dichotomy of rational vs political capitalism in fact was promoted by the imperialist, racist German ‘father’ of sociology Max Weber – whose family was instrumental at the highest levels in the colonization of Africa and the ‘robber capitalism’ of brutal Congolese rubber extraction – as he drew on imperial German explorers’ biased accounts of the Angolan regions “between the Congo and Zambesi rivers” that recently produced diamonds for IS.

In contrast, decades of incisive scholarship have shown how liberalism and ‘rational’ capitalism have been mutually constituted with empire, racism, slavery, violence and geographies of corruption. These dynamics are often clear to Angolan publics fed up with corruption. And at the same time such inconvenient tangled histories are left out of persistent white-savior and celebrity anti-corruption narratives in the West, with important media commercialization on Netflix and other platforms of digestible movies and TV series about the Panama Papers, McMafia, etc, often involving “substantial deals” for authors.

When stories about corruption rely on contrasts between abstract legalist liberalism and emphases on charismatic archetypes like IS and sensational stereotypes of ethnic chauvinism and chaotic slums, they blind us anew to long-recognized important complexities of states and politics of the sort that brought to power Angola’s new reformist President Lourenço (indeed, Lourenço had since 2011 been mentioned repeatedly by some more astute observers as a potential Presidential successor, even after his momentary sidelining in the early 2000s).

In sum, to be broadly effective over the long term, progressive critique of corruption must explicitly disrupt corporate globalism, imperialism, racism, authoritarianism, militarism, elitism and sexism in order to avoid being hijacked to reinscribe them.

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