The current furore about the wealth of ‘Africa’s richest woman’, Isabel dos Santos, and how she acquired it, is only the latest part of a long-running saga of corruption and oligarchy in Angola.
In a very real way, Angola is one side of a trans-Atlantic sphere of inequality. Brazil is the other. Both countries were Portuguese colonies and Portuguese remains the official language of both, and both countries uphold propaganda language to communicate to the people. As a result, Angolan elections have television advertising campaigns almost entirely crafted by Brazilian agencies. They are slick and psychologically astute, always appealing in a soap-like fashion to the everyman and the underdog. The idea is that the chasm between rich and poor can be bridged – although it never is, as Angola’s wealth disparity is a mirror of Brazil’s.
This does not mean the country is not rich. It is. So much so that, during the 2008-9 banking crisis that almost crippled the West, Angola offered to bail out Portugal. And it had the means to do so. The schadenfreude, if the offer had been accepted, would have been immense. How ‘the worm has turned.’ So there is pride in Angola, but this does not mean there is any attempt realistically to uplift the condition of the poor. To the contrary, the emphasis on the part of the ruling elite – which dovetails with the business elite – and which intersects with a knowing but cynical international corporate elite, is on acquisition and reinvestment for more acquisition.
This state of affairs is to a large extent a result of the war of independence from Portugal. It was messy, and it was divided among three rebel armies, enemies of one another as much as enemies of the occupying Portuguese forces and settlers. When independence finally was won in 1975, with the pro-Soviet faction controlling Luanda, the capitol, Apartheid South African forces invaded the country to stem what they thought was the start of a flood southwards of militant and militarised Marxist government. They were met and repulsed by a Cuban army that had flown over the Atlantic precisely for this purpose. The Cubans stayed and, in the civil war that ensued between the new government and its chief liberation antagonist led by Jonas Savimbi, South Africa actively supported Savimbi. When, in 1988, at the Battle of Cuito Cuanavale, the Cubans defeated the South Africans, two things happened.
Shaken by the defeat, there was a palace coup in the Apartheid government, and the securocrats were overthrown. The new President F.W. de Klerk promptly opened talks in 1989 in Zambia on the release of Nelson Mandela – and this happened in early 1990.
But the Angolan government, with its ruling party, the MPLA, secured its position against all comers. It could paint itself as the victor over Apartheid, its rival liberation faction was reduced to a rump, and what had begun in the chaos of constant war – informal politics by patronage, networking, and clandestine operations under conditions of emergency – became the peacetime norm. Jose Eduardo dos Santos, who served as President from 1979 to 2017, presided over a corrupt system and the MPLA Central Committee ensured it continued after war ended – and also ensured that a huge centre of wealth acquisition was distributed within its own family.
There are a number of points that emerge from this. The first is that acquisition was not located only in the family, but throughout the high levels of the ruling MPLA party, including people like Manuel Vicente, generals Dino and Kopelipa, José Carlos de Castro Paiva, Francisco Jose Lemos de Maria and Joaquim Duarte da Costa David, to name but a few. Although dos Santos’s successor, President João Lourenço, has launched a public war on corruption, there are three key attributes to this: (1) he is himself part of the MPLA elite that has benefited hugely from corrupt or, at best, non-transparent financial dealings; (2) his drive against corruption has been a means of clamping down on political enemies and would-be future rivals; (3) his accusations and charges against members of the dos Santos family are precisely against any possibility of a political dynasty arising following on from the father.
The second point that emerges is that, although Isabel dos Santos is currently in the limelight as a prime target of corruption charges, and there is no doubt her fortune was founded on investment funds with murky origins, she can say that the growth of her international business empire has been by means of business acumen, leveraging her name and connections to the benefit of foreign corporations that became her partners, and canny investment knowledge (which in most emerging economies would be considered business as usual). The spectacular issue here is not so much whether she is corrupt, or the extent to which her empire was built corruptly or validly – or a skilful interplay between both – but the extent to which she and her businesses were supported by international business houses.
The third point is that the son of President dos Santos, Jose Filomeno dos Santos, who was head of Angola’s sovereign wealth fund, was found not guilty of corruption because of lack of evidence, and the case was dropped by UK international court of arbitration. But if the charges brought against him are sustained - in his misuse of sovereign wealth which is meant to be a long-term hedge to guarantee a long-term future for the country. Strange as it is, others within the elites such as Edmilson and Mirco Martins, Ricardo Machado and others who had business partnerships with international companies like General Electric and the Brazilian Odebrecht were never questioned.
Angola's corruption interplays with international business that portrays itself as non-corrupt, and slowly-emerging steps towards discernible areas of probity. It is not one-dimensional
Now, having said all that, the Angolans have not rested on corrupt laurels. They, with the Ethiopians, are probably the most skilful African negotiators with the Chinese. Their pushback against Chinese investment and trading positions was described and analysed in-depth by Lucy Corkin. At the same time, the Chinese demanded, and got, substantial transparency in the Angolan public accounts. Not to any Western standard, but to a point very different from before, when the national budget was described as ‘a giant slush fund without any sub-heads’.
So Angola is a site of corruption, corruption that interplays with international business that portrays itself as non-corrupt, and slowly-emerging – if for some time to come, faltering – steps towards discernible areas of probity. It is not one-dimensional.
But it is oligarchic in the extreme, especially when the former vice-president Manuel Vicente is now the number one adviser to the current president. If President Lourenco had simply decided to let sleeping dogs lie, discourage corrupt excesses from behind the scenes, he might have secured stability within the ruling elite. But, as a response to accusations and charges being prepared against her, Isabel dos Santos is playing the very card Lourenco feared – that she might run for President. The battery of high-powered Brazilian agencies she would then deploy would surely use every politically-correct tic on the mouldering political body: the attractive victimised woman who stood up as a model on a continent of even more corrupt men.
Every contradiction has yet to be fully played out in Angola – with Brazil, one of the two giants of the Lusophone world.