An investigation by Michael Pauron
“For now, everything is fine, except the crisis, which is worsening”: these words of Rafaël Savimbi, Angolan deputy of the opposition Unita party sum up the situation in the country, which decreed a state of emergency to fight the coronavirus on March 27. The pandemic, which seems to be worsening in recent days in this southern African country as throughout the whole African continent, has further weakened an already precarious economy.
Growth revised downwards
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The International Monetary Fund (IMF) had been forecasting a slight recovery in growth in 2020, to 1.2% after four years of recession. But the global shock of Covid-19, which brought oil prices down below $30 for the foreseeable future, has dashed the hopes of Africa’s second-largest oil producer. The 2020 budget has been revised, while on March 27 the Brent price closed below $22.
The situation is undermining the Angolans’ confidence in President João Lourenço, who took office in September 2017, after the 38 year long reign of José Eduardo Dos Santos. His accession to power was accompanied by a breath of hope, even if he is still a pure product of the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), the party of government which has ruled the former Portuguese colony since its independence. in 1975.
Rise in dissatisfaction
Through the announcement a series of reforms, the holding of local elections to improve territorial representativeness, and, above all, by launching a hands-on operation within the MPLA itself, Angolans had begun to believe in him. But very quickly, in the face of shortages and rampant inflation, the streets ended up full of frustrated citizens.
Today, even his war on corruption – the declared priority of his first mandate – is becoming subsumed, weighed down with accusations of clientelism and of being aimed solely at the clan of his predecessor, first and foremost the daughter of the former president, the billionaire Isabel Dos Santos, the richest woman in Africa.
As the head of Sonangol (the public company responsible for the exploitation and production of oil and natural gas) from June 2016 to November 2017, at which point she was dismissed by the new president, Isabel Dos Santos has very quickly been accused of malpractise and embezzlement. Her assets were finally frozen in December 2019 in Angola, the justice system estimating the funds of the ex “princess” of Luanda concealed from the tax authorities at $1.1 billion.
Some generals spared
When the Luanda leaks scandal (nearly 800,000 documents hacked by the Portuguese whistleblower Rui Pinto) broke in February, the Portuguese justice system also decided to freeze her assets in the country, where she had numerous holdings.
Is Lourenço’s crusade selective? Interviewed on February 20 by the Portuguese newspaper Expresso, Fernando Pacheco, intellectual and adviser to the Angolan president, believes that this is “a very narrow way of approaching the problem. The struggle has had to start ‘from the top’, that is to say, with the most important and prominent actors “.
But the president’s leniency towards the triumvirate made up of Generals Leopoldino Fragoso do Nascimento, aka. “Dino”, Manuel Hélder Vieira Dias Jr aka. “Kopelipa”, and former Vice President Manuel Vicente, raises questions. So far, none have been troubled by the law, even if all of them, under pressure, have already divested themselves of some of their assets – such as the multi-purpose port of Luanda, owned by relatives of Kopelipa, which will soon be sold.
“The president wouldn’t be able attack everyone, he also needs them, and this is probably the reason that, for now, former vice-president Manuel Vicente has been spared; an arrangement had to be made,” says Daniel Ribant, consultant and author of“ Angola from A to Z ”(L’Harmattan). In 2018, when accused of corruption in Portugal, Vicente had received zealous support from Lourenço, and managed to get his trial transferred to Luanda. Fernando Pacheco, for his part, defends the use of judicial pardon for those involved in corruption cases who cooperate with the state.
These little arrangements, however, are not well received by public opinion, especially as the amount actually recovered remains unclear, despite the hype and FBI cooperation. The funds diverted in the Dos Santos era are estimated at several tens of billions of dollars. And, according to several sources, only 4 to 5 billion dollars could have been recovered. Among them, 1.5 billion belonged to the sovereign wealth fund alone, recovered in extremis from its former manager, José Filoméno dos Santos, the son of the former head of state (having been tried for these acts in Luanda, he is awaiting a verdict).
Many assets have not been returned in the form of hard cash. Sonangol, for example, recovered those of Kopelipa and Manuel Vicente held in the Banco Economico. It must now try to resell them, at a time when investors are scarce.
In addition to the lack of concrete results and the accusations of clientelism, there is the counterattack launched by the dos Santos clan. A $ 4.2 million contract signed in June 2019 between the Angolan presidency and the American lobbying firm Squire Patton Boggs (SPB) has suddenly come to light. In particular, this firm would be responsible for finding investors potentially interested in the numerous privatisations underway in Luanda.
In this deal mention is made of a subcontractor based in Maltes, Erme Capital. Led by the Portuguese Pedro Nuno Gomes de Espiney Pinto Ferrera, Erme Capital is directly linked to Dominio Capital, a company owned by Pedro Nuno Gomes’ father, Carlos. One of its subsidiaries, Dominio Castilho, is the majority shareholder in another, Gibraltar-based, entity, Founton Limited. The latter was previously directed by Manuel Vicente, as can be confirmed from his Mondafrique side.
Mid-term, this affair, the economic crisis accentuated by the coronavirus epidemic, and the broken promises, weaken João Lourenço, and in turn the MPLA. Will the financial support program for the lowest income families, which will start in May and is scheduled to reach more than 1.6 million people by 2022, be enough to convince Angolans?
This article written by Michael Pauron originally appeared in Monafrique in French