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Vol 58 No 21

Published 20th October 2017


Signals of change

President Lourenço talks to parliament about pro-growth reforms, some of which will chip away at the Dos Santos business empire

Pledging to take on monopolies that short-change consumers and to open discussions with critical civic activists, President João Lourenço used a speech at the opening of parliament on 16 October to signal more of the policy changes he intends to make.

Those looking for signs that Lourenço intends to cut the power of the old guard, and particularly the family of his immediate predecessor, José Eduardo dos Santos, say they see signs of incremental change. There is particular interest in how Lourenço manages Dos Santos's daughter Isabel, chief executive of the state oil company Sonangol and whose many business interests in the country (AC Vol 58 No 17, Dos Santos Inc. under threat) have earned her the title of 'Africa's richest woman'.

According to one business source in Luanda: 'He is not going full on into conflict with the old guard. But he's slowly sending the message. If he stays in, she [Isabel] will lose. He's the President of the country. If her father dies then she has lost all her power. But even if he's alive, over time, increasingly [Lourenço] will start taking over. People are pretty happy about it.'

In the meantime, Isabel has been burnishing her international image, appearing on several conference platforms. On 9 October she spoke at the Financial Times Africa summit in London, after which she had a private meeting with Cherie Blair. The wife of Britain's former Prime Minister Tony Blair runs the law firm Omnia Strategy, which is expanding its African client base. Isabel then addressed a Thomson Reuters event on 18 October, also in London. An inside source however said that her advisors insist on restricting the topics covered during these public appearances, to avoid 'political embarrassment'.

Lourenço added that he wanted to update the laws against corruption to ensure that the phenomenon could be prevented and combated, and promised greater fairness and transparency in the allocation of state contracts. He said he would submit to parliament a law on competition to tackle monopolies that have 'negative consequences on the lives' of citizens.

Angola's largest and only private mobile telecommunications company is Unitel, of which Isabel dos Santos is a major shareholder. Some say that taking away what is a de facto monopoly – no other private firm has been allowed on to the market and charges remain high – could be one easy way to ease cost pressures on the population.

Lourenço also said that he would support and stimulate civil society as 'important partners' of the state. Trade unions, employers and professional bodies 'must continue to express opinions on the most varied subjects that have to do with the state and society', the President said.

Some say there is the risk that if Lourenço does not deliver, this might allow an atmosphere of distrust to breed; he will also lose credibility.

Since his inauguration on 26 September, Lourenço has also been making changes to senior government – and every move has been scrutinised for signs that he may or may not be cutting the umbilical cord tying him to his predecessor.

One appointment is likely to have ruffled Isabel dos Santos's feathers. On 12 October Lourenço appointed 50 secretaries of state – in effect, deputy ministers designated to deal with specific policy areas. Among them was Carlos Saturnino Guerra Sousa e Oliveira, a former Sonangol strongman, appointed Secretary of State for Petroleum and reporting to Diamantino Pedro Azevedo, the Minister for Mineral Resources and Petroleum (AC Vol 58 No 20, New man takes it slow). The oil industry reacted positively: as a senior company executive told AC, 'He's one of the guys who best knows the oil and gas industry in Angola.'

Saturnino joined Sonangol in 1996 as director for planning and new business in its principal Empresa Pública company, holding several senior positions there, and was chief negotiator for production-sharing agreements with international oil majors. He was appointed CEO of Sonangol Pesquisa e Producão (P&P), the firm's upstream arm, in April 2015.

But in December 2016, only six months after Isabel was named Sonangol's head, she fired Saturnino – and the company's entire executive committee – for 'management weakness' and 'financial deviations', allegations that Saturnino denied. 'She sacked Saturnino because she wanted to control Sonangol P&P the way she wanted and he wasn't collaborating,' the executive said. 'She can't be happy with his appointment to the ministry.'

The oil industry also welcomed Lourenço's setting up, by presidential decree, a working group coordinated by the Mineral Resources and Petroleum Ministry and comprising the Ministry of Finance, two representatives from Sonangol E.P., one representative from each oil major, and one from the president's Casa Civil (Office of Civil Affairs). The group has 30 days to report back to the President with proposals on how to 'improve investment conditions in the industry… for the future development of the country', the decree states.

The group was set up exactly one week after oil companies sent a joint letter to the President asking for his support in tackling a long list of obstacles, including excessive bureaucracy, unfavourable fiscal conditions and high costs.

New superior
While some joked about Isabel now having to pay frequent visits to her new superior in the hierarchy, others saw Saturnino's appointment as a clear indication that the businesswoman's power would not be limitless.

'For a very long time, Sonangol has set its own policy. The head of the board usually sits on the Council of Ministers and has had the benefit of direct comms with the Head of State, with no supervisory role by anybody, not even the Ministry of Petroleum,' a senior government official said. 'This is a signal that other voices and opinions will be heard.'

Lourenço last week shut down GRECIMA (the Gabinete de Revitalização e Execução da Comunicação Institucional e Marketing da Administração), an institution created by presidential decree to work with the government's image with an annual budget of US$100 million, later increased to $120 mn. GRECIMA had subcontracted the services of Semba Communications, a company owned by children of the former president, Tchizé and Coréon Dú, through their company Westside Investments. GRECIMA's Director, Manuel Antonio Rabelais, ex-Minister of Social Communication and an MPLA MP, was also fired

There were many 'new names' among Lourenço's other Secretaries of State, including young cadres and technocrats, a possible pointer to further changes afoot. At the swearing-in ceremony for them on 14 October, Lourenço made it clear their performance would be monitored.

'He basically said to them: "You guys are being put to the test. We may have got some of you right, some of you wrong. Please perform well – I've got my eye on you,"' the government official said. 'I think the President's words were very indicative of the direction he is taking things.'

Meanwhile, João Melo, the Minister for Social Communication, has also publicly announced that he will sell all his assets in the communications industry so as to avoid any conflict of interest. He announced that he was already in negotiations with potential buyers and that he would inform the public once the transactions were complete.

'It's the right kind of signal – it's the kind of thing you want to hear,' the official said. 'But he's the only one so far who's come out publicly like that.'

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