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The old ruling clan faces ignominy but new President Lourenço's team has little time to establish credibility and change policy course
As his family's business interests shrink and his political supporters decamp, José Eduardo dos Santos is set to lose the last redoubt of the empire he built over 38 years – the presidency of the ruling Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola. On 27 April, the party politburo formally approved the candidacy of the state President, João Lourenço, to replace his predecessor as MPLA president at a special congress in September.
With minimal fanfare, President Lourenço has been dismantling Dos Santos's network. The pace quickened after the ex-President appeared to backtrack, at a 16 March Central Committee (CC) meeting, on his prior promise to leave politics this year. Dos Santos had claimed that Angola's first local elections, planned for 2020, were so important that they required his continued presence, perhaps until April 2019. But the proposal was firmly rejected, prompting the party to speed up the timetable for Dos Santos's exit as party chief.
Senior MPLA figures are steadily distancing themselves from Dos Santos. At the end of the central committee meeting last week, Norberto Garcia – a party spokesman and Dos Santos ally who faces a corruption investigation – said that the former President's proposal 'had not been rejected', but 'would be improved'.
CC member Anabela Dinis pointedly asked Dos Santos to explain the criteria he had used to select new members of the Politburo secretariat, a previously unheard-of challenge. A visibly annoyed Dos Santos directed the party's Secretary General, António Paulo Kassoma, to respond. Roberto Leal Monteiro 'Ngongo' and Santana André Pitra 'Petroff', two senior figures, also broke with the tradition of showing a united front and openly criticised the MPLA leadership for last year's lacklustre electoral victory (AC Vol 49 No 14, Daughters and generals).
Those defecting from Dos Santos's sinking ship to President Lourenço include Aldemiro Vaz da Conceição, the new director of GAPI, the information office at the presidency; the former presidential advisor and Sonangol chair Albina Assis Africano; the ex-Petroleum Minister José María Botelho de Vasconcelos; and Assunção dos Anjos, the former Foreign Minister. All four have been picked by Lourenço to serve as members of the Council of the Republic. MPs regarded as previously staunch Dos Santos loyalists have also been walking away.
Some MPLA figures, such as General António França 'Ndalu', have been trying to persuade Dos Santos to hand over the MPLA leadership to Lourenço, who is currently the party's vice-president. In private, Dos Santos says he has already accepted that he will go, and should be allowed a dignified exit. Tension is high, however. Moments before the CC meeting opened in March, the two men's aides had a heated argument about which of their bosses should be first to enter the conference hall.
Opponents of Dos Santos say that maintaining a 'two-headed' governance structure any longer will undermine the reforms needed to move the country towards economic recovery. However, the constitution has already given Lourenço all the powers he needs.
The MPLA's would-be status as the 'leading force in state and society' has long been in decline. Instead of helping set policy goals it confines itself to comments on state policy and agreeing to state appointments.
Nevertheless, Dos Santos has tried to counter his growing isolation and the dismantling of his family and presidency-based network, dissipating the goodwill he earned by retiring early and voluntarily. Only his close relations, especially Welwitschia 'Tchizé' dos Santos, are still defending the paterfamilias.
Isabel dos Santos, the ex-President's eldest daughter, was ejected from the state oil company, Sonangol, in November 2017 and further embarrassed in February by her successor, Carlos Saturnino. He claimed at a press conference that she had funnelled oil funds to consulting companies that she owned, and that €57 million had been transferred to a bank account in Dubai belonging to Esperaza, her holding company (AC Vol 58 No 24, Dos Santos clan targeted). The Public Prosecutor is investigating.
Together with the former National Bank of Angola head Valter Filipe da Silva, Isabel's half-brother José Filomeno dos Santos ('Zenu') – the former boss of the country's sovereign wealth fund, Fundo Soberano de Angola (FSDEA) – is already under formal investigation for allegedly improperly transferring $500 mn. from a London account held by the central bank (AC Vol 58 No 22, Dos Santos Inc. sinking). The transfer was blocked and the money has been returned. According to the Ministry of Finance, the plan was to divert $1.5 billion, to serve as collateral for the arrangement of much-needed loans worth $35 bn.
The fund's asset manager, Quantum Global, run by Zenu's friend Jean-Claude Bastos de Morais, was sacked by the government after Angolan officials had visited Mauritius and secured the closure of bank accounts linked to FSDEA, according to a Reuters report last week. Bastos de Morais denies any wrongdoing.
The government is also allowing previously taboo topics, like nepotism and corruption, to be aired in televised debates. And yet, three of the richest people in Angola remain untouched. Hélder Vieira Dias 'Kopelipa', Leopoldino Fragoso do Nascimento 'Dino', two of Dos Santos's closest collaborators over the past decade, are now officially retired and concentrating on private business. The third man, Manuel Vicente, a former President of Sonangol EP who served as Vice-President under Dos Santos, has emerged as one of Lourenço's closest advisors on oil and gas and economic issues, say senior sources (AC Vol 58 No 18, Secrets of the Dos Santos media empire).
Vicente keeps an office close to the presidency and holds frequent meetings with Lourenço and presidential staff. Vilified by Isabel dos Santos as the man responsible for Sonangol's decline, he is now given preferential treatment at the company's events, which he attends together with Saturnino.
Saturnino was a protégé of Vicente, we hear. Vicente helped his promotion to the top job at Sonangol. Initially, Lourenço had preferred former Cabinet Secretary António ('Toninho') Van-Dúnem for the job, and had asked him for a restructuring plan. The new head of the National Bank of Angola, José de Lima Massano, also has close ties to Vicente.
However, Lourenço has defended Vicente to the point of poisoning diplomatic relations with Portugal. Vicente is under indictment in Portugal on charges of bribing a public prosecutor investigating claims of money laundering while head of Sonangol (AC Vol 58 No 7, Bank scandals hit MPLA hard). An official demand that the case be transferred to Angola was rejected by the Portuguese authorities. Lourenço has taken the matter further, rejecting the restoration of normal diplomatic contacts and making any bilateral visits conditional on resolving the matter. Vicente's name also featured in a United States probe into Cobalt International Energy's oil exploration partnership in Angola with Nazaki Oil & Gáz, an investigation carried out under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (AC Vol 53 No 15, Luanda’s crude power).
Vicente owes his political survival to the fact that he began to fall out with the Dos Santos clan in the months leading up to the 2017 elections. He missed a crucial MPLA CC meeting, and at the 2017 ceremony to extend end-of-year greetings to the head of state, did not offer the usual speech praising the MPLA president which it is customary for the vice-president to make.
So far, the anti-corruption drive by the new Public Prosecutor – Hélder Pitta Grós, an army general – seems selectively aimed at the Dos Santos clan and their allies. Few believe Angola's legal system can handle such high-profile, politically sensitive and technically challenging cases.
For Lourenço, the campaign against his predecessors is aimed at convincing foreign investors that Angola has turned a page. Yet Luanda still rejects any deal with the International Monetary Fund in the hope that oil prices rise to around $70 per barrel, at which level officials believe they can steer the country out of the crisis. Oil production could drop as much as 8% this year because of the fall in investment since 2014.
Taking a front-line row to woo investors are Angola's Embassy in Washington and First Lady Ana Dias Lourenço, formerly an economist at the World Bank. Also prominent in explaining Lourenço's reforms is the Albright Stonebridge Group (ASG), a private global strategy firm led by the former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in Washington DC. Last year, ASG recruited Linda Thomas-Greenfield, former Assistant Secretary for African Affairs at the State Department, as a Senior Counsellor to its Africa practice.
Helen La Lime, until recently the US Ambassador in Luanda, is a senior advisor for ASG.
On 26 March the group issued a press release entitled, 'Angola: Open For Business' emphasising the loss of influence of the Dos Santos clan, the reform-mindedness of the new administration, and Angola's increased openness to foreign investment. ASG insists it has not been hired by the Angolan government.
Sanctions imposed by the US Federal Reserve, including a ban on the sale of dollars to banks or institutions based in Angola, still weigh heavily on investment decisions. Nor does the European Central Bank recognise Angola's central bank as an effective supervisor. That restricts financial transfers. With or without an IMF deal, Lourenço's govermment will have to push through a raft of macro-economic and financial reforms to bring in the new investors. And some way down the line, Angolans should see higher growth and more jobs.
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