/ 12 November 2020

Angola’s president squanders his early goodwill

Russia's Minister Of Foreign Affairs Lavrov Visits Angola
Plus ça change: Angolan President João Lourenço has not lived up to citizens’ expectations. Photo: Alexander Shcherbak/Tass/Getty Images


When João Lourenço took over as president of Angola in September 2017 — following 38 years of his predecessor, President José Eduardo dos Santos — he basked in a wave of support and even adoration.

The mood in Angola, and also displayed by international observers, was one of widespread optimism. Here was a president who finally seemed willing and able to stand up to entrenched corruption by dismantling the very system that put it in place, and prosecuting the people who institutionalised it. 

Fuelling this optimism were his promises to promote freedom of the press, economic diversity and boost employment, especially among Angola’s youth. “JLo”, as he is commonly known, appeared willing to go after members of his own party, the ever-present People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA). Politicians who had never seen the inside of an interrogation cell, including Dos Santos’s son, for example, were publicly accused of corruption and stood trial. Some even went to prison. 

Three years later, that initial excitement has worn off, and instead the mood is one of anger and betrayal: street protests have been violently suppressed by police; there is a feeling of hypocrisy surrounding corruption allegations within JLo’s own cabinet, which he has not addressed; and the MPLA has gleefully returned to inflammatory rhetoric and total control of state media. Recent asset seizures from previously “untouchable” generals, part of Dos Santos’s inner circle, now mean that the MPLA government has a monopoly on television channels, which it uses to spew pro-government rhetoric with no oversight.

So, what happened?

Despite the early optimism, Lourenço has failed to understand one of the most important factors afflicting Angola: its failing economy, which continues to be completely dependent on rapidly dwindling oil revenue, and is characterised by rampant unemployment and a severely weakened local currency. Decades of government mismanagement, coupled with institutional corruption, mean that during the previous regime, at least $24-billion was illegally stolen from the public purse (this figure comes from JLo himself). Angola’s public debt is currently valued at about $72-billion, of which about a quarter is owed to China alone. 

In other words: the amount of money siphoned off to feed the lifestyle of Angola’s billionaires and millionaires is more than the country’s debt to the Asian superpower. 

Angolans have also started to lose faith in JLo’s much-vaunted fight against corruption. The president has kept many of the same people in power, including ministers and governors, often in the same positions. Some people who were removed from one job, ostensibly because of incompetence or corruption, were nominated for another one months later. 

One example: JLo’s current chief of staff, Edeltrudes Costa, who held the same position under Dos Santos, was recently exposed in the Portugal press as having significant assets abroad because of government contracts he won while being employed by the state. Despite intense public pressure, there have been no repercussions. 

Amid the global pandemic, which has wreaked even more havoc on the economy, it is simply wishful thinking to imagine that Angolans, about 65% of whom are under 25 years old, would be happy with the status quo. Instead, they are protesting against it: demanding jobs, local elections (which have been postponed indefinitely), greater transparency in government and more accountability.

But rather than address these concerns, JLo’s government has resorted to the same old tactics used by the previous administration: brute force and cheap and outdated propaganda. These are the trappings of autocratic regimes, and will only serve to exacerbate an already tense situation.

On Wednesday 11 November, Angola celebrated 45 years of independence. Yes, it’s a milestone. But what does the country have to show for it besides crippling public debt, persistent corruption, a government unwilling and unable to take responsibility for its citizens’ most basic needs, and a president who had everything in his power to turn a corner, but instead chose the route of repression, incompetence and unaccountability.