Make corruption reporting meaningful

The Luanda Leaks, detailing the actions by Isabel dos Santos and “legitimate Western institutions” that exacerbated poverty and injustice in Angola, are an opportunity to reflect on how to improve anti-corruption work. Two areas stand out: understanding corruption’s relations with other development challenges, and ensuring anti-corruption work symbiotically bolsters global justice, equality and participatory democracy.

(The following comments also respond to wider and longer trends in global news and scholarship, and are not all specific to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, the ICIJ, and their crucial, welcomed work.)

On the first point, commentators must clearly situate corruption in relation to Angola’s overwhelming long history of globalised armed conflict, rather than use it to overshadow that history. Various articles, as well as ICIJ’s key summary and timeline, could be read as incorrectly suggesting that Angola’s poverty is largely a result of Dos Santos’s corruption: “Two decades of unscrupulous deals made Isabel dos Santos Africa’s wealthiest woman and left oil- and diamond-rich Angola one of the poorest countries on Earth.”

This, moreover, erases from history the period in the 1980s when newly independent quasi-socialist Angola was debilitated by the United States, the International Monetary Fund and other financial institutions, which co-ordinated to use deliberately created war-driven economic crises as a means to leverage in “shock-therapy” neoliberal reforms.

Destroying Angola’s economy and state institutions was the whole point. Angola’s large territory (twice the size of France) was a central proxy battlefield for the Cold War; the US only recognised Angola as a sovereign country in 1992, some 17 years after its independence. By then, so much damage had been done it enabled 10 more years of brutal diamond-fuelled rural insurgency.

The destruction and cost of such a war is often underestimated, perhaps by 300% or 400%, and is more likely at least $200-billion.

Consequently, poverty in Angola is overwhelmingly rural. It is caused by multiple interconnected factors that include, but are not limited to, elite corruption. The others are the complex legacies of colonialism and war, patriarchy, economic exploitation, mismanagement and undemocratic practices.

To address these fundamental problems, and for valuable work like the Luanda Leaks to not risk being counterproductive, reporters and scholars need support for more in-depth research and need to commit to making more than just quick trips to Luanda to pluck out vivid decontextualised anecdotes about kleptocrats, consultants and victims.

Angolans are outraged by Dos Santos’s actions, but she alone did not bankrupt the Angolan state. Her total ill-gotten wealth of $2-billion is equivalent to 5% of one year of Angolan state revenue (annual budgets are about $40-billion). Her $2-billion can build numerous schools and clinics, but redistributed would be a one-off $70 for each Angolan — nice, but not really life changing.

Additionally, efforts to root out Dos Santos’s web of businesses in Portugal should be linked with —rather than distract from — addressing global inequality. Legitimate outrage inside and outside Angola about Dos Santos’s ostentations must also be tied to redressing the practices of the world’s other 2 [Thin space] 600 billionaires and the trillion-dollar-a-year US defence industry. We can and must do both.

So although Angolan businesses during the oil boom did involve some of Portugal’s elite, nonetheless one estimate (albeit problematic) still put Portugal with 3 [Thin space] 500% more total wealth than Angola, per person ($1 [Thin space] 100-billion versus $49-billion). Such patterns of unequal resources have been obscured by some sensational media headlines (headlines that are separate from and precede the ICIJ’s work) that appeal to racialised postcolonial anxiety with florid stories that use undeniable examples such as Dos Santos’s to then make broader incorrect depictions of oil-boom Angola as “reversing roles” to “dominate” crisis-ridden Portugal and make it a “financial colony”. These and other tropes about Angola get recycled ad nauseum.

This brings us to the second point: for anti-corruption work to improve its long-term effectiveness by triangulating with other development problems, it must marshal broad popular support, and do so by articulating multiple aspects of justice and democracy in ways that resonate with peoples’ lives.

Broader anti-corruption work must commit to integrating explicit action against intertwined sexism, imperialism, racism, militarism and corporate globalism. Critiques of corruption are not inherently progressive; they must be proactively made so.

Such commitments now need to be explicit because, although dedicated anti-corruption advocates do thankless, important and often dangerous work, anti-corruption work also gets used for subtle and explicit right-wing agendas (often corrupt themselves) — as recent US and Brazilian politics illustrate. Selectively using anti-corruption as a pretext to consolidate exploitation is hardly new in Angola or elsewhere. To prevent such scenarios necessitates careful preemptive framing of anti-corruption critiques in progressive ways.

What does not resonate broadly with the public, what rings hollow, and what alienates people when it smacks of oblivious privilege at best and self-serving hypocrisy at worst, are top-down name-and-shame critiques by elite white men that rely on liberal “rule of law” legalese that is abstracted from — and blatantly contradicted by — complex realities of patriarchy, sexism, racism and inequality.

If commentators are to build progressively on existing popular critiques in Angola (and elsewhere) of the complicity between consultants, celebrities and corrupt figures, then they need to join critiques of corruption with explicit progressive commitments, rather than root evaluations in abstract liberalism (“liberalism” here as a general philosophy, not the peculiar US label for left-leaning perspectives).

Anti-corruption rhetoric sometimes relies on and gets hijacked for racially tinged myths to quarantine an artificially separated “good (Western) liberal rational capitalism” from a “bad (non-Western) political capitalism” — witness how Forbes’s influential headline reduced Dos Santos to “an African princess”.

That particular dichotomy of rational versus political capitalism was promoted by the imperialist, racist German father of sociology, Max Weber — whose family was instrumental at the highest levels in the colonisation of Africa and the “robber capitalism” of brutal Congolese rubber extraction — as he drew on imperial German explorers’ biased accounts of the Angolan regions “between the Congo and Zambesi rivers” that recently produced diamonds for Dos Santos.

In contrast, decades of incisive scholarship have shown how liberalism and “rational” capitalism have been mutually constituted with empire, racism, slavery, violence and geographies of corruption. These dynamics are often clear to Angolans, who are fed up with corruption.

At the same time such inconvenient tangled histories are left out of white-saviour and celebrity anti-corruption narratives in the West, with important media commercialisation on Netflix and other platforms of digestible movies and TV series about the Panama Papers and the global criminal underworld (McMafia), often involving “substantial deals” for authors.

When stories about corruption rely on contrasts between abstract legalist liberalism and emphases on charismatic archetypes like Dos Santos and sensational stereotypes of ethnic chauvinism and chaotic slums, they blind us anew to long-recognised complexities of states and politics of the sort that brought to power Angola’s new reformist, President João Lourenço. (He had, since 2011, been mentioned repeatedly by astute observers as a potential presidential successor, even after his momentary sidelining in the early 2000s).

This is an edited version of an article that was first published on the Open Democracy website

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