/ 3 February 2012

Angola’s top officials reap the cream

In Angola corruption affects everybody, from the poorest slum dweller forced to pay for so-called free medical care and primary school education, right up to the gold-watch-wearing government minister who has shares in companies that win lucrative state tenders.

According to the 2011 Global Corruption Perceptions Index released in December by Transparency International, an anti-graft watchdog, Angola is at number 168 out of 182 countries, compared to South Africa’s ranking of 54.

Over the years there have been countless reports by international lobby groups such as Global Witness and Human Rights Watch that questioned how Angola’s vast oil revenues had been managed.

Last month an International Monetary Fund report noted that $32-billion could not be accounted for in the state budget.

But in a step up from the broad brushstrokes of generalised corruption allegations, Angolan anti-corruption campaigner Rafael Marques has started publishing a slew of investigations. He personally accuses key members of the country’s political elite of making illicit gains through illegal business deals and exploited relationships.

Through a website he calls ‘Maka Angola”, after the Kimbundu word for trouble or problem Marques spares no blushes. He points the finger at some of the country’s most senior government officials and even President José Eduardo dos Santos’s own children.

Some of the information is already in the public domain but needs dots to be joined, such as a budget report which noted that the ­presidency spent $17-million on a CNN television advertising campaign to promote Angola abroad through a production company owned by some of Dos Santos’s children.

Other reports merely confirm what many people have suspected for some time — that the bulk of the country’s private enterprises, from supermarkets and banks to cellphone companies, transport operators and private media houses, are owned by top government ministers or other members of the elite.

Marques alleges repeated violations of Angola’s laws that prohibit public officials from ‘receiving money, assets, or other economic benefits, either directly or indirectly, in deals in which they have decision powers or influence” and ‘engaging in business activities involving the state, for personal benefit”.

The reports make uncomfortable reading for overseas companies investing in Angola that are required, by law, to enter into joint ventures with some of the subjects of Marques’s reports. But one senior government minister, a close confidant of the president, sniffed when he was asked by the Mail & Guardian about Marques’s reports into his and others’ business affairs.

He said Marques was making trouble for the sake of it and that he was being funded by counter-intelligence agencies trying to ‘destabilise” Angola.

‘There is nothing wrong with being rich,” the minister said. ‘Who says I can’t have a business or two? I am a man as well as a government minister.”

Marques, who is in Washington in the United States as a visiting scholar at the African studies department of Johns Hopkins University, strongly disagrees. In a bold step he has decided to test the independence of the Angolan judiciary by exercising his rights under the 2010 Constitution to formally denounce these alleged law violations to the attorney general.

In December he submitted a criminal complaint alleging that Manuel Vicente, the former head of Angola’s powerful state oil company, Sonangol, signed off a deal while still at the parastatal that awarded lucrative oil concessions to an Angolan energy company, Nazaki Oil. (Vicente was this week promoted to minister of state for economic co-ordination, in a move regarded as a precursor to his succeeding Dos Santos.)

Marques insists he has documentation to prove that Nazaki is co-owned by Vicente, Minister of State General Helder Manuel Vieira Dias Jr and General Leopoldino Fragoso do Nascimento, the presidential adviser and former head of communications.

In his complaint Marques accuses Dias and Nascimento of abusing their public positions by exerting ‘considerable influence over the president, who, as the head of the ­executive, grants the final approval for petroleum block concessions”.

He also questions how Vicente, as president of the state oil company, could have allocated to his own company a concession that was supposed to be awarded through a public tender.

He makes other allegations about a loan worth $3.7-million being extended to Nazaki by Cobalt International Energy, the US-based deep-water oil explorer.

Cobalt has chosen not to respond publicly to the allegations but, in March last year, the US Securities Exchange Commission, which regulates the securities industry, said it had been in contact with Cobalt regarding the allegations about Nazaki’s ownership and the conflict of interest. It said the US company told it Nazaki had denied verbally and in writing that it had connections with senior government figures.

The 20 days required by law for a response to Marques’s criminal complaint have passed and he is yet to receive a reply from Angola’s attorney general. The M&G went to the office of the attorney general in Luanda last week to see whether any response was forthcoming, but was told no one could help with the inquiry.

Elias Isaac, country programme manager at the Angolan office of the Open Society Foundation — part of the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa — welcomed the reports of Marques and others, including a lawyer who claimed he had copies of Dos Santos’s private bank accounts in Brazil.

But he was not confident that the authorities would take any action. ‘We are seeing a lot of information coming out that needs to be investigated, but our institutions do not appear interested.

‘If our judicial organisations were independent, they would be investigating these criminal cases from people like Rafael, but we all know that the Accounts Court president is personally appointed by President Dos Santos and so has no real power to stand up to the executive or government,” he said.

In 2009 Dos Santos made global headlines with his call for ‘zero tolerance” of corruption. He told a congress of the ruling Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola that ‘irresponsible people, people of bad faith, have taken advantage of this circumstance to squander resources and to carry out illicit and even damaging and fraudulent acts of management”.

His get-tough stance was praised by the international community, as was new probity legislation that required all government officials to declare their business interests.

But two years after the fanfare accompanying the announcement of the law — which turned out to allow declarations to be made privately — Isaac believes there is more corruption than ever. ‘The situation of corruption in Angola will not improve through new laws. The situation can only be improved by the creation of independent systems and institutions that are able to investigate and prosecute people, however important they might be.”

Isaac called on the international business community to open its eyes to Angola’s reality. ‘You know the fight against corruption is not an Angolan battle; it’s a global battle and we have to fight it on every front possible,” he said. ‘If every country in the world came up with laws that would prevent their multinational companies from doing questionable business with governments like ours, this would surely help.”

Isaac welcomed plans in the US to ratify the Dodds-Frank legislation that will require US-listed ­companies working abroad in the extractive ­sector to open up their accounts, but said more work on them was still needed.

‘Without graft, nothing works’
In Angola, calling a bribe a gazosa (literally ‘fizzy drink” in Portuguese) is thought to date back to the war years, when police officers, many of whom were not being paid regularly, would ask drivers at urban checkpoints for a gazosa in return for a clear passage.

Whatever the word’s origin, a decade on from the end of the country’s 27-year conflict Angola’s police offers are still thirsty. So are teachers, nurses, bank clerks and nearly all public servants, many of whom appear to have grown so accustomed to supplementing their meagre wages with these extras that not asking for bribes would leave them seriously out of pocket.

To get your child registered at a supposedly free public school can cost anywhere from $10 to $100; to renew your passport or get a new identity card, about $50. Keeping your car documents up to date is another expensive headache, especially if you do not.

There are even some reports that overbooked flights only offer seats to the highest bidders, and university places and job vacancies also come with their own price.

Angolan anti-graft campaigner Rafael Marques said: ‘It is the poorest who suffer the most. They are the ones who have to find the money to access basic services, which are supposed to be free.”

Marques said he did not think Angola was ready for a corruption watch-style organisation like the one launched in South Africa last week. ‘The problem with Angola,” he said, ‘is that without corruption nothing works, whereas South Africa, although still very corrupt, does have institutions that do not depend on corruption. In Angola corruption is the institution and anything else is just a sideshow.”

The 41-year-old, who has spent time behind bars for his critical opinions, said throughout President Jose Eduardo dos Santos’s 32-year rule he had used corruption to weave a complicated web of patronage that had furthered his own power base.

This, Marques asserted, was a clear reason why the ruling Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) had not experienced more leadership challenges and why the opposition was so weak.
‘In Angola’s case, what we are seeing is a president who has been in power for three decades and is nearing the end of his time, which is making people think more carefully about their own interests. This is what has happened in North Africa.”

Angola is due to hold elections this year. Dos Santos (69) who vies with Equatorial Guinea’s Teodoro Obiang Nguema as Africa’s longest-serving leader, is expected to seek another five-year term.

With an 82% majority in Parliament, the MPLA is likely to secure another easy victory. But it could face a challenge from a small but growing number of youths who have been staging street demonstrations calling for a fairer distribution of the country’s vast natural resources. — Louise Redvers