An unexpected change is sweeping through Angola

Flickr/Eu Sou João Lourenço
Angola's president João Lourenço

Three months can be a long time in politics. Angola’s new president João Lourenço – the 52 year old former Defense Minister with a made-in-the-Soviet-Union history degree – has been trying to show that a long history of a country’s political wounds can be turned with symbolic acts.

First of all, Lourenço went after the
state business connections of the dos Santos family, the former rulers
family that took control, over the past 20 years, of all the most
important and strategic economic strongholds of Angola.

Just in November, he sacked Africa’s
richest woman, Isabel dos Santos, from the presidency of the state oil
company Sonangol. Isabel is the oldest daughter of 10 children of the
former Angolan president, José Eduardo dos Santos, who still chairs, as
an honorary president,  the ruling People’s Movement for the Liberation
of Angola (MPLA) party, after stepping out of the country’s Presidency
last September, having spent 38 years in power.

Isabel dos Santos had fired Carlos
Saturnino, a former executive of Sonangol, in 2017 on  allegations of
“bad management”. That’s why when Lourenço replaced her with Saturnino,
it was his boldest move yet as Angolan president. But not the only one.

The new head of state appears to have
laid out a turn in strategic policy. We can infer that much from the
appointments of two former prime-ministers, Lopo do Nascimento and
Marcolino Moco, to the board of Sonangol, Angola’s richest oil and gas
exporter. The two new company board members happen to be critics of the
former Angolan first man.

Last week Lourenço sacked yet another dos
Santos, José Filomeno, from the board of the Angolan Sovereign Fund,
worth 5 billion euros.

The Fund was recently mentioned in a
Paradise Papers investigation by the International Consortium of
Investigative Journalists, a group of reporters who expose questionable
financial offshore activities involving some of the world’s most
powerful people.

In a dos Santos clean-up, Lourenço has 
also cancelled an agreement between the public state television and the
private company Semba, which is owned by two others of dos Santos
children, “Tchizé” (Welwitschia dos Santos) and “Coreon Du” (José
Eduardo Paulino dos Santos) as they are popularly known in Angola.

He has also dismissed the central bank’s governor from his role.

And this is where the European story begins.

The dos Santos family members have, for
many years, controlled the riches of Angola, where oil represents 96 per
cent of the country’s exports. The family has invested heavily in
European assets.

Isabel dos Santos used to be one of the
biggest shareholders of the Portuguese Investment Bank (BPI) until 2017,
when she sold her shares to Spanish group La Caixa. She still controls
the majority of shares in two other banks: Portuguese Commercial Bank
(BCP), with a majority of shares owned by Sonangol, and EuroBIC, which
was the outcome of the nationalization of the fallen Portuguese Business
Bank (BPN). This makes dos Santos one of the most powerful bankers in
Portugal. With an estimated wealth of 3.4 billion euros, she is also the
most important shareholder of telecom (ZON) and energy suppliers (Galp)
in Portugal.

All this may be among the new Angolan
president’s targets. In his state-of-the-nation speech on October 16,
Lourenço criticised the central bank’s policy, claiming that a “few
companies” were being favoured, while the whole country suffered a deep
lack of foreign money.

In another unexpected speech a couple of
months later, in December, Lourenço demanded that “Angolans who own real
fortunes abroad” should bring their money in the country. If that
happened, the President added, no questions would be asked about how the
fortunes were made and why were they were exported. Lourenço even
threatened to have the power to “nationalise” their money, without
explaining what that meant or how he would do it.

There are several ongoing judicial
investigations into alleged corruption and money laundering schemes
concerning close dos Santos family allies addressing finance and real
estate in Portugal. It is yet uncertain whether the new Angolan
government is going to offer its assistance to the judicial
investigators. Portuguese authorities are under threat from Angolan officials over some ongoing court cases in Portugal related to dos Santos affairs.

For now the change is sweeping the
nomenclature of the country: from the state diamond company to the
railroad enterprise, every dos Santos-appointed high official is being
removed. The president defends these sudden changes by claiming they are
necessary in order for the state authorities to clear the fog that
blurs the line between private riches belonging to some of Angola’s
leading politicians and their public investments.”

This includes the formerly known
“princess” Isabel’s (the nice, yet satirical nickname given to the
President’s daughter in a socialist titled republic) assets in Europe:
where does her own money begin and where does the Angolan public money
end? This seems to be one question behind President Lourenço’s recent
acts.

Lourenço may be “sticking his hand into a
hornets’ nest” as one of the most vocal critics of the dos Santos
regime, the rapper Luaty Beirão, said. “I’m surprised”, Luaty said,
“these are popular measures, not populist measures, as some claim. I can
risk saying that most citizens are happy with this”.

Luaty cannot yet guess what the country’s
future will bring, but the new president’s ‘spring cleaning’ had made
many ask a question Angola was no longer used to hear: “What’s next?”