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?”