Musical chairs in Angola

The last years of former President Jose Eduardo Dos Santos nearly 4-decade long rule over Angola were particularly pathetic. They were the last, ignominious sighs of an obviously decaying regime withering away unceremoniously before our very eyes. Known as the “architect of peace,” the only thing he surely built was his children’s fortunes.

In particular, the blasé manner in which he casually signed over the country’s wealth to his family by decree – installing Isabel dos Santos, his daughter, as head of the once all-powerful Sonangol, Angola’s state oil company and our biggest national corporation – was galling. The fact that Isabel stuffed Sonangol’s corridors with Portuguese consultants fresh out of college and surrounded herself with Portuguese lawyers and aides certainly didn’t do much for her plummeting popularity. Her brother, Zenu dos Santos, was in charge of Angola’s Sovereign Wealth Fund. 

When taken into context with the absurd jailing of sixteen youths in July 2015 for reading a book, his lack of obvious, public compassion in the face of the deadly yellow fever epidemic that gripped the capital Luanda, the steady, steep decline of our economy, numerous corruption scandals, each more nefarious than the last, and the repugnant rise of the “bajus” — educated men and women who fed his pervasive cult of personality – it’s easy to see why Dos Santos was so unpopular during his last days in office.

Dos Santos’s hand-picked successor, President João Lourenço, went through the motions of a deeply-flawed election process, displaying his lack of charisma, strategy and any sort of break from the past. Sure, he said all the right things in his monotone voice, but people were tired of empty promises. He was simply repeating what his predecessor had said before. When the MPLA, Lourenço’s party, won the elections with 61% of the vote (they’ve won every election since indepedence), no celebrations broke out in the streets. The consensus was that Lourenço would merely be Dos Santos’ puppet, acting on the whims of Angola’s former president who, it bears pointing out, is still the MPLA’s president.

“See how I did that?”

So imagine the shock that within 60 days of taking office, Lourenço fires Isabel dos Santos along with the rest of Sonangol’s board, dismantles her sibling’s monopolistic stranglehold over the national television station, openly threatens their business interests, and exonerates several ministers appointed by Dos Santos in key political and economic sectors. As if that wasn’t enough (it wasn’t), he also gets rid of the inexperienced Central Bank Governor appointed by Dos Santos, exonerates the board of the state diamond company, changes leadership in every single public news organization, and replaces the heads of military intelligence and the police.

Some of these leaderships were locked in for another five years by Dos Santos in a flurry of Presidential decrees signed during his last days in office. João Lourenço did not care.

The celebrations that followed were no surprise. WhatsApp is king in Luanda and we have a healthy relationship with memes. Within hours of the statement announcing Isabel’s sacking, our phones were flooded with hilarious memes praising Lourenço and deriding Isabel. Many called for the removal of Zenu dos Santos at the Angola’s Sovereign Wealth Fund and involved in a series of corruption scandals, the latest of which was released in the Paradise Papers leak.

“Breaking news: JLO exonerates Cristiano Ronaldo’s son”

Lourenço hadn’t just sacked someone; he had dared fire a Dos Santos, one of the untouchables, those who may not be questioned or criticized. It sent a powerful, clear message to Angolans in and out of government: that Lourenço is not afraid of using the full extent of his power as president of the republic. It’s safe to say that Angolans had not seen such a direct challenge to Dos Santos in many years, and the running joke here in Luanda was the Lourenço was acting as if he was a member of an opposition party. In fact, people are asking where the opposition is, such is Lourenço’s ability to usurp their narrative.

But the apparent changes underway in Angola aren’t merely political. State media, for decades under the firm control of the darkest impulses of the ruling party, suddenly seemed to remember how to do journalism again. People actually want to watch the nightly news on the state media channel, either for the almost daily announcements of another exoneration or just because journalism has stopped force-feeding us propaganda.

Provincial governors suddenly got Twitter accounts and started posting Obama-style images of themselves cleaning public roads, visiting local street markets and using the internet on their phones (“they’re just like us!”). The attorney general, for years completely useless in the fight against corruption and himself accused of gross acts of misconduct, has suddenly realized he has a job and is actively prosecuting low-hanging fruit in the state apparatus.

“Face like a bulldog, attitude like a pitbull”

Perhaps most importantly, there’s a palpable sense of less fear in the air. Ondjango Feminista, a local organization promoting, among other things, gender equality, held two marches in its recent history: one in the last months of the Dos Santos regime, and another last weekend. The first was against the criminalization of abortion, a new law that had recently been introduced in parliament and then was hastily taken down once the scale of the opposition became clear. That march was organized and held in an environment of some fear, as local police have a shoddy, bloody history of recognizing our right to protest. The second march, held to protest violence against women, was notable for its rather celebratory atmosphere and minimal police presence, so much so that organizers had to often act as makeshift traffic officers. Fear has seemingly evaporated. 

So where’s the catch? As euphoria mounted, several Angolans started calling for calm. While cracks started to publicly appear within the MPLA – after all, Lourenço was taking on entrenched, vested interests in the party, on people that directly profited from Angola’s corruption – others maintained that sacking ministers was nowhere near enough. They wanted those responsible for the widespread corruption to be charged and taken to court. Angolans have a term for this content changing of ministers and governors: we call it the “dança das cadeiras,” which roughly translates to musical chairs. What’s the point of sacking ministers if their successors are going to be just as corrupt? This is certainly a conversation that we need to have.

For all the apparent changes we’ve seen, it’s worth pointing out the obvious: João Lourenço is an MPLA man. The regime hasn’t changed. The main actors have, and their initial signs are encouraging, but we’re not even done with the first act yet. The man has been in power for a little over two months. Considerable reform of our judicial sector is paramount – we need to create a judiciary system that has the tools to effectively go after corruption at all levels of state government. Our police force requires urgent reform. Central Angola and Maka Angola have exposed the ongoing practices of extra-judicial killings. It remains to be seen whether the current government will finally give health and education the attention, funding and forward-thinking planning they deserve.

João Lourenço has talked the talk, but the question is whether he can back it up with concrete action. The MPLA is a master manipulator and a wily survivor. The party is has consolidated near absolute political and economic power in the country it has ruled since independence. As a result of a severe economic crisis brought about primarily by rampant corruption and gross mismanagement, the party was acutely aware that its popularity was at an all-time low and, had they kept Dos Santos in charge, would have done much worse in the recent elections even with all the blatant irregularities.

“Keep calm, young’uns, we still have to get rid of Zenu”

Many Angolans argue that these initial actions are necessary for the MPLA to shore up much needed internal support while sending a message to external investors that they are willing to curb corruption in return for foreign direct investment and currency. At this point, reviving the economy is of the utmost importance. Even if you have to sacrifice a few entitled, wealthy offspring of the former president.

Angola is a battered country let down by its leadership again and again. But it’s now a battered country willing and able to dream again. I share in this feeling of cautious optimism, aware of the long road ahead but capable of giving this new leadership the benefit of the doubt.

João Lourenço first announced his intention to be president back in 2003, falling for one of Dos Santos’ mind games. Dos Santos had publicly stated that he wouldn’t run again in the next general elections; Lourenço took the bait and said that Dos Santos was a man of his word, would step down, and that he himself was ready to step in and lead. Lourenço was sidelined from any meaningful work for the next 11 years.

Today, Lourenço finds himself as President of Angola and with a level of public support not seen since Dos Santos “won” the war against Savimbi in 2002. If he does well, Lourenço has the chance to be remembered for much more than those 11 years.

Cláudio Silva

Claudio Silva is the founder and managing-director of an Angolan startup in the hospitality sector. He has written for AIAC, Roads and Kingdoms, CNN, and other websites.

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