Oil in the Angolan President’s Family

We ought to ask questions about Angola’s Sovereign Wealth Fund. But also about the history of Chevron, Exxon, and Conoco in the country.

Angolan President Jose Eduardo Dos Santos. Image via Getty Images

The Wall Street Journal published a piece last Wednesday entitled “Angola Wealth Fund is Family Affair.” This is not news. This was widely reported in the international press back in the Fall when the Fundo Soberano de Angola was officially announced. The Fund, started with $5 billion, now puts Angola in line with other OPEC nations, which also have funds to protect against oil price volatility, to secure the future when oil runs out, to build infrastructure, and/or to diversify the economy. Angola could use all these. According to one prominent member of the board, the emphasis will be on diversification and wealth creation.

The FSDEA has a three person board, which includes José Filomeno de Sousa Santos, one of Angolan President José Eduardo dos Santos’s sons, known by his nickname Zenú. He is 34 years old and grew up in Switzerland and England. He has a Master’s degree in information management and finance from Westminster University in London and worked at the AAA insurance company in Luanda (currently in financial crisis), part of Sonangol’s network of companies.

FSDEA values include: transparency, accountability, commitment, and integrity. The Wall Street Journal quotes the World Bank economist Marcelo Giugale who says that “a sovereign-wealth fund is a huge signal of discipline.” Many Angolans and Angola observers have their doubts.

The local and international press have voiced some of those concerns. Mihaela Webba, a constitutional law specialist and advisor to opposition party UNITA president Isaias Samakuva, told Voice of America that the National Assembly is the only legitimate body to run such a fund and that the Fund’s creation was a violation of Angola’s Constitutional Law. Open Society director Elias Isaac launched a similar criticism to Deutsche Welle questioning whether such a fund could be created by presidential decree. And CASA-CE president Abel Chivukuvuku said he was skeptical that Zenú was the only person in the country qualified for the position. Makaangola did investigative work on the Swiss investment firm that will manage the Fund: Quantum Global and its Swiss-Angolan associate, and friend of Zenú, Jean-Claude Bastos Morais. Together Dos Santos and Morais started the investment bank, Banco Kwanza Invest.

In the wake of Zenú’s appointment to the FSDEA board, rumors have begun to circulate that the President intends to tap him as a successor. Manuel Vicente, the current Vice President, was the head of Sonangol and his new political prominence already caused much grumbling in the MPLA party headquarters for the same reason. But succession is for monarchs and the concerns around the Sovereign Fund again recall the ways in which President dos Santos acts more like a sovereign than a popularly elected official. For example, he has centralized power in the executive branch with the 2010 Constitution that removed the Prime Minister, gave the President the power to appoint a Vice President, and made presidential election indirect via the party ticket. One jurist described the constitution’s Presidential powers as like those of Louis XIV. According to Freedom House, 90% of all legislation is initiated in the executive branch. And the President appoints and removes provincial governors at will. Much has already been said here and by others about the nepotistic mechanisms by which his children and especially his first-born daughter, Isabel dos Santos, have developed such robust and lucrative business portfolios.

We think there is something else to think about too. All of this sounds strangely familiar. All of this adds up to the pat equation: FSDEA + Zenú x Transparency International coefficient ÷ 100,000 barrels = oil curse.

But what about those of us who consume oil and petroleum products? And those of us who prop up governments that produce that oil? Anyone remember the story of the Cuban troops protecting U.S. oil installations from U.S. backed UNITA soldiers in Angola in the 1980s during the height of their civil war and the Cold War, for example?

Scholarly work by University of Houston historian Kairn Klieman on Nigeria (“U.S. Oil Companies, the Nigerian Civil War, and the Origins of Opacity in the Nigerian Oil Industry,” Journal of American History, June 2012) and Columbia University political theorist Timothy Mitchell’s recent book Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil (Verso 2011), suggest that the oil curse story is too one-sided.

U.S. and other Western companies and governments that help produce and consume and often build infrastructure are also responsible for, and live the political consequences of, dependency on oil. Lack of transparency in the Nigerian oil industry, Klieman argues, is a joint US-Nigerian practice dating to the 1960s. Meanwhile, Mitchell asserts that in the late 19th century carbon provided the very basis for mass democratic movements while oil sets its limits in the 20th and 21st centuries. We are all implicated, in other words.

We ought to ask questions about Angola’s Sovereign Wealth Fund. But we ought also to ask questions about the history of Chevron, Exxon, and Conoco in Angola when the oil industry was being established in the 1960s and the U.S. airbase on the Azores kept us quiet about Portugal’s war in Angola. And we ought to wonder about current policy too.

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