Scholarship on the political economy of Angola has established oil as the lubricant of politics in the country. Oil is the major force behind the emergence of the national bourgeoisie. Contrary to South Africa, for instance, where fortunes have been made through corruption in the tendering process—in which a class of influential players gravitating around the ruling party have been given the chance to enter into businesses with the state—wealth making in Angola is cruder and more basic. It has been in most cases through direct transfers of money from the coffers of the state to the pockets of individuals. Furthermore, most of these individuals have joined the entrepreneurial class without relinquishing their posts working for the state.
At the center of it all is Sonangol, the state-owned company that oversees oil operations in Angola. Ever since Angola shed ties with its socialist orthodoxy and embraced neoliberalism in the early 1990s, the fortunes of the majority of multi-millionaires in the country can be traced to the largesse of Sonangol. However, under the presidency of João Lourenço, who replaced the long serving José Eduardo dos Santos in 2017, the state-owned company has been entrusted with a novel endeavor. It has now been put at the center of an anti-corruption crusade. This has taken place through investigative procedures undertaken by Angolan prosecutors that consist of tracking the paths of money stolen through Sonangol.
This is, for instance, the case of the investigation by Angolan authorities into Hélder Vieira Dias, also known as General Kopelipa. Kopelipa was the head of the Gabinete de Reconstrução Nacional (GRN, Office for National Reconstruction)—under direct supervision of the former president—which managed the billions of oil-backed loans that China started to pour in Angola’s economy from mid-2000. Sonangol was a part of all this given that the co-director of GRN was the head of Sonangol. Kopelipa and his associates managed to divert resources from the funds coming from China in order to build a vast array of companies, whose interests ranged from construction and retail to real estate and bioenergy.
Ironically, Isabel dos Santos might have been the person who led the way in using Sonangol as an anti-corruption outfit. In 2016, her father appointed her as head of Sonangol. For many observers, this appointment was tantamount to placing a fox in charge of the chickens. Unsurprisingly, she has since been accused by the government of João Lourenço of embezzling millions of dollars under dubious schemes, such as the excessive payment of consultancy services that were never rendered. However, during her tenure at Sonangol, she claims to have uncovered numerous illicit practices from previous administrations. Some of these have been used by her legal team as leverage in current negotiations with Angolan judicial authorities.
If one takes Isabel dos Santos by her word, that she had attempted to deal with the problem of corruption at Sonangol, she might have encountered the case of one of the most outrageous acts of corruption involving Carlos São Vicente, who is married to Irene Neto, the eldest daughter of the first Angolan president, Agostinho Neto. Succeeding at transferring Sonangol’s insurance business to his own companies, he set up a complex operation that allowed him to siphon hundreds of millions of dollars out of the country, paid in the form of inflated premiums by international oil companies involved in extractive activities in Angola.
In a statement sent to the Portuguese news agency Lusa in October 2020, the Swiss lawyers hired by São Vicente found a contradiction in the procedures of the Angolan judicial authorities, who, in August 2020, exculpated him of any wrongdoing when Swiss authorities froze $900 million deposited in Swiss financial institutions. However, when the accounts of the criminal proceedings leaked, the Angolan government arrested São Vicente on September 22.
The crux of the matter is that Angolan political authorities are not particularly interested in justice. Having been deprived of the opportunity to groom an African entrepreneurial class during colonialism, Angolans have officially used corruption as a way to nurture the “national bourgeoise.” According to an estimate by João Lourenço, in an interview with The Wall Street Journal, about USD 24 billion were siphoned from public coffers during the tenure of José Eduardo dos Santos, the lion’s share from Sonangol. But João Lourenço, a prominent member of dos Santos’ administration, was not known for speaking out about the excesses of that time, and there is no indication that he is opposed to corruption as a matter of principle either.
Governing a country in desperate need of cash, João Lourenço is using Sonangol’s historical archives to go after those who have benefited from oil money. For him it is simply payback time and a chance to settle old scores.