The mother of all failures

Olívio N'kilumbu
Marissa Moorman

In Angola, President Lourenço's government failed to address COVID-19 due to corruption and incompetence.

Photo by Francisco Venâncio on Unsplash

In Angola, the pandemic is the mother of incompetence. In his state of the nation speech, President João Lourenço declared the COVID-19 pandemic responsible for all the failures of 2020. But it was less the pandemic itself than incompetence in state management that caused problems.

First, let’s discuss corruption, a close cousin of incompetence. Currently under an agreement with the IMF, the Angolan state should be more careful in how it manages pandemic related funds. In July 2020, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) published a piece called “Corruption and COVID-19” that called for transparent management of the pandemic. The pandemic crisis would not, the IMF said, sideline its governance and anti-corruption work. The IMF emphasized that the pandemic demanded broad intervention by governments but also advised that “governments need timely and transparent reporting, ex post facto audits and accountability processes, as well as close cooperation with civil society and the private sector”.

Despite positive reviews from the IMF, the Angolan state has not been as transparent as possible in its accounting nor does it have good systems of oversight in place.

Declarations of a state of public emergency and of public calamity in March and May 2020, respectively, offered rare moments when the state openly discussed the costs of COVID-19. Following pressure from journalists and widespread rumors, the Minister of Health, Dr. Sílvia Lutucuta, estimated the total cost per COVID patient in April 2020 at about 16 million kwanzas (nearly $25,000). In June 2020, the former Minister of State and Head of the President’s Security Office, General Pedro Sebastião, presented the first and only report on the costs of the fight against COVID-19 to the Angolan parliament, arguing that the executive had spent (to date) the equivalent of $69.4 million. Finally, during his speech at the UN general debate on COVID on December 19, 2020, Angola’s president presented the costs at $164.6 million, meaning the expenses had more than doubled in a 6 month period. The media outlet TVRecord Angola calculated the cost per patient at $10,715. Even if the cost per patient had dropped, the cost per patient in Angola is six times higher than in other places in the world, like Portugal.

The numbers are big and transparency requires studies with greater detail. Stuck between the precedent of deference to executive powers and the gray areas of legal interpretation, Members of Parliament have not audited the state’s reports. This despite nearly daily complaints about the involvement of high-level government officials in scandals around the importation of PPE; the construction of facilities to house field hospitals; the lack of disposable material in public hospitals; and insufficient examinations for doctors. The presence of PPE sold by street vendors in Luanda fuels speculation. Given that local industry is producing goods and the state has a monopoly on importing PPE and external support, the lack of masks and gloves in public hospitals while they are for sale on the street is unacceptable.

It is not surprising that Transparency International ranked Angola in the 142nd position (of 180 countries) in 2020. A study that analyzed the promotion of transparency in sub-Saharan countries established ten indicators, of which Angola has achieved none.

In addition to a lack of transparent management of COVID related resources and the incompetence demonstrated in the production and distribution of PPE, the state has also failed to ensure public security. In the first two months of implementing the state of emergency, security forces killed more people than COVID-19. Political violence is more deadly than the pandemic.

The death of a pediatrician, Dr. Sílvio Dala, a victim of police brutality in September 2020, sparked a wave of national repudiation including protests by doctors. Other citizens have been killed, shot or beaten to death for not wearing masks, even when they were alone in their cars.

Many measures taken in Angola lead us to believe that we are faced with decision makers who are unaware of the reality of most Angolans. The journalist João Armando in an editorial published in April 2021 wrote that “the fight against corruption is fundamental, but the fight against incompetence too.” He notes that those who are competent “are more interested, offer more opinions, want to make more changes, but end up being called ‘revolutionaries’ and are pushed aside.” Instead we get a game of musical chairs in which incompetent leaders fail, but then are re-assigned to different positions in the state.

Some failures combine corruption and incompetence. The regime tries to influence and assert itself within professional organizations and unions in order to control the masses. This put the Angolan Association of Doctors, who accepted the state’s story that Dala had died from pre-existing conditions, and the Doctors’ Union, who blamed police brutality, at odds over  Dala’s cause of death. As a result slogans like: “Out with Sílvia Lutucuta,” the Minister of Health, were heard during the demonstrations against the death of Dr. Sílvio Dala in September 2020.

Corruption, manifest in the regime’s refusal to let the Angolan Association of Doctors act independently of state influence,was also visible in how the state has treated Angola doctors as a professional class during the pandemic.  Doctors in the union criticized Lutucuta and the state over pandemic-related policies that marginalized Angolan doctors at a moment when their expertise was most needed. When 244 Cuban doctors arrived in Angola to help in the fight against COVID-19 across the country, it created a wave of discontent among doctors, as Angola has many doctors with the same qualifications but who find themselves unemployed. The wage gap between Cuban and Angolan doctors created more tension: Cubans receive salaries ten times that of Angolans. This is an example of the commitment and the “blood debt” that the MPLA has with Cuba, a country with which it has established privileged relations in the areas of defense, security, education, and health, after Cuban troops helped guarantee Angola’s independence on behalf of the MPLA.

Nurses, the largest group of health professionals in the country, considered going on strike in February 2021 to demand better safety conditions in health units and an additional month of salary. In the midst of the pandemic, doctors and nurses and the professional organizations and unions that represent them have been left hanging by the regime’s ineptitude.

The problems of governance associated with the pandemic reveal deeper, longer running troubles. The regime has never looked at public health as a potential investment and part of the pact between state and society. Instead what we have are parallel systems of public and private healthcare in which the political elite, starting with the president himself, get their medical services from private clinics and, often, outside the country.

Further Reading

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