From the fight against corruption to changes in the economy - João Lourenço's first year as Angola's president

João Lourenço on his trip to Berlin in August 2018

The priorities of the Angolan leader since he took office on September 26, 2017, are clear: modernizing the economy and fighting corruption. The goal: to keep the MPLA in power.

With less than 48 hours for João Lourenço to complete his first year as Angola's President, the country was shocked by the news of the pre-trial detention of former Transport Minister Augusto Tomás, of former President Eduardo dos Santos's son José Filomeno dos Santos, and of the latter's business partner Jean Claude Bastos de Morais. Besides being a business partner of Eduardo dos Santos' son, Bastos de Morais also heads Quantum Global, the company that manages most of the Angolan Sovereign Wealth Fund, which was chaired by Filomeno dos Santos until early 2018.

According to O País editor José Kaliengue, "there's nothing better than the arrest of a former minister and of his predecessor's son" to celebrate João Lourenço's first year as Angola's President and to signal the difference he wants to make in Angolan society." According to Kaliengue, "João Lourenço's first year was marked by the arrest of influential figures and various investigations in several provinces, in a crusade for the moralization of society, and especially of high public officials."

Economic issues are at the heart of the agenda of Angola's President and MPLA leader, not the least because of the "need to re-legitimize" his party, says Africa Program Manager at Chatham House Alex Vines. "Creating jobs, improving public services and fighting corruption are crucial steps," but according to the British researcher these changes "do not mean there will be more democracy." The most important aspect here is that the MPLA "is the governing party and its goal is to remain in power in the long term." And João Lourenço's party wants clear results "in the country's first local elections, in 2022, and in the 2022 general elections," Alex Vines points out.

Lourenço's "political motivation" is also highlighted by Paulo Gorjão, which heads the Portuguese Institute for International and Security Relations (IPRIS). Gorjão believes that João Lourenço is seeking "his personal success and the maintenance of the MPLA's hegemony," adding that the current President does not come "from the margins of the political system or from minority groups" within the circles of power. João Lourenço, now 62 years old, joined the MPLA in June 1974 and has held several important positions since the 1980s, such as President of the MPLA parliamentary group, MPLA Secretary-General, and Minister of Defense.

There is room to consolidate any reformist agenda the president may want to pursue"

According to Gorjão, João Lourenço is someone who embodies Giuseppe di Lampedusa's axiom that everything must change so that everything can stay the same, and is doomed to manage "the tension between the need for reform and the will to keep the elite in control." The Portuguese researcher also suggests that there is "room to consolidate" any "reformist agenda" the president may want to pursue - if that is his real intention - given the feeble resistance such measures have met with.

Two factors help explain such feeble resistance: the fact that the population likes to "feel that the arm of justice can reach the upper strata of society," as Kaliengue notes, and the consensus within the MPLA towards the preservation of political hegemony, as Vines and Gorjão point out. This also leaves "the opposition paralyzed" because its most high-sounding causes have been taken over by the government, as regime critic Fernando Pacheco argued yesterday in a Novo Jornal article.

According to Kaliengue, the fact that João Lourenço never uttered a word about "the president's election method and the concentration of powers" shows that political reforms are not on the agenda. The president powers, he says, "are now crucial for trodding the path" chosen by the Angolan President. Equally relevant is the fact that Lourenço did not object to 'inheriting' ministers from his predecessor - a seeming continuity which, according to a study on 'Angola under Lourenço' (published by the French Institute of International Relations and authored by Brazilian researcher Mathias de Alencastro) is due to the fact that "the real holders of power are appointed by him."

"Reformer"

If, according to José Kaliengue, the Angolan president had to display "all his strength in the fight against corruption and impunity," he must also "transform the country's (almost stagnant) economic and social landscape," and especially the "penury" in sectors such as public education and health.

Changes involving the entire state business sector and arrests such as that of Filomeno dos Santos (suspected of being involved in a $500 million transfer fraud and of illegal acts in the management of the Angolan Sovereign Wealth Fund) project the image abroad of a "changing country" and of João Lourenço as a "reformist, moralizing" ruler, focused on "defending the common good," says Kaliengue. They also show, as Angolan sociologist and journalist João Paulo Ganga argued back in December 2016 during an interview with VOA, that the idea that "João Lourenço will be a stooge or a puppet... controlled by José Eduardo dos Santos is an illusion".

Due to the political and especially the economic situation, the MPLA had to choose a "prestigious" name to succeed Eduardo dos Santos, said Paulo Ganga.

The economic challenge

According to José Kaliengue, the price of a barrel of oil - which has been holding above $70, and everything suggests it will not drop so soon, given the recent OPEC decision not to increase production levels - can bear the weight of some of the government's social policies, but the most decisive results will have to be assessed against the "transformation of the state business sector," with the likely privatization of many state companies.

In fact, according to Chatham House researcher Alex Vines, "the state of the economy and the high level of debt did not leave Eduardo dos Santos' successor with much room for maneuver." Vines believes that because of the crisis, the reforms will actually be implemented and there will be at least "some modicum of success, especially in the oil industry and the mining sector."

In addition to these factors, IPRIS director Paulo Gorjão underscores the importance of "gaining external credibility in order to attract investment" and of relying on "the help of the IMF" to modernize and (a crucial detail) diversify the country's economy. In 2017, oil accounted for 75% of government revenues and for about 50% of the GDP.

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