Angolan President João Lourenço is making swift moves to battle corruption in his country. Picture: Bruno Fonseca/AP

Johannesburg – On a continent where ruling elites have amassed vast wealth through dubious means while millions languish in poverty, Angola’s new president is finally cracking the whip.

To be sure, Africa does not hold a monopoly on prominent families blurring the line between political and business activities.

US President Donald Trump appointed his daughter and her husband as senior advisors in his administration, and critics have accused the Trumps of leveraging political office for financial gain.

Still, many say the problem is more endemic in Africa. From Angola to South Africa and Zimbabwe, families and close associates of politicians who played pivotal roles in fighting European colonial rule have often been accused of using those connections to get ahead.

Former Angolan President José Eduardo dos Santos, who led the former Portuguese colony from 1979 to 2017, amassed sizable wealth during his rule and appointed his children to influential positions at state companies, earning a reputation as one of Africa’s shadiest leaders.

Bold moves

Since taking over power last year, his successor, João Lourenço has set about loosening the dos Santos family’s grip on the Angolan economy with a vow to tackle corruption in the oil-rich but struggling African country.

Lourenço removed dos Santos’ daughter Isabel, reported by Forbes to be the richest woman in Africa with a net worth of about $2.6 billion, from her post as head of state oil company Sonangol, which she had held for a year.

The new president also unceremoniously dumped dos Santo’s son José Filomeno as boss of Angola’s $5 billion sovereign wealth fund, a position handed to him by his father in 2013.

Last week, the Finance Ministry said Filomeno was allegedly involved in a scheme to skim off $1.5 billion from the fund. Prosecutors have charged him, together with former Bank of Angola governor Valter Filipe da Silva, of fraud, misappropriation of funds and money laundering.

For her part, Isabel dos Santos has rejected accusations that she oversaw massive corruption at state-owned Sonangol, which has launched a probe into suspicious financial transfers worth millions of dollars.

Lourenço’s bold moves have allayed fears he would be hamstrung because the senior dos Santos remains leader of the People's Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), which has been in power since independence in 1975.

IMF applauds Angola

Lourenço’s hardline stance is already paying dividends.

Earlier this week, the International Monetary Fund said the Angolan government had “taken important steps toward improving governance and restoring macroeconomic stability”.

The Fund said it stood ready to help the southern African country address its economic challenges by supporting steps to improve governance, diversify the economy and promote growth.

Already Angola’s economy, hit by weak oil prices in recent years, is experiencing a mild recovery, the IMF said. A more benign outlook for global oil prices opens a window of opportunity to strengthen macroeconomic policies.

The crackdown has apparently caught on elsewhere in the region.

In South Africa, former South African president Jacob Zuma, who was forced to step down in February, is due to face corruption charges, which he had dodged for years, over an arms deal.

Zuma’s son Duduzane, who went into business with a wealthy family accused of leveraging ties with the former president to unduly influence the government and state companies, has been implicated in alleged fraud committed by politicians and businesspeople who skimmed millions off a dairy farm project meant to benefit emerging black farmers.

In Zimbabwe, former president Robert Mugabe, who was forced to step down after a 37-year reign during which a once-vibrant economy collapsed, has reportedly been summoned before parliament to answer questions on the looting of the country’s diamond fields. 

Still a way to go

It’s not all roses and sunshine yet in Angola.

Critics say corruption remains widespread in a country with inadequate checks and balances as well as a lingering culture of impunity. Gifts and “facilitation payments” are still a common part of doing business in Angola.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) this week condemned a decision by authorities to hold behind closed doors the trial of journalist Rafael Marques de Morais, who runs the anti-corruption news website Maka Angola, and Mariano Bras Lourenco, a correspondent for the newspaper O Crime.

De Morais is on trial over a story he published in 2016, which was republished by O Crime, implicating then-Attorney General Joao Maria de Sousa in a suspect land deal.

De Sousa, who filed charges against the two journalists, has refused to appear in open court, claiming he has special privileges.

These developments “flout the basic right to equality before the law and call into question whether the state has something to hide,” the CPJ said, calling for a fair and transparent trial.

* Stella Mapenzauswa is a journalist and media consultant who has covered economics and politics in southern Africa, particularly Zimbabwe and South Africa, for more than two decades. She has also conducted training workshops for journalists.