Manuel Vicente’s Raid on Sonangol

In 2008, Manuel Vicente, the chairman of the board and director general of the Angolan state oil company, Sonangol, restructured the company’s main subsidiaries to his personal benefit.

The same year, petroleum exports exceeded $62 billion, according to the World Bank: 97.7% of Angola’s exports. These figures demonstrate the crucial role of Sonangol in the country’s political economy, as the only Angolan concession-holder in the industry.

Manuel Vicente did a business deal with himself when he illegally transferred a percentage of Sonangol Holding into his own name, thus making himself a formal (private) shareholder in almost all the multi-million dollar deals of a state-owned business. This move by Sonangol’s top manager must first be put into context in the light of current legislation and the MPLA’s rhetoric on the supposed zero tolerance policy towards corruption.

On 30 March 2010, the President of the Republic, José Eduardo dos Santos, signed into force the Law on Administrative Probity, which is intended to combat corruption. The law harmonises and updates provisions that are scattered among various current legal provisions, including the Law on Crimes Committed by Public Office Bearers (Law 21/90) and the Law on State Discipline (Law 22/90). These laws in themselves ought to be enough to stop the large-scale looting of public assets by political leaders and public officials.

Nevertheless, through its outright control of the judicial system, the MPLA ensures that these laws are never applied. So it would be wrong to see the new law as demonstrating the 35-year-old regime’s political will to separate public interests from the private interests of its leaders. The Law on Administrative Probity appears instead to be a challenge to citizens, who need to invoke the laws that exist, and demand that their leaders give account of how public money and assets are managed. Citizens should take greater moral and political responsibility for the management of wealth that belongs to all Angolans.

The transfer

On 24 July 2008, Manuel Vicente restructured Sonangol’s charter and completely changed Sonangol Holding’s social pact, and transferred a percentage of the shareholding that had previously been solely owned by the state company to his own name.

Sonangol Holding Ltd is a subsidiary of Songanol that was created in 2004. Its current social objective is “to carry out commercial and industrial activities, to manage the share portfolio itself, and to provide technical and administrative services to the designated companies”. Sonangol Holding also holds shares in other companies. In brief, Sonangol Holding controls the group’s subsidiaries.

As part of the restructuring process, Manuel Vicente arranged his own private participation in the main subsidiaries of the country’s largest private enterprise.

  • On 23 July 2008, Sonangol transferred  to Sonangol Holding 10% of its shares in Sonair: an aviation company that is 90% owned by Sonangol, and which mostly serves petroleum multinationals and also operates executive flights, including flights for the President of the Republic. This administrative deal happened the day before a percentage of Sonangol Holding was transferred to Manuel Vicente.
  • On 24 July 2008, Sonangol Research and Production increased its public shareholding and admitted a new shareholder, Sonangol Holding, as well as restructuring its social pact. Sonangol Research and Production is the subsidiary responsible for prospecting, research, and the production of hydrocarbons. This makes it the most important source of revenue for Sonangol, which holds 90% of its shares, while Sonangol Holding holds the remaining 10%.

The case of Sonangol Research and Production deserves more attention. The 10% that Manuel Vicente transferred to Sonangol Holding had, since 1992, belonged to Albina Assis, who at the time was Minister of Petroleum and who is now an adviser to the President of the Republic. She supposedly held the shares as the representative of the company’s employees and other beneficiaries.