Isaias Samakuva’s Fortune and the Call for Transparency

By Rob Pires:

It all began with a photograph, published on facebook, of a house in a drab London suburb. A well-known pro-government social media activist, who goes by the name of ManDavid, claimed that it belonged to the UNITA leader, Isaias Samakuva. The UNITA leader, went the argument, was not poor. Several locations picked up on, a website that gives London addresses, were connected to people with the Samakuva surname. The activist claimed that the UNITA leader had bought all these London properties with party funds.

The UNITA leader’s response was swift. He claimed that he was not “farinha do mesmo saco” (“flower from the same bag”) as his opponents in the ruling party. There have been well-documented allegations of corruption against several members of the ruling party.

Samakuva claimed that he was going to declare all his possessions before June 19. True to his word, the UNITA leader published a list his assets, which add up to slightly under US $400 thousand. Many ordinary people lauded his gesture and wondered who would follow this initiative.

But not all were impressed by Samakuva’s openness. Some noted that assets could easily be hidden under close relative names. They called on all of Samakuva’s close relatives to reveal their worldly possessions. They do, indeed, have a point. In the eighties and early nineties, Samakuva was UNITA’s principal London-based treasurer. He would certainly not have many difficulties in stashing aways millions. In any case, many thought this was a positive move towards creating a culture of transparency.

In the higher rungs of the Angolan political and financial elite, opaque practices are almost seen as a virtue. For many high-ranking Angolans, secrecy seems to be at the heart of most business practices. In some Angolan establishments – restaurants, hotels, companies – asking who the owners are is a highly delicate question. A hotel is likely to be empty for most of the month. Suddenly, it will burst into activities and make much money because its distant owners will have arranged a conference for which they will charge exorbitantly high charges. A restaurant will see customers directed to it, and its inflated bills promptly paid. Some key figure in a government department connected to the restaurant will have directed the clients.

This lack of openness stifles all competition. Officially, the previously Marxist-Leninist state operates now in a free market economy, and, at least in theory, there is a private sector that is supposed to thrive on competition. In this brave new world, entrepreneurs are supposed to identify opportunities or needs, and devise ways of satisfying those needs. The private sector is, therefore, supposed to be filled with efficient, resourceful and determined individuals who would energize the national economy.

But in reality, there is hardly any division between the private sector and the government. Several individuals use their government positions to favour their private sector interests. Government officials will, for instance, offer contracts worth thousands of dollars to companies they control. In the process they make colossal tunes.

The Angolan government insists on there being an Angolan share on any major investment ventures. The idea is that there must be some local empowerment. The danger is that those benefiting from the local empowerment are often those who have to decide on the ventures. This conflict of interests results in further secrecy and lack of transparency. In the end, the government ends up being nothing more than a structure to promote and sustain businesses of specific groups and individuals.

The kind of transparency shown by Isaías Samakuva would undermine this corrupt culture.

In a culture, for instance, where political leaders are supposed to regularly declare their assets, eyebrows would certainly be raised if a minister in charge of the environment was found to be a shareholder of a mining company that was solely interested in profits. In this situation, the minister would be mainly interested in his rewards and not in the welfare of the rest of the society. Politicians are there to serve the interests of the society and not take advantage of their positions to enrich themselves.

Isaias Samakuva move will certainly bring attention, once again, to the question of how Angolan politicians are making fortunes. President Dos Santos has, on several occasions, admitted that corruption had, indeed, become a major menace in the country. In November 2009, he unveiled a zero-tolerance policy against corruption. So far, despite overwhelming evidence against people close to him, no major single person has been brought before the courts for corruption.

Furthermore, since June 2010, public officials are legally required to submit their declaration of assets to the Office of the Attorney-General.Failure to do so or providing false statements can result in sanctions, including dismissal and criminal charges. Although this measure looks good on paper, the fact of the matter is that such declarations are treated as state secrets, and the public has no idea on whether the public officials, including the president, have, in fact, filed their papers or not.

Samakuva has shown that leaders should lead by example. It is not just a matter of making fine speeches whose content is forgotten as soon as they are put aside. Abel Chivukuvuku, the leader of CASA, a newly founded electoral coalition, had declared his assets in the past. These included a building worth millions of dollars. How he got the money to afford such valuable real estate remains a big question. Suffice it to say that Chivukuvuku’s name was once featured among prominent figures that had not repaid their loans to a bank that had gone bankrupt. There are certainly few saints in the Angolan political elite. However, Samakuva’s gesture has suddenly prompted Angolans to start asking about who will follow next.