The MPLA: Speeding Angola up or holding it back?

The MPLA Political Bureau has welcomed the government’s program to speed up the diversification of the national economy, beyond its current domination by the petroleum industry. The Politburo’s statement on 31 March made a special recommendation: that the government should train the personnel necessary to put the plan into practice. However, there is a contradiction here that needs to be analyzed.

Let’s start with the idea of “speeding up”. As long ago as 12 February 2009, President José Eduardo dos Santos said “it is necessary to speed up economic diversification by making and promoting investments in other areas of production”. Four years later, the idea of speeding up economic diversification was incorporated into the National Development Plan for 2013-2017, of which implementation began last year. If it is indeed a process of acceleration, it has been a very slow one.

As its priorities for economic diversification, the plan aims to promote competitiveness and co-ordination between public and private investment. From the government’s point of view, the program’s viability depends on building a strong Angolan private investment sector. This is why its project included “the promotion of entrepreneurship and development of the national private sector”.

The fundamental contradiction lies, first of all, in the fact that power is becoming ever more centralized and concentrated. This centralization, as I have argued in my thesis on “The Transparency of Looting in Angola”, is transferred from the state to the private realm of the president and his inner circle. A consequence of this is the conflation of state interests with rulers’ private interests, to the point where they have become mutually indistinguishable.

This is what has allowed the rulers themselves to become the main business people and investors in Angola, so that their private interests overrule the national interest. The state coffers have become in effect their private purses.

This convolution of public and private of interests is inimical to any type of competitiveness. The telecommunications industry provides a typical example. The mobile phone service provider Movicel, which had been one of the biggest state enterprises, was privatized in 2009 to the benefit of political leaders. Today the mobile phone services in Angola are provided by a duopoly of Movicel and Unitel, both of which are owned by political leaders and their families and the state itself. Since customers have no alternative, the companies can charge exorbitant prices for mediocre services.

Angolan citizens outside the circles of power generally do not have the freedom to add value to the national economy by taking the initiative of private enterprise. Even if they try, the regulatory framework is enough to stifle their creativity, their ambition and the possibility of expanding their business.

In key sectors of the economy such as petroleum, it is already common practice for state officials to allow foreign investors’ access to the Angolan market only on condition that a percentage of the shares be allocated to shell companies owned by the officials themselves.

Another interesting point from the MPLA Politburo’s statement is the way in which it encourages the executive “to implement the [economic diversification] program rigorously and firmly, so as to reduce the national economy’s dependence on the petroleum sector”. To this end, the Politburo “recommends special attention to specialist training so as to supply the qualified personnel needed by the program”.

A public statement by the MPLA parliamentary bench in November referred to the approval of the General State Budget for 2014 as a continuation of the National Development Plan. This is where the confusion lies. First, the head of the government, who introduced the Politburo’s plan, is also the leader of the MPLA, José Eduardo dos Santos. Who, then, is demanding rigor and firmness from whom? Or is it simply a matter of rhetoric? Dos Santos demanding rigor and firmness of himself?

Second, how can one train specialists in time for them to be employed in a fast-track economic diversification program? The specialists the MPLA is referring to need higher education. A university course takes at least four years, and even after that one cannot be sure that graduates will immediately have the relevant professional skills.

The other major problem is that the level of professional training has to do with the MPLA’s specialist committees. Where it comes to appointing people to work in the state administration, party membership and cronyism are more important than professional competence. Nothing is being done to end the partisan nature of the state.

The appointment of Kundi Paihama as the governor of Huambo province is proof of how the president operates. Huambo was once Angola’s second industrial center, but Paihama is incapable of doing anything but spreading terror and promoting monopolies. He should have retired when he turned 70. Although there is no shortage of well-trained young people, the MPLA continues to rely on the old guard, which has no vision or new ideas for the country.

Above all, the MPLA and its president must clean up the state administration by rigorously enforcing the separation of private and state interests. They must then press ahead with devolving powers. The structure of the economy will change only once power has been decentralized through thoroughgoing reforms in the state apparatus. This is essential if there is to be an effective separation of powers between the legislature, the executive and the judiciary, as well as the exercise of checks and balances to maintain accountability over the actions of government.

Realistically, all this will be possible only in the post-Dos Santos era. President dos Santos himself is the main obstacle to the reforms the country needs.