Angola’s House of Cards

Angola’s Vice-President, Manuel Vicente, is reportedly under investigation in Portugal over allegations that he bribed a Portuguese public prosecutor, Orlando Figueira, to put an end to scrutiny of his murky affairs in the country.

Oddly, the Angolan authorities have been silent about this affair.

This is a noteworthy change of tactics. After all, this is Portugal, where Manuel Vicente has been lauded as a world-class leader and manager while he helped enrich any number of opportunists and carpetbaggers.  Equally, there seems to be no sudden rush to “protect Portuguese interests in Angola”.  This is odd.  Has he been hung out to dry?

It appears that Manuel Vicente placed too much trust in the invincibility of José Eduardo dos Santos. Above all, he trusted in the impunity assured by the Angolan president to those loyal to him as they too were granted a role in the pillaging.  Did he overstep?  It’s one thing to help oneself to riches inside Angola itself, but the Angolan elite has pursued many other adventures around the world, including the frenzied acquisition of assets in Portugal itself.

In 2012, Manuel Vicente gave a rare interview to The Financial Times, which unveiled the extent of his arrogance.   In response to a question about the legal problems facing European and American companies over kickbacks to the Angolan authorities, he sniggered,  “It is their problem, they have to resolve it.”

The relationship between Portuguese entrepreneurs and senior figures in the Angolan regime has been entirely shaped by corruption.  Just like the relationship between Angolan MPLA elite and the Angolan people. For too long they got away with it.  But times are changing.   The magic elixir that guaranteed the MPLA their lengthy grip in power, with the rest of the world bowing before them, has become a toxic potion which threatens to strip them of immunity before the law.

It is worth examining the factors that prompted the Portuguese authorities to act: firstly (and it is no coincidence) that the change of heart accompanied the change of government from the Social Democrats to the Socialists.

When the price of oil was over US $100 per barrel, Portugal was a beneficiary of Angolan corruption as large amounts of money extracted from the Angolan economy (in part thanks to extraordinary overbilling) was remitted back into the Portuguese coffers.  Tens of thousands of Portuguese citizens were encouraged to take well-paying jobs in Angola at a time of recession at home.

There were mutual advantages.  For the Angolan elite, there was the illusion of a karmic revenge: by buying a hefty stake in the media, banking industry and other valued businesses, they believed that they were buying into Portugal itself and could be calling the shots over the former colonial master.

For Portugal, it was the mirage of an ‘El Dorado’.  Angola was the new safe haven for mass Portuguese migration (for decades, remittances home from Portuguese migrants was a determining factor in its balance of payments).  Angola now came second only to France as a source of remittance income.

With the fall of the price of oil, the illusion has withered.  Corruption in Angola suddenly became too expensive for Portugal.  Take the case of the pillaging of the Portuguese banking institution BES, by its Angolan subsidiary BESA (Banco Espirito Santo Angola).  The Angolan elite distributed among itself over US $3 billion that will never be repaid. The final bill will end up being paid by long-suffering Portuguese taxpayers.

Meanwhile thousands of Portuguese workers in Angola went unpaid, for months at a time.  Multimillion-dollar construction projects creaked to a halt.  Debt owed to Portuguese companies attained alarming portions.   By 2016, the net benefit to Portugal was disappearing as quickly as a September ‘cacimbo’ mist in the hot Angolan sun.

Eventually, there is no other solution than to confront the beast. The million Euros bribe for a short while improved the lifestyle of Portuguese prosecutor Orlando Figueira. Now he is in jail. He has become a clear example of how one man’s selfishness can bring into question the credibility of an entire institution: The Portuguese justice system.

It is ironic now to recall the public apology from former Portuguese Foreign minister, Rui Machete, to Angolan leaders who had come under investigation in Portugal.  Behind the scenes, he was protecting the business interests of the next generation: his son, Miguel Machete, and José Paulino dos Santos (aka ‘Coreon Du’), the son of Angola’s President are business partners.  This was the level of the promiscuous conflict of interest.

The current Portuguese minister of Foreign Affairs, Santos Silva, has taken a completely different stance:  “I have nothing to say.  It is worth noting that, quite rightly, our constitution foresees a separation of powers, which includes an independent judiciary,” he said to the press.

Bad luck never comes alone. The case of Manuel Vicente heralds the ruin of the Dos Santos regime in the international arena.  His diplomatic and economic interests are centred on three most important countries: Portugal, Brazil and China.

Last October, China detained Sam Pa, the Chinese national who was for many years their link to the Angolan president.  Not just Vice-President Manuel Vicente, but General Hélder Vieira Dias “Kopelipa” and even the President himself had invested too much in Sam Pa.

Maka Angola has had access to documents that show that between 2005 and 2010, the sale of Angolan oil to China amounted to US $85 billion.  One detailed report says that a staggering US $25.7 billion of this was divided up between the Angolan leaders through a scheme dreamt up by Sam Pa.

Meanwhile across the Atlantic in Brazil, Operation Lava Jato (Operation Car Wash, carried out by the Curitiba-based Federal Police into widespread money laundering and corruption) is revealing how the Angolan regime infiltrated Brazilian politics, through the giant Odebrecht corporation.

Then, the police detained the Brazilian married couple João Santana and Mónica Moura, who organized the MPLA political campaign in 2012. They revealed that the MPLA contributed an undeclared payment of US $20 million to the US $50 million Odebrecht put into political campaigns in Brazil. Even former President Lula has been caught in the corrupt web spun by the Angolan government.

Will this be the Sword of Damocles that eventually leads to the ruin of José Eduardo dos Santos and his venal entourage?   Perhaps Angola does not have to depend on youthful dissidents or a military uprising to overthrow the kleptocracy.  All the signs point to an over-reach that is leading inexorably to self-destruction.