40 Years On… The Boys are Back

Shrugging off the legal challenges to her appointment as President of the Board of Director of Sonangol, the President’s daughter, Isabel dos Santos, has lost no time in showing how she means to restructure the state oil company.  Her first task has been to recruit 120 Portuguese staff to senior positions.

The new recruits will join a further 50 consultants – also mostly Portuguese nationals – currently working as consultants and advisers to Isabel on behalf of the Boston Consulting Group and the Portuguese law firm Vieira de Almeida, who in effect are jointly running the Angolan state firm at this point.

The arrival of the Portuguese contingent to take over at the Angolan state oil company raises some interesting points:  firstly, the total absence of any national or international recruitment campaign and the lack of any attempt at dialogue between the managers and workers at Sonangol points to the same lack of transparency as always.

Secondly, the presidential family that has benefited so greatly from the country’s main source of income and foreign exchange is handing control of this valuable resource to a group of Portuguese professionals who are unlikely to have the Angolan peoples’ best interests at heart.

40 years after securing their independence from Portugal, don’t the Angolans deserve to know whether these individuals have the right combination of expertise and competence? How did they come to be selected? Why are they all foreign nationals?  And why are they all Portuguese?

Foreign experts have been hired to work in Sonangol many times over the years. However, could they really find no qualified Angolans to fill any of these positions? In 40 years of independence and 37 years of rule by Jose Eduardo dos Santos, has Angola really not produced homegrown experts in oil and gas with something to offer in re-structuring Sonangol? The company alone has spent tens of millions of US dollars each year in sending Angolans abroad to study, even when there were no positions waiting to be filled. Maka Angola knows of at least one case in which 50 Sonangol officials were sent West for training and then spent three years receiving their salaries without being assigned to any position.

No doubt the blame for everything that has gone before will be thrown at the former Sonangol CEO Manuel Vicente, who made a point of preferring a foreign education to setting up homegrown courses for Angolans.  Or was this just a ploy to ensure that the most intelligent, ethical and patriotic Angolans would be too distracted to notice that the presidential family were shamelessly looting the company? This is the same Manuel Vicente who was lauded as one of Africa’s most outstanding corporate managers, until he was kicked upstairs in 2012 with the title of Vice-President of the Republic.

Isabel clearly daren’t trust the books to well-educated Angolans, instead she has foisted on the company a group of Portuguese ‘experts’ who on a daily basis shock the existing Sonangol technical staff with their utter ignorance and inexperience. Apparently they see themselves as having come to Angola to learn – not to impart wisdom and their business cards humbly proclaim them as interns.

All the evidence suggests that Isabel remains wedded to the notion that foreign consultants are more trustworthy than Angolan nationals.   It’s a mindset that sets aside the idea of adopting policies and procedures that would contribute to the recruitment and promotion of Angola’s best, or to open up Sonangol’s jobs to genuine international competition to ensure that only the best are hired.

Meanwhile the Angolan public knows that Sonangol is on the brink of bankruptcy – the President admitted as much when he recently revealed that the oil company had made no contributions to the 2016 state budget since January.

Why would a company heading for bankruptcy begin a restructuring process by adding millions of US dollars per year to the books for expatriates, instead of streamlining the staff first?  And why is it that the new administration hasn’t published any plan as to how to get it back on track?

Then too there is the question of sovereignty. A state-owned company that brings in a staggering 90% of Angola’s foreign income is clearly an icon of national sovereignty.  Why then would it be handed over to foreign administrators?

Anyone who read the recent commentary by Angolan sociologist João Paulo Ganga defending the nepotistic appointment of Isabel as “an act of defence of national sovereignty against Portugal” must be reeling in confusion – or do they believe that the defence of Angolan national sovereignty is exactly the same thing as the defence of the interests of the presidential family?

Evidently they have not been sitting in on Sonangol’s recent administrative meetings, which have all been chaired by a newcomer, the 43 year-old Portuguese citizen Mário Filipe Moreira Leite da Silva who is the CEO of Isabel dos Santos’ private business empire.  Some people now suspect that Isabel is in fact a non-executive administrator, leaving the day-to-day decision-making to Mário Moreira who must surely have been placed in a conflict of interest, given his role in Isabel’s private matters. And yet the evidence is that Isabel can arrive two hours late for a board meeting being addressed by Mário, who doesn’t even pause to acknowledge her before continuing with his presentation.

This is such a strange state of affairs that some commentators believe it goes far beyond nepotism or a conflict of interest.  The President and his daughter do what they want.  And no-one says or does a thing about it.

So what next?  Will responsibility for restructuring the Angolan Armed Forces be delegated to the Chinese?  Will the President’s son José Paulino dos Santos “Coreon Du” be named Chief of Staff.  Will the restructuring of the National Police be entrusted to neighbouring Congo?  Could the president’s Congolese-Danish son-in-law Sindika Dokolo be put in charge of that?  Well this is Angola.  Stranger things have happened.