They called me crazy!

They called me crazy! They also branded me “frustrated”, “anti-patriotic”, “a CIA agent”, “a sell-out”, and “a traitor”.

I endured endless political harassment and countless run-ins with the police.

I had to cope with smear campaigns, economic deprivation and social isolation.

I was put on trial for exposing their human rights abuse and corruption.

Who are “they”?  “They” are the members of the Dos Santos Administration:  the individuals who were the beneficiaries of, and accomplices in, then-President José Eduardo dos Santos’s regime.  They’re the ones who embodied the institutionalized corruption and the state capture of the economy, the repression and the fear that pervaded Angola during the 38 years Dos Santos held power.

Then in September 2017, Dos Santos’s chosen successor João Lourenço was elected President and decided that the stench of corruption was too much to bear. The result is that a number of high-profile and high-ranking malcreants within his own ruling MPLA, are finally being held accountable after decades of plundering the country with impunity .  Dos Santos’ own son has been sitting in jail for the past six months for plundering billions of dollars from the country’s Sovereign Wealth Fund.

The MPLA has been Angola’s only ruling party since independence in 1975.

Ironically, those who want to smear, attack or deride me for continuing to hold my ground against corruption, now call me “the president’s friend”.

Before I explain why, I should say how mindful I am that the Oslo Freedom Forum is an inspirational space made up of dissidents. But this time, I have not come as a dissident, to share a story of a regime harassing, attacking or persecuting me.

Instead, I am here to share hope, to talk about a window of opportunity for change that can take place in a seemingly intractable African regime.

On December 4t last year, I had an hour-long meeting with President Lourenço. He started off by making a public apology – in full view of the media representatives gathered to record the moment – for an incident that had taken place the day before.  Along with other members of a civil society delegation, I had been invited to meet the President, only to find that his subordinates refused me entrance to the palace.  I was singled out, and excluded from honouring the President’s personal invitation to meet with him.

Somehow, I was still public enemy number one for some in the MPLA regime.  Many people were unhappy that the President had reached out to me and was willing to engage with me to address the issues of corruption and human rights abuse in the country.

Those who benefited under the previous regime are startled to see the President denouncing the greed of his own peers.  His party comrades had previously captured the state for themselves and thought they could control him and maintain the status quo.  Instead they have seen him act as an agent provocateur.

President Lourenço  encouraged me to continue my work of exposing corruption, and to file the relevant evidence with the Office of the Attorney General for formal investigation, and to continue to act as I have done in the past to help educate citizens about the rule of law and to rile up the corrupt. I came out of that meeting with the President with the only assurance I need to do an even better job. The state apparatus will let me be.

Rafael Marques and Presidente João Lourenço at the meeting in December 5

This time, my friends here at the Oslo Freedom Forum can’t rib me for always being on trial, as has happened during the past three of its events I attended.

Just a few days ago, I helped a grieving family deliver a letter to the Office of the President, to call him out for having promoted two men denounced as torturers to senior ranks and positions in the Criminal Investigation Service.  In December 2015, these two men personally took part in the torture of an Angolan citizen named João Alfredo Dala. During a brutal interrogation that went on for fifteen hours straight, they even mutilated his genitals. Mr Dala died later as a direct result of the injuries received according to an autopsy. 

I had already brought up this issue with the President. He told me that he had not received any briefing suggesting such behaviour by the men prior to his decision, nor had any members of the Council on Defense and Security expressed any reservation about their eligibility for promotion.

The President’s chief of staff met with Mr Dala’s grieving family and personally received the letter. And, when those family members told him they intended to make their letter public, he encouraged them to do so, and has promised there will be a prompt official response.

Well, in 2017 when I published a report – Angola’s Killing Fields:  A Report on Extrajudicial Executions in Luanda 2016-17 on systemic extra-judicial killings carried out by operatives from the Criminal Investigation Service, President Lourenço ordered the setting up of a commission of enquiry. I had the task of organizing the space for the commission to hear the survivors, witnesses and relatives, whose presence I had to arrange at personal cost.

It was a significant step forward.  But I am still waiting for any official outcome and I am becoming impatient.

For too long, the Dos Santos regime, as with many other kleptocracies, thrived on the strategy of divide-and-rule.  A corrupt cabal united around the President were complicit in enriching themselves and abusing their power to instil fear in the populace at large. Many of these throwbacks to the ancient regime are now trying to muster support within the ruling party to resist President Lourenço’s anti-corruption effort.

There is a common refrain:  that no one, not even the current President himself, has clean hands to judge anyone.

Some don’t believe the President’s fight against corruption is genuine.

Others resort to attempted blackmail, arguing that their actions were at the behest of, and for the benefit of, the ruling party: that their misappropriation of public funds was so the MPLA could win – that is to say, rig – elections.

And those high-ranking MPLA members being lined up for questioning regarding their own criminal deeds, who previously ignored the suffering of others in a skewed justice system, have suddenly become the fiercest advocates of the rule of law.

Too many worry that going ahead with the prosecution of senior figures will have dire consequences for the governing party – and for the country.

The bottom line is this:  they want things to stay the same. And they are dangerous.

I support the President’s anti-corruption agenda. It provides a platform to moralize society and bring the reign of impunity to an end. It is a good starting point for building a coalition for change in Angola, for a future beyond perpetual rule by the MPLA. But, as a concerned citizen, I am wary of the president’s Achilles’ heel: the economy.

For the fight against corruption to be successful in the long-term, the public administration must be reformed with two imperatives:

  • The first must be to establish a system of meritocracy as the effective way to root out cronyism, nepotism and criminal incompetence.
  • The second must be to adopt a holistic approach in tackling the moribund economy, in which almost every sector is still either controlled by the state or by current and former corrupt state officials, some of whom are currently under investigation.

I believe the president needs a radical agenda.  He could start by renewing his economic team to remove those who are either incompetent or who are wilfully maintaining the status quo. An economic plan that creates jobs and adjusts pay scales so that people can honestly believe that their standard of living will improve, is crucial to his eventual success. 

This fight for economic rights and justice must become the driving force for all of us, whether in government, opposition or civil society, if we are to meet and build bridges for real change.

*This is an edited version of the talk delivered at the Oslo Freedom Forum in Mexico City, on February 26, 2019.