Justice Capture in Angola

President Lourenço has weaponized the judicial system to mete out political retribution against his personal enemies, principally his predecessor’s family members and closest associates. The unequal application of justice gives every appearance of protection for some of the most notoriously corrupt public officials, in exchange for their allegiance.

A few days ago, Angola’s Criminal Investigation Service arrested a young man, Flávio Caiongo, over a TikTok video.

His crime? Calling our President Lourenço a “thief”.

His TikTok was critical of the poor rule that plagues Angola, and has left so many of my fellow Angolans hungry. As I stand here, the authorities are still hunting down the other two people who took part in it.

It’s ironic.

Twenty-three years ago, Angola’s then President, José Eduardo dos Santos, put me in jail for calling his régime “corrupt”.

When President Lourenço succeeded him in 2017, he promised change: an end to kleptocracy, respect for the rights of civil society, and to guarantee for freedom of speech.

Well, so much for the “war on corruption” that he defined as the hallmark of his first term of office! So much for freedom of expression!

What has happened since 2017, that has caused him to nix his commitment to fair and transparent rule? What can we learn from the gap between intention and outcome? I would point to three crucial issues: leadership, state-building, and the capacity to deliver.

President Lourenço talked the talk but did not walk the walk. In his first six months in office, he built a momentum for change that won him widespread public support, including my own. But he failed to inspire the necessary cohesion between institutions and the people to achieve his goals. His tentative engagement with civil society, in all its disparate forms, should have informed him that state-building required collaboration. Was he listening? Or just going through the motions of hearing other opinions? Where was the leadership to harness that public support to effect lasting change?

The Lourenço Administration surely needed to kickstart the transition with structural reform. The institutionalized corruption of the Dos Santos years had undermined state institutions and torn apart the social fabric. President Lourenço’s first mistake was a failure to build the capacity to deliver, thus exposing the vulnerabilities of a regime of patronage that was turning Angola into a failed state.

Corruption is complex and takes different forms across the globe, according to each country’s power and kinship structures. The usual remedies – sanctions, campaigns, elections, the use of the judiciary to prosecute the guilty and recover assets – are not necessarily effective. There is no ‘one-size-fits-all solution’.

In Angola, the existing system of patronage and reward promotes corruption. Take the scale of public sector salaries and benefits: it is a built-in, institutional mechanism for mass-producing thieves from the top down. For example, the official salary of the Angolan President, a man with the final say over a 37 billion US dollar annual state budget, is a mere 12 hundred dollars a month.

Is it any surprise then, that in the absence of structural reform, President Lourenço ended up weakening state institutions, notably the judiciary, and reinforcing the same conditions that created the kleptocracy? Let me explain.

In my capacity as the founder of a website that publishes investigative journalism, in the past I was routinely harassed and prosecuted for exposing government corruption and misdeeds. But after President Lourenço took office, I was summoned several times by the Office of Public Prosecution to share information, with promises that the authorities would follow up on these exposés. While this offered some relief to me personally, sadly the end result has been the same.

There is no separation of powers, so the Judiciary is not independent. Despite mounting evidence of corruption, the decision as to whether cases end up shelved, stalled or proceed to court hearings remains a political one. The powerful and well-connected continue to enjoy impunity. There is no palpable change, therefore, no justice.

Here’s just one example.

Last May, Judge Daniel Modesto – who heads the criminal chamber of the Supreme Court – secretly dismissed seven indictments against one of the most notoriously corrupt generals in the country, Higino Carneiro. Judge Modesto did this behind the backs of the plenary of the Supreme Court and without informing the appointed trial court judge.

Maka Angola revealed the internal battle: the outrage expressed by other Supreme Court judges, who described Judge Modesto’s dismissal of the Carneiro Case as illegal and demanded the issue be put before the Supreme Court plenary. However, their demand was simply ignored by Angola’s Chief Justice, Brigadier Joel Leonardo, a man repeatedly exposed for corrupt and tyrannical behaviour who remains, somehow, immune from any consequences of his actions. Instead of summoning the plenary to examine Judge Modesto’s action, Chief Justice Leonardo suspended the most outspoken critic, Supreme Court Judge Agostinho Santos, who is currently barred from Supreme Court premises over unfounded accusations of “non-compliance with the duty of courtesy”.

This farce, tragically, is only one example of how Angola’s judiciary has become an epicentre of corruption, openly encouraged by the Lourenço Administration. In defiance of the constitutional obligation of judicial impartiality, Presidential Decree 69/21 authorizes the Office of the Attorney General and the Courts to divide among themselves 10% of all recovered assets – a ‘reward’ for judicial seizure that amounts to a conflict of interest.

Furthermore, the government funds multi-million-dollar houses and apartments as a perk for the justices of the superior courts. Maka Angola reported in detail on one such case, ironically involving the official in charge of Angola’s Court of Audit – the Angolan equivalent of the United States Government’s Accountability Office (the GAO). Economist Exalgina Gâmboa not only benefited from two houses supplied to her by the Angolan government at the cost of seven million US dollars. She then went on to divert an extra four million dollars from the official Audit Court budget to equip her residence with luxury furnishings.

In effect, President Lourenço has weaponized the judicial system to mete out political retribution against his personal enemies, principally his predecessor’s family members and closest associates. The unequal application of justice gives every appearance of protection for some of the most notoriously corrupt public officials, in exchange for their allegiance. As the WHO’s lyric goes… “Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss”.

What can be done to change this situation? Former enemies can become powerful allies. More than twenty years after the then superpowers conducted a proxy war in Angola, it is past time to end the divide-and-rule, winner-takes-all model of power inherited from decades of conflict. As the former US President Barack Obama said in Ghana in 2009: “Africa doesn’t need strongmen, it needs strong institutions.”

* Full text prepared for the panel on Promoting Anti-Corruption Reform and Accountability of the U.S-Africa Leaders Summit: Civil Society Forum held at the United States Institute of Peace, Washington D.C, on December 13, 2022.