Do these events mark a sharper turn toward democratic and fair governance in Angola? Maybe. Their immediate purpose is more calculated: Lourenço needs to attract foreign investors and shore up public support for his party. I will explain below.
Is Lourenço shepherding in a new era for Angola?
Lourenço has been in the hot seat since his election in 2017. Selected by José Eduardo dos Santos to be his successor, Lourenço inherited a struggling economy and a frustrated population.
Lourenço’s party, the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola, has controlled Angola since the end of the country’s civil war in 2002. But the party is losing popularity. The MPLA received 61 percent of the popular vote in the 2017 election, down from 81 percent in 2008 and 72 percent in 2012. The president knows he must rebuild support for his party before the next round of elections.
Recently, the anti-corruption campaign has had more bark than bite. For instance, in 2018, the Angolan government detained José Filomeno dos Santos and his Swiss-Angolan business partner Jean-Claude Bastos on charges of fraud. Both men walked free last year, and some observers have wondered whether Lourenço is simply replacing one kleptocracy with another.
With a sluggish economy and elections coming up, Lourenço’s anti-corruption campaign becomes urgent
Lourenço is racing the clock to convince Angolan voters and foreign investors that his leadership is ushering Angola into a new era.
The country is preparing for its first municipal elections, scheduled for later this year. Lourenço also has his eye on the 2022 national elections. In both contests, Lourenço and the MPLA face an emboldened opposition led by the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) and its new leader, Adalberto da Costa Júnior. The coming elections offer Angolan voters a chance to express the degree of their confidence that the president is capable of delivering on his lofty promises. And Lourenço knows it.
In 2017, Lourenço ran for office on a reform agenda, with the slogan, “Improve what is good, change what is bad.” And there have been some notable successes. According to ANGOP, the state-run news agency, the government’s anti-corruption campaign recovered more than $5 billion in illegally grafted assets in 2019 alone.
But this sort of structural change comes slowly. For the majority of Angolans, life today looks very similar to what it was under dos Santos. The country’s abysmal poverty rate is unchanged, and dense patronage networks continue to constrain upward mobility.
Angola continues to depend on Chinese loans to fund infrastructure projects and stimulate the economy beyond its oil sector. According to the China Africa Research Initiative, a program affiliated with Johns Hopkins University, nearly a quarter of all Chinese development loans granted to African countries from 2000 to 2014 went to Angola. China owns roughly half of Angola’s external debt.
A more diverse foreign investment portfolio is a key part of Lourenço’s road map to economic stability. Angola’s growing debt and asymmetric dependency on China leaves the country vulnerable to harder bargains in future dealings with Beijing. By prosecuting key members of the political establishment — such as José Filomeno and Isabel dos Santos — Lourenço hopes to convince potential investors of his commitment to purge Angola of corruption.
The prospects of success for Lourenço and the MPLA in the coming elections depend on the president’s ability to bolster the legitimacy of his party and to strengthen the Angolan economy through foreign investment.
The president’s anti-corruption campaign is designed to resolve both of these demands. But without other more definitive and costly efforts to root out corruption, the judicial actions against the dos Santos family may appear to be for show rather than signs of structural change in Angolan politics.