23 January 2018

Angola: Graft Trial in Portugal 'Offends' Angola

Tensions are mounting between Angola and Portugal over the indictment for corruption of former Angolan Vice President Manuel Vicente. Experts believe Portugal will cave in to Angolan efforts to nix the trial.

The case goes back to when Manuel Vicente (pictured above) was head of the state oil company Sonangol, before being appointed vice president in 2012. The year before, he was charged in Lisbon on suspicion of having paid a Portuguese state prosecutor almost €770,000 ($942,000) to have two cases of money laundering dismissed. The scandal kept him from running for the presidency in 2017, although he had been handpicked by then head of state Jose Eduardo dos Santos to succeed him in office.

The trial against Vicente opened in Lisbon on Monday, despite efforts by the Angolan government to have it transferred to Luanda. The government of President Joao Lourenco argues that an agreement with the former colonial power allows for such a transfer. True, says jurist, author and legal consultant Rui Verde. "The problem is Angola's amnesty law. If the file is transferred to Angola, no justice will be applied," Verde told DW.

Immunity guaranteed

The amnesty for those convicted of minor crimes committed before 2016 and punishable with up to 12 years in prison was a parting gift by dos Santos when he stepped down from power last year. As a former vice president, Vicente also has immunity from prosecution. There is no doubt in either Portugal or Angola that a transferal of the judicial proceedings to Luanda would mean "that no trial will take place," the Portuguese professor of law said.

President Joao Lourenco, who took over last August after almost four decades of authoritarian rule by dos Santos, has promised the country a new start with a strong emphasis on the fight against corruption and money laundering. In the opinion of Rui Verde, a legal consultant for and collaborator with Maka Angola, an Angolan civil society initiative that is against graft and pro democracy, Lourenco's stance in the Vicente affair discredits his declared aims. "This looks bad because it's exactly the contrary of what he is saying. He is protecting a man who probably corrupted a prosecutor in Portugal and probably laundered money in Portugal through the acquisition of real estate," Verde said.

A 'love-hate' relationship

Relations between Angola and the former colonial power since independence were never easy and always fraught with emotion, says Chatham House researcher and head of the Africa Program, Alex Vines. He describes it as a "love-hate relationship." But the issue goes deeper: "At the tail end of the dos Santos leadership, the relationship was closer. There was a lot of Angolan investment in Portugal, including by members of the dos Santos family. The new president, Joao Lourenco, is not tied to Portugal in this way."

In his inaugural speech Lourenco didn't even mention Portugal as a strategic partner. "The signal from Lourenco is that he wants a diversification of international partners for Angola, including Germany," Vines told DW.

This doesn't bode well for Portuguese interests in its former colony, the eighth biggest importer of goods from Portugal. Lisbon has gone out of its way to assure everyone that relations with Angola are "excellent," as the foreign ministry put it. Prime Minister Antonio Costa was set to meet with Lourenco on Tuesday on the margins of the World Economic Forum currently taking place in Davos, Switzerland. The trial was certain to be one of the subjects broached.

Portugal's economic interests

The Angolan president has claimed he is "offended" by the refusal of the Portuguese state prosecutor to hand over judicial files. "We will not accept this treatment," Lourenco said in early January. On Monday, the Portuguese court moved to separate the case against Vicente from that of the other defendants. A legally correct move, says lawyer Rui Verde, but it could be a first step towards a compromise aimed at safeguarding Portuguese economic interests in Angola. "There are a lot of Portuguese companies and Portuguese workers in Angola and this has always been a justification for the Portuguese government to defer to the Angolan government," Verde pointed out.

Although Portuguese Justice Minister Francisca Van Dunem has said that the government "cannot and will not" interfere with judicial matters, Rui Verde is skeptical. "I believe that in the end some decision will be reached that will comply with the wishes of the political powers and with the wishes of Angola. I am pessimistic," he said.

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