7 September 2018

Angola: Will President Joao Lourenco Bring Change?

A new dawn appears to be on the horizon as Angola's President Joao Lourenco prepares to replace former head of state dos Santos as leader of the ruling MPLA party. But the path to reform is paved with obstacles.

The reception was friendly; the words warm when Angola's President Joao Lourenco visited Germany at the end of August. Even German Chancellor Angela Merkel praised the fresh start his inauguration had provided.

As of Saturday, the country could hit the reset button completely. The ruling MPLA party wants to elect Lourenco as its chairman. Ex-President Eduardo dos Santos is stepping down as party leader after almost 39 years.

Oil billions and starving children

"We are witnessing the end of an era," Emanuel Matondo, Angola expert at the Helpdesk Southern Africa (ISSA) in Bonn, told DW. For many Angolans, this era was not a good one. Their country is Africa's second-largest oil producer, but many people live in extreme poverty.

A small elite from the dos Santos family, as well as other influential people, are alleged to have siphoned off billions from the oil business. The ex-president's daughter, Isabel dos Santos, is considered the richest woman in Africa. In comparison, one in three Angolan children suffers from stunted growth because they do not have enough to eat.

When he took office in September 2017, Lourenco was still considered a puppet of long-time President dos Santos. He had served for many years as a loyal defense minister. Instead, he has presented himself as someone who is determined to clean up the mess that his predecessor left behind: He fired Isabel dos Santos as head of the state-owned oil company.

And he initiated corruption investigations against the ex-president's son, who is alleged to have stolen $500 million (€430 million) from the state welfare fund. Lourenco wants to introduce legislation to repatriate other embezzled funds from abroad. Moreover, media and opposition members are no longer as bullied as they were under dos Santos' government.

These steps have not only been welcomed by the German chancellor. Even have been forthcoming with praise. "No one can deny that we are at a turning point. One can clearly see that President Lourenco is trying to take a different approach," said Angolan writer and government critic, Ondjaki.

The question now is whether leadership of the party will give Lourenco even more power to push ahead with his reforms. "There is still a strong dos Santos faction in the MPLA, even though the majority tends to support Lourenco," Angolan expert Matondo told DW.

Many of dos Santos' supporters are well-connected and yield a lot of economic influence, he explained. If the fight against corruption continues, there could be severe consequences: "Lourenco would have to put half of his party in prison. But he can't do that," said Matondo. He is certain that there will be conflict between the two groups within the party. This could decisively put the brakes on Lourenco's reforms.

Serious about fighting corruption?

Long-suffering MPLA critics are not sure whether Lourenco is serious about pursuing this course of action. "We are governed by a party that has been in power for over 40 years. Within the party there has been a transition to a new president. But we don't have a regime change yet," said the rapper MCK.

Lourenco is also accused of being overly extravagant. According to the trade journal "Africa Confidential," he chartered a Boeing 787 for a trip to Belgium, France and Spain, which cost around $74,000 per hour. Lourenco is said to have used the trip not only for official talks, but also for a private visit to an exclusive eye clinic. Such reports arouse concern among Angolans that the planned reforms will ultimately prove to be a mere PR campaign. As party leader and president, Lourenco would hold the two most important offices in the country -- and could conceivably govern in a similar authoritarian manner to his predecessor.

Manuel Luamba (Luanda), Johannes Beck contributed to this article.

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