Over the past 20 years Angola has been bilked of billions of US dollars earmarked for public projects that delivered little or no actual benefit to the country. And an investigation by Maka Angola into a long-promised revamp of the country's railway system, suggests the government is still being conned into handing over millions of dollars on schemes that fail to materialize.
OFF THE RAILS
For two decades under former President dos Santos, Angola repeatedly awarded multi-million-dollar contracts for complex projects to 'johnny-come-lately' companies with no track record. Invariably these were shell companies set up by Dos Santos cronies that never had the wherewithal to deliver on their promises. It was a scam by which the state kleptocrats diverted public funds into their own bank accounts. Under reformist President João Lourenço, things are supposed to have changed. But have they?
A two-part investigation by Maka Angola into a billion-dollar deal for the supply and maintenance of locomotives for the National Institute of Angolan Railways suggests the authorities may need to take a much closer look at what, if anything, they got for their money.
In part one, we focus on one of three contracts from May 2015, all signed on the same day on behalf of the Angolan government by the then Secretary of State for Transport, Mário Domingues, and the legal proprietor of AEnergia S.A., Ricardo Filomeno Duarte Leitão Machado, a Portuguese national who owned a 99.9% majority share of the company.
One of these contracts, worth 500 million US dollars, was for the rebuilding, modernization and adaptation of the railway maintenance yards in the cities of Luanda, Lobito, Huambo and Lubango.
In 2013, the Ministry of Transport had signed a Memorandum of Understanding with General Electric to get Angola's railway system up to date and working again.
Two years later, AEnergy presented itself as GE's business partner to draw up and sign three contracts to turn the plans in the Memorandum into reality. The very next day, AEnergy submitted its invoice for an advance of US $75 million against future works and, surprisingly, the invoice was paid straight away - before any of the required checks and balances had been effected.
The contract contained a stipulation (in Clause 20) that it would only take effect once it had been reviewed and signed off by the Tribunal de Contas (the national audit office) and the Angolan President. Neither had done so.
AEnergy's owner, Ricardo Machado, says: "We were advised by the Ministry of Transport that it had submitted the paperwork to the national audit office in good time, in compliance with the legal requirements it was obliged to observe."
Ricardo Machado, the Portuguese owner of AEnergia
Mr Machado say that the US $75 million received by AEnergy was an advance against expenses: "Bearing in mind the requirements of the entities that were financing the work, the government agreed to make an immediate first payment so as not to delay the process of manufacturing the priority equipment needed for both the new and updated locomotives."
He says the problem was that financing of the project was due to come from GE Capital (part of the General Electric group) as outlined in the Memorandum of Understanding, but the money was simply not available in 2016 and 2017. To date, he says, there still hasn't been funding for the contract to be complete.
But according to Mr Machado Energy "delivered the priority supplies earmarked by Mintrans (the Ministry of Transport) and the value of the services and rolling stock supplied was exactly equal to the amount disbursed."
Unfortunately the Ministry has no record of any of this.
WHERE'S THE PROOF?
A well-informed source as the Ministry of Transport (speaking on condition of anonymity) told Maka Angola that US $75 million could not have been authorised by the Ministry as it didn't have that money in its budget. Our source believes that the only possible source of the funds was the Angolan Central Bank, the Banco Nacional de Angola (BNA), whose governor at that time was José Pedro de Morais.
Our source says: "Someone must have given orders to the BNA to pay the US $75 million. There ought to be documentation to prove who gave the order and on what basis. Surely if AEnergy had undertaken any contractual work, there would also be records showing how that sum was spent - but we (at the Ministry) have not received any documentary evidence. We simply have no idea what AEnergy did with the money."
"Furthermore, AEnergy has no justification in citing equipment donated to Angola by General Electric as part of its corporate social responsibility programme as though these were materials purchased by AEnergy with the advance payment."
"We are talking about mobile medical clinics, training simulators and drones for checking rails; none of these were purchased by AEnergy. None. In fact the Ministry had to order AEnergy logos to be removed from these items because they were donated by GE and had no connection whatsoever with AEnergy."
Our source has seen nothing to suggest that AEnergy has used any of the US $75 million to make any investment towards infrastructure or training: "Do the math. Then ask yourself: Were we robbed?"
Senior officials at the Ministry of Transport are said to be furious at the lack of any concrete information regarding the project, telling Maka Angola "mislaying just one million dollars would be important, let alone US $75 million, when like every other government institution we desperately need sufficient financial resources."
In previous years the Ministry could count on a budget of US $1.5 billion for projects - this year its budget is barely US $100 million. Officials there say the government should conduct an exhaustive audit to recover all the missing millions - that would be a huge boost to investment in essential infrastructure.
WAS THE CONTRACT EVEN LEGIT?
Maka Angola's legal analyst, Rui Verde, emphasises that the process of entering into a contract with AEnergy was incomplete and that the huge sum handed over to the company was not legally justifiable.
"There is the possibility that this was a criminal act," he says, "and the authorities should be looking into whether any fraud, peculation or money laundering took place."
He notes that from a legal perspective it is perplexing that the contract fails to identify the equipment, or works, necessary to remodel and modernize the rail yards. It gives AEnergy carte blanche to draw up a Plan of Work and make its own decisions about what it is going to do. "The terminology 'to remodel and modernize' is ambiguous and vague and Clauses 3 to 8 in the contract seem to give the private company total discretion over how to spend US $500 million without having to account for it," says Rui Verde.
"A properly-drawn contract would include a specific Plan of Work, spelling out what equipment is required at each stage. This had none of the specifics required to guarantee how public money was to be used - it was the equivalent of handing AEnergy US $500 million in a brown envelope and letting them decide what to do with it."
As Rui Verde reminds us, "this brings to mind a similar scheme already before the courts in which the accused argued they needed the US $500 million upfront as surety to secure a US $30 billion loan. In fact, there was no loan on offer."
Was this really another dodgy deal? In the words of social activist Luaty Beirão, was it just another case of the "embezzlement without end" that was part and parcel of the Dos Santos Administration. In the meantime Angola is still waiting to find out.