Angola: Ex-President's Men Indicted Over Chinese Deals

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analysis

On Friday July 8, coinciding with news of the death of former Angolan President José Eduardo dos Santos, it was revealed that two of his closest associates face trial on corruption charges in connection with business deals funded by the Peoples' Republic of China to purchase Angolan oil and fund post-war reconstruction.

Facing multiple criminal charges are two Angolan Generals, Manuel Hélder Vieira Dias Júnior (better known by his nom-de-guerre, 'Kopelipa'), and Leopoldino Fragoso de Nascimento (aka General 'Dino') along with co-defendants including Fernando Gomes dos Santos (a lawyer), a Chinese national, You Haming, and three corporate bodies: the China International Fund (CIF) and two companies registered offshore, Plansmart and Utter Right.

The indictment, signed by three prosecutors[1] from the Ministério Público (Office of Public Prosecution) on July 4, runs to 80 pages listing 233 separate clauses detailing the alleged crimes, and citing 36 named witnesses to be called to testify. Generals 'Kopelipa' and 'Dino' both face trial on multiple charges of criminal association, money-laundering, fraud, falsification of documents and influence-peddling. General 'Kopelipa' faces additional charges of abuse of power and peculation.

BUT WHAT ABOUT MANUEL VICENTE?

Inexplicably, the third member of former President dos Santos's 'Triumvirate', his one-time Vice-President and the National Oil Company Sonangol chairman and CEO Manuel Vicente, seems to have slipped the net. Vicente had been Dos Santos's right-hand man in moving petrodollars into their various get-rich-quick schemes over decades and was also the prime mover of the relationship with China, including with the notorious Chinese 'agent and fixer' Sam Pa (currently serving a prison sentence in China for corruption).

The indictment reveals that at least at US $1.5 billion of China's payment for Angolan oil were never passed on to Sonangol or Angola. It stressed that a Hong Kong-based company named 'China Sonangol International Holding Limited' (CSIHL), took and kept China's payments for itself while acting as an intermediary. Guess what? According to the indictment, the chairman of CSIHL, which had no office or representative based in Angola, was none other than Manuel Vicente, chairman and CEO of Sonangol during these transactions.

Isn't it curious then, when Manuel Vicente appears to have been the principal actor in this ingenious scheme to defraud the Angolan Treasury and the state-owned Sonangol company, that he is neither indicted nor called as a witness? Instead the chief prosecution witness from Sonangol is Francisco de Lemos Maria, Vicente's successor as chairman and CEO (who arguably should be on the charge sheet himself). Lemos Maria had been Sonangol's Chief Finance Officer during Vicente's tenure. Other VIP witnesses include Carlos Feijó, the former Minister of State and the President's Chief of Staff, and the former President of ESCOM, (Espírito Santo Commerce), a subsidiary of the Portuguese conglomerate Grupo Espírito Santo, Hélder Bataglia.

It is the case that as a former Vice-President, Manuel Vicente has enjoyed five years of immunity from prosecution for any crimes committed during his mandate, but that expires in September 2022. In any event, jurists argue that immunity conferred on him as Vice-President does not cover crimes he may have committed as the head of Sonangol from 1999-2012. It makes no sense for the state prosecution to issue an indictment that imputes crimes to Manuel Vicente on dozens of pages without including him as a defendant.

ZANGO

The prosecution case contains detailed (and exhaustive) evidence of a shady scheme by which the state was defrauded of hundreds of millions of dollars. Several buildings, funded through the Gabinete de Reconstrução Nacional (GRN), and intended for public housing in the Zango neighbourhoods on the outskirts of the capital, were sold back to Sonangol by CIF, leaving the state owning none of the buildings it had paid for. In some instances, the state paid for the same buildings twice over with nothing to show for it. Inevitably, the state funds came directly from Sonangol (under Manuel Vicente). So, although General Kopelipa was tangentially involved as Head of the GRN, the financial sleight of hand in paying for buildings that were sold on for sums that were not paid to the real owner, was overseen by Manuel Vicente. And, according to the indictment, some US $2.5 billion of the funds routed to the GRN for reconstruction came from Chinese loans.

Furthermore, from 2010 onwards, management of the GRN building projects intended for public housing was transferred from the GRN to Sonangol. They were under the responsibility of both Manuel Vicente and two senior directors serving under him: Francisco Lemos José (then CFO and later his successor) and Orlando Veloso. Moreover, the private employee of Vicente, Paulo Cascão, signed on behalf CIF for the sales to Sonangol with a power of attorney granted him by the same Vicente. Why then aren't these four men facing charges in the Zango housing project case? The defence is likely to argue that General Kopelipa had no direct oversight of this project and General Dino was not involved in it. To add to the confusion, Paulo Cascão was also the executive director of Delta Imobiliária, which sold the Chinese-built social housing projects to the public. Kopelipa, Dino and Vicente, aka the 'Triumvirate', were the beneficial owners of Delta Imobiliária.

CHINA INTERNATIONAL FUND

A third instance of corruption cites the infamous China International Fund (CIF) with evidence that public funds for the construction of buildings were (once again) used for private ends. General Dino's only connection with the CIF came at the direct request of President dos Santos to make sense of the CIF's financial affairs and General Kopelipa's only involvement was to organize the transfer to the state of all CIF assets in Angola as reparation.

However, the indictment fails to mention key information on the CIF matter offered by former President José Eduardo dos Santos himself. He wrote to Pitta Grós, the Attorney-General of the Republic, both on December 20, 2020 and November 8, 2021 offering his full cooperation in the investigation into the CIF scandal. The Attorney-General never replied. So the former President voluntarily prepared a detailed 12-page deposition, duly notarized, in which he completely exonerates General Dino of any responsibility in the affairs of the CIF, stating that "Lt Gen Leopoldino Fragoso de Nascimento and Dr Fernando Santos had nothing to do with the CIF company and had no knowledge of the origin of the funds that were invested in CIF Ltd." This deposition also states for the record that General Kopelipa acted lawfully, under the President's instructions, in the matter.

It is clear from the content and tone of the deposition that former President dos Santos takes full responsibility, exonerates Kopelipa and Dino, and emphasizes that all actions taken in connection with the CIF were in the interests of post-war reconstruction.

THE OBLIGATION TO PRODUCE ALL AVAILABLE EVIDENCE

In itself this does not relieve the members of the Triumvirate from a case to answer on their involvement in these (and numerous other) questionable business ventures on behalf of former President dos Santos. All the senior members of the Dos Santos Administration who became obscenely wealthy - allegedly because of opaque business deals financed by public money conducted through offshore shell companies - have questions to answer.

However, they also have the right to a fair trial, and to the presumption of innocence until guilt is proven to the satisfaction of the courts of law. It is, therefore, the duty both of the state prosecutors and the defence lawyers to ensure they produce all the available evidence, especially testimony from the key actors. This would involve both admitting the former President's notarized deposition into evidence and requiring the testimony of Manuel Vicente and others involved in, connected to, or with knowledge of, the alleged crimes.

[1] State Prosecution Attorneys Pedro Carvalho, Manuel Bambi, and Gilberto Vunge.

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