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Angola

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Angola: All Change?

There is momentous change in Angola. The oil-rich country of 28 million people on Africa’s southwestern coast has just elected J-Lo as president.

There is also very little change in Angola. The new president is not Jennifer Lopez, the American J.Lo (which would definitely mean big change). It is João Lourenço, a member of the ruling Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) since the 1970s, a general since the 1980s, and most recently the Minister of Defence. He can’t sing, either.

J-Lo replaces 75-year-old José Eduardo Dos Santos, who has been president for the past 38 years (the second longest-ruling president in the world). But it’s questionable how much power he will really inherit from the outgoing president, who passed a new law prohibiting his successor from changing the heads of the army, the police or the intelligence service for eight years. Dos Santos wants no surprises after his retirement.

In fact, it’s hard to say that Dos Santos is retiring at all. He will remain the head of the ruling MPLA party, his daughter Isabel (Africa’s richest woman) runs the state oil company, and one of his sons controls the $5 billion state investment fund. Other allies and cronies dominate the rest of the economy.

J-Lo, by contrast, holds no positions that provide opportunities to steal massive amounts from state funds, and is widely believed to be non-corruptible or nearly so, a rare quality in the MPLA’s senior leadershiip. That may be why he was forced on Dos Santos by the party as a successor.

The MPLA has a little problem. After a devastating 27-year civil war between rival liberation movements ended with the death in battle in 2002 of Jonas Savimbi, leader of the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (Unita), rapidly growing oil production and high world oil prices created a huge boom in the Angolan economy. In several years since then it has been the fastest-growing economy in the world.

A great deal of the new wealth went to senior MLA members and their allies, but enough trickled down to keep the impoverished masses quiet and obedient. But the collapse in oil prices since 2014 has halved the Angolan government’s income and killed the private economy, such as it was. In the sprawling capital, Luanda, half-finished, abandoned apartment towers line the shore.

The poor are getting poorer, and they may eventually get angry. This is a relatively rich country where 20 percent of children die before their fifth birthday and a quarter of the adult population is officially unemployed (unofficially, much more). There is a lot of dry political tinder lying around waiting for a match.

The opposition Unita party won 27 percent of the votes in last week’s election, ten percent more than ever before, despite what was probably large-scale vote-rigging. The rank-and-file of the ruling party is getting worried, and despite having made the transition from hard-line communist to free-market capitalist over the years the MPLA remains a disciplined organisation.

Dos Santos was invulnerable until he got ill, but for more than a year he has been receiving treatment for cancer. He had his cousin, Vicente Manuel, made vice-president in 2012 with the intention of making him the designated successor, but the party chose João Lourenço instead in 2015. And though nobody is admitting it publicly, it probably pressured Dos Santos not to run again in the 2017 election.

So change is probably on the way in Angola after all, despite Dos Santos’s strenuous efforts to protect his family’s own wealth and power and hamstring his successor. What kind of change it’s hard to say, because like all prominent MPLA members J-Lo has had to hide any contrary opinions he may have held during the long reign of Dos Santos.

One clue, however, is Lourenço’s reputation for honesty. Long-ruling parties faced with collapsing popular support often try to win it back by choosing somebody known to be clean and competent as leader: think of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union picking Mikhail Gorbachev as General Secretary in 1985.

But remember also what happened to the CPSU in 1991. It was already too late to “reform” the Communist Party in the Soviet Union by 1985. It may already be too late to reform the MPLA now. And Angola’s civil war is only fifteen years in the past: a transition to a less corrupt, more open, less repressive regime would be a tricky thing to manage.

Lourenço has fought for and served the MPLA all his adult life, and he certainly has no intention of removing it from power. But he could be seduced by the idea of making it really popular again, and thereby holding onto power by genuinely democratic means.

In which case we must wish him luck, while knowing that he is likely to fail.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 12-13. (“One clue…manage”)

The Gambia: A Short Billion Years

“We will win the biggest landslide this country has ever seen,” said The Gambia’s President Yahya Jammeh before the small West African country’s recent election, and he had every reason to be confident. Jammeh had been in power for 22 years, and he knew how to run an election.

Jammeh, who was an 29-year-old army lieutenant when he seized power, has been in the habit of detaining, torturing and killing dissident journalists and political opponents, and this election was no exception. Two leading opposition politicians were beaten to death in prison and 15 others jailed for three years last April, international election observers were banned, and on voting day last Thursday the internet was shut down.

There was not the slightest indication that Jammeh was ready to surrender power. He said he was “proud to be a dictator,” promised to bury the “evil vermin called opposition nine feet deep”, and once declared that he would rule “for one billion years if Allah wills it.” But when the marbles spoke last Friday morning, he had lost the election.

In the Gambia, they vote by dropping marbles into different-coloured drums, and when they were all counted an obscure property developer named Adama Barrow had 45 percent of the marbles. Yahya Jammeh had only 36 percent.

So he was guilty of over-confidence and poor election management, but nobody imagined that he would actually go quietly. Yet he did.

On Friday, Yahya Jammeh went on television and conceded defeat, saying “I want to make it very clear that I will never rule this country without your mandate and I will never cheat.” The astonished head of the electoral commission, Alieu Momar Njie, said: “It’s really unique that someone who has been ruling this country for so long has accepted defeat” – and The Gambia exploded with joy.

Jammeh was always erratic, but nobody saw this coming. Africans elsewhere who also have a problem with rulers who overstay their welcome were delighted. “Yahya Jammeh has recognised his defeat! Who would have thought it? There is hope!” said Fred Bauma, the youthful leader of a non-violent pro-democracy movement in the Democratic Republic of Congo. (He has been in detention for the past year.)

Hope soared even higher when Angola’s president, Eduardo dos Santos, declared hours after Jammeh conceded defeat that after 38 years in power he will step down next year. Even 92-year-old Robert Mugabe, who has ruled Zimbabwe since 1980, was heard to speak last week about retiring “properly” (although with no date mentioned).

Now for the (rather discouraging) small print. Adama Barrow has good intentions, but many of the ambitious people in the coalition of small opposition parties that Barrow put together may approach their time in power in the spirit of that famous Kenyan phrase “It’s our turn to eat now.” As Lord Acton famously remarked, “Power tends to corrupt.”

Eduardo Dos Santos first said he was going to leave the presidency in Angola in 2001, but then it slipped his mind. He seems more genuinely committed to quitting this time, but Angola is a one-party state and he has already announced his successor, defence minister Joao Lourenco. “Absolute power corrupts absolutely,” as Lord Acton added.

And Robert Mugabe, who spent a decade in jail while leading the independence struggle and has run Zimbabwe ever since, resorts to violence when challenged politically and has completely destroyed his country’s once promising economy. He may occasionally talk about retiring, but he will hold onto power until he dies. “Great men are almost always bad men,” as Acton concluded.

As for the Democratic Republic of Congo, where a presidential election was due this month, President Joseph Kabila has now postponed it until 2018. He has been in power, and his father before him, since 1997, and he has no intention of leaving it now. He just needs more time to rig the next election.

Even when elections are not rigged, it is sheer fantasy to believe that the outcomes are determined by voters who carefully considered all the options and chose the one that was best for the community.

Most people are far too busy with their own personal lives to give political matters much thought. When they do vote, they tend to be guided by their emotions or by their class, ethic or religious identity. As Beppe Grillo, leader of Italy’s populist Five State Movement, cynically urged Italian voters in the recent referendum: “Vote with your gut” (and not with your brains).

Africa is not alone with this problem. Even in older and richer democracies, democratic decision-making is often irrational and sometimes self-destructive. So why bother?

Because governments must be changed from time to time if they are not to become completely self-serving, and elections are a better way to change them than military coups or violent revolts. Because democracy requires and strengthens the rule of law. And because of the “wisdom of crowds”: the voters get it right, or at least partly right, more often than any narrower decision-making group.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 12. (“Jammeh…down”; and “As…election”)

The Curse of Oil

20 July 2003

Sao Tome and the Curse of Oil

By Gwynne Dyer

Why has Algeria been devastated by tyranny and civil war, while neighbouring Morocco is peaceful, relatively democratic, and no poorer? Why is Angola, once Portugal’s richest African colony, a wasteland of poverty, violence and corruption with enclaves of glittering wealth, while Mozambique, its poor relative in colonial times, is now peaceful, fairly equal, and politically open? Why was Iraq under Saddam Hussein even more violent and repressive than Syria, its near twin that has also been ruled by the Baath Party for over three decades?

Because for countries in the developing world, oil wealth is usually a disaster: Algeria, Angola and Iraq all have a lot of oil, while Morocco, Mozambique and Syria do not. All of these countries had fragile political structures, ethnically complex populations and difficult colonial pasts, but the ones that descended into a full-spectrum nightmare were the ones that struck it rich with oil. To see how it works, consider Sao Tome, which began its descent last week.

Sao Tome is a small island state in the Gulf of Guinea left over from Portugal’s African empire. It fell on hard times economically after independence in 1975, but recently undersea oil was found straddling the seabed border between Sao Tome and Nigeria. Current estimates suggest that there are between 6 and 11 billion barrels in Sao Tome’s section — enough for a production of around a million barrels a day.

Since there are only 140,000 people in Sao Tome, that would yield enough revenue to increase their current per capita income of $280 per year twenty-fold if it was divided up evenly. Divided up much less equally, however, it would make some people disgustingly rich. Last week some people with guns decided that that was a much more appealing prospect.

Sao Tome has been a multi-party democracy since 1990, but as oil wealth loomed the local political parties began accusing one another of being under the influence of foreign oil interests. By last year’s parliamentary elections, some militants of the rival parties were going around armed — and in January President Fradique de Menezes dissolved the parliament before it could limit his powers to negotiate oil contracts with oreigners.

De Menezes had just signed a deal settling a long-standing dispute with Nigeria over the two countries’ undersea frontier that gave the latter 60 percent of the oilfield, and his opponents were convinced that he had been bought off. In April some former mercenaries from Sao Tome who fought for South Africa’s apartheid regime in the infamous ‘Buffalo Battalion’ joined a minor party called the Christian Democratic Front (FDC) and called for a rebellion. And then on 16 July, while de Menezes was visiting Nigeria, there was a coup.

The coup leader is a well-known army officer, Major Fernando Pereira, but his partners are the guns-for-hire of the FDC. As de Menezes says, “It’s only for the oil that they have seized power” — the first big flow of revenue, at least $100 million, will come with the sale of rights to nine offshore blocs in October — and so Sao Tome starts its descent into hell. Or maybe not, because the outside world’s attitude is changing.

The other Portuguese-speaking countries of Africa, backed up by Nigeria and South Africa, have threatened to use force if the soldiers do not allow President de Menezes to return. The United States, which plans a military base in Sao Tome to protect the growing share of its oil imports that comes from countries around the Gulf of Guinea, also opposes the coup. And the oil companies themselves are under pressure to clean up their act.

The days of huge bribes as standard operating practice for Western oil and mining companies in the Third World are numbered, because investors, human rights activists, and even the companies themselves are starting to insist on full disclosure of payments made. BP has taken the lead, posting its production-sharing agreement with Azerbaijan on a website and disclosing ‘signing payments’ that it made to Angola.

The Angolan state oil company threatened to expel BP if it published any further information, but other companies can see the logic of BP’s move. The dirty deals may mean bigger profits for oil companies, but they can also mean bigger problems because the local people hate them for it. That is what drives the chronic violence against foreign companies operating in Nigeria’s oil-rich Delta region, for example.

So there has been a surprisingly positive response to the British government’s Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, launched last year to persuade oil, gas and mining companies to reveal their payments to resource-rich countries voluntarily. And the non-governmental organisation Global Witness has launched a parallel campaign called ‘Publish What You Pay’, asking stock exchanges to require listed oil and gas companies to publish a single annual figure of net payments in each country where they operate.

Mobil is facing a huge criminal case over alleged bribes in Kazakhstan, and the French company Elf faces similar action over payments in various African countries. The tide is gradually turning against the old way of doing business — but whether it will turn in time to save Sao Tome is another question.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 10 and 11. (“The  Angolan…operate”)