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After 37 years, Angola will get a new president. Can Joao Lourenco reduce widespread corruption?

After nearly four decades in power, Angolan President José Eduardo dos Santos, the second-longest serving leader in Africa, has announced that he will leave office this year. He has talked of stepping down in the past, but this time the ailing dos Santos, who has received medical treatment in Spain, is following through.

The heir apparent is the country’s 62-year-old defense minister João Manuel Gonçalves Lourenço, who will run in August on the ruling party’s ticket. The choice surprised many Angolans who thought dos Santos would try to hand over power to one of his children.

Lourenço was just in Washington, where on Wednesday he signed a memorandum of understanding with the Pentagon about future sales of military equipment, security cooperation and what Defense Secretary Jim Mattis called “a strategic partnership.” Mattis praised Angolan assistance in fighting piracy in the Gulf of Guinea.

The next day, Lourenço made time to talk to The Washington Post about his goals for Angola, where the economy has been shaken by the collapse in oil prices last year and the government has been criticized for corruption and suppression of political opponents. He vowed to fight corruption, increase transparency and welcome foreign investment. And he acknowledged that the Angolan government currently runs a deficit when the oil price falls below $60 a barrel.

The soft-spoken Lourenço is seen as the candidate of continuity. As a teenager, he joined the MPLA — the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola — and fought a rival liberation movement when Portugal was still the colonial power. Like others, he was sent by the party to study in the Soviet Union from 1978 to 1982, and he went on to a long career in the military and other public offices. He speaks some English as well as Russian and Portuguese, and he visited Washington frequently in recent years because his wife, Ana Afonso Dias Lourenço, the former Angolan minister of planning, has been the World Bank’s executive director for Angola, Nigeria and South Africa.

In the United States, he faces skepticism. The State Department report on human rights practices says that while the first postwar presidential election in 2012 was “peaceful and generally credible ... the ruling party enjoyed advantages due to state control of major media and other resources. Opposition parties contested aspects of the electoral process and the results, but accepted their seats in the National Assembly.” And Human Rights Watch said that “Security forces frequently crackdown on pro-democracy and human rights activists, raising doubts about whether the elections will be free and fair.” The group Transparency International gives Angola a poor grade on fighting corruption, ranking it 164 out of 176 countries.

Here is what Lourenço said. This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Q: What is in the memorandum of understanding, and was reaching a deal easier now that the Trump administration is in office?

Lourenço: The MOU has to do with the changes that are occurring in Angola as well as changes in the United States. Diplomatic relations and economic cooperation between the United States and Angola have been taking place for 24 years. In all other fields, there has been not as much, but some, progress. But in terms of defense, practically nothing has been done with the one exception of training soldiers here in the United States. The training would include English language and a program for combating HIV/AIDS in the military forces. We feel that this is just a little, and therefore we chose to sign this memorandum of understanding. We will have cooperation in different matters, namely to combat terrorism and to fight piracy in the Gulf of Guinea. And also undertake efforts to improve the military situation in the Great Lakes region.

The cooperation in the field of defense must be underpinned by confidence and trust. So with the signing of the MOU, we gave a very clear signal, as Gen. James Mattis said. We are trying to build a strategic partnership between our two countries.

The United States is a very important country to us in the international context. But on other hand, Angola is also important to the United States because of its location in the Gulf of Guinea and because Angola has many more natural resources to export.

Q: Angola joined the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries in 2007, and it has generally abided by the cartel’s guidelines for keeping production slightly below full capacity to bolster prices. Can you discuss your membership in the group?

Lourenço: Angola is a member of OPEC and as such has to abide by all the decisions that this international cartel makes. Crude oil prices collapsed due to the increased supply of oil in the international market and also because of lower demand on the part of the major international consumer that is the United States, which increased its own domestic production.

An oil boom made it the most expensive city in the world. Now it’s in crisis.

Today we are not so concerned about the need to increase oil prices. It's not that we don’t want to, but we know that oil is a commodity, and its price does not depend on each one of us.

It would be an illusion to dream of changing a price over which we don’t really have any control.

So I think that the correct solution is to think seriously about diversifying our economy so that our country relies on the production and export of commodities other than oil. We have to invest heavily in agriculture, in cattle raising, fisheries and tourism as well. And Angola is abundantly rich in other mineral resources.To that end, we need to create an enabling business environment so that we can attract international investors. For that to happen we have to do our homework, to make changes in our policies in respect to visa granting, and also to make our economy and our government more transparent about the way we do business. We also have to fiercely fight against corruption and adapt our banking system to the international standards.

Q: What do you expect in the elections this year?

Lourenço: Our expectations for the Aug. 23 elections are good. We are working toward a comfortable victory in those elections.

Q: How would your government be different from that of President dos Santos?

Lourenço: We are going to make every effort to have a transparent administration. We are going to combat corruption, and we are going to underscore the fact that we want the private investors to be a major part of our future economy. The public sector will be limited to reconstruction and infrastructure, and even in those areas we will try and set up public private partnerships. In other areas, such as airports, there will be 100 percent private investment.

Q: Will your approach to corruption be different?

Lourenço: Yes. One of our priorities is to have an enabling environment for private investment, both domestic and foreign investment, and that means we are going to officially combat corruption because we believe that this scourge, this illness, hinders our efforts to attract private investors.

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