The MPLA (Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola), the party that has ruled Angola since independence in 1975, last year affirmed its status as a party of the left, concerned with the most disadvantaged members of society. The reality is rather different. In a country that produces two million barrels of crude oil a day, and which is a major energy supplier to the US and China, the political elite enriches itself while most people see little benefit from the oil boom.
Any kind of opposition initiative quickly gets stifled or co-opted in Angola, but one of the few outspoken critical voices has been that of journalist and activist Rafael Marques. Having previously researched human rights abuses in Angola's oil and diamond producing regions, more recently he began investigating corruption, and pinpointing who exactly is benefiting from the wholesale privatisation of state assets, as well as from lucrative contracts resulting from inward investment in oil and construction.
What does your research tell us about how Angola is governed?
For the past three years I have been investigating Angola's political economy through the government's decisions vis-à-vis the privatisation process, state contracts, national legislation, theft of state assets, and local and foreign beneficiaries. The official data I have been able to collect, and local knowledge, allow me to chart what is really happening and how, the web of players, and individual and corporate interests.
So far, I have been able to establish that government officials, particularly from the presidential inner circle, are the main businesspeople and private investors in the country. The most important business contracts involving the state benefit mostly government officials' private business interests in association with foreign enterprises. Corruption is the mainstay of foreign investments in the country, and it is done in the open because of the impunity of the officials with whom outside investors establish business partnerships.
There is also an unprecedented transfer of state property and funds to the private ownership of government officials. This happens through the council of ministers, in which the president and ministers decide on the distribution of state wealth, contracts and significant foreign investments among themselves. Furthermore, western multinationals, Chinese and Brazilian enterprises, and their governments provide the international 'legitimacy' and complicity for laundering the looted state assets through joint ventures.
To give one example, Miguel da Costa, Angola's ambassador to France, founded a company called Sadissa, whose joint venture with the French Thales Group obtained a $200 million arms contract. Da Costa abused his position as ambassador by negotiating with the French authorities on a deal that benefited him personally.
What is your reaction to the MPLA's self-description as a party concerned with the most disadvantaged members of society?
The reality is different. Angola has become a privatised state, and the president, José Eduardo dos Santos, is the de facto chairman, CEO and main shareholder of this enterprise.
How can the information you are providing be used to support positive change?
An Angolan magistrate once wrote that the main problem in addressing corruption is that people are so used to it that they find it absolutely normal. When I started studying the legislation on corruption, I consulted several concerned lawyers, and most of them either told me that the laws against corruption had been revoked, or had no clear idea of what I was talking about.
Thus, my job is to lay the ground for more serious and informed debates on corruption and governance. Countries with major investments in Angola, and international institutions like the World Bank and the IMF, tend to narrow their focus only on legislation to favour and protect foreign investment, overriding or concealing the rest.
Do you see yourself as part of a wider movement for socio-economic justice in Angola?
As far as I know, there is no organised movement for social and economic justice in Angola yet. There is no popular response yet to issues of injustice and inequality. There is an illusion that corruption is a kind of lottery, in which a winning ticket sets you up for life. It has eroded the social fabric. Thus, civil society is used more as a source of financial benefits than as a concept to represent common interests.
In my view, institutional corruption, propaganda and misinformation can easily sow mistrust among any emerging social networks, as well as co-opting those who can mobilise for change. So I see myself as part of a new generation who believe in individual responsibility, take it to heart and use it to address this reality through research. The quest is to contribute to a change in the social mindset, and information is critical.
NGOs have to face a number of institutional dilemmas. The most critical question is leadership in the face of government and donors' pressures. In Angola, NGOs are either totally dependent on major western donors whose priorities are to defend the status quo, or on the government.
In 1999 you were imprisoned over an article critical of President Dos Santos. Are you worried about further reprisals from the state against you and other activists?
I have spent so many years in run-ins with the authorities that it no longer worries me. I pray and renew my faith every day for good judgement in my actions. That's all.
Journalists have to be constantly mindful of lawsuits: there are two directors of independent newspapers who regularly collect lawsuits. In Angola, the rulers control both public and private sectors, and hold sway over donors and foreign firms to cut off any activist who seriously threatens their interests. Very few will risk their welfare or savings to stay the course.
Angola's first parliamentary elections since 1992 took place in 2008, and the MPLA gained 81 per cent of the vote. How should we interpret this result?
The same way we interpret the results in Equatorial Guinea, Belarus, Kazakhstan and the like. Democracy is used as the legal name for authoritarian rule. It is a cocktail of intimidation, fraud, bribery and fear.
Is there any meaningful way for people to express solidarity with the struggle for economic and social justice in Angola?
Indeed there is. Solidarity is a key component in the struggle anywhere in the world. But solidarity starts at home. International solidarity is most effective when it taps into internal solidarity, and is in response to a clear and articulated call for help or to build up individual responsibility in taking up these issues.
As a personal example, I started the anti-corruption initiative penniless, and in complete isolation. For a time I could not even top up my phone. A US friend received a small inheritance, and sent me a cheque for me to continue my work. Solidarity is not necessarily about big project templates or the workings of the international humanitarian industry. It is, first and foremost, about ideas and individual responsibility in serving the common good.
Rafael Marques' research on Angola can be read at www.makaangola.com