Crowds to See Angola’s Latest Prisoner Show Corruption War Is Serious

(Bloomberg) -- Dozens of Angolans crowd the gates of the capital’s main prison hospital, jockeying for a glimpse of an unexpected new inmate: the son of the man who ruled the southern African nation for almost four decades.

Jose Eduardo dos Santos’ son, Jose Filomeno, is only the most high-profile prisoner at the facility in Luanda, as Angola’s new president wages an anti-graft war that’s thrown the former ruling elite into disarray. TV crews, relatives in expensive cars and ordinary citizens have all flocked here, witnesses to a turning point for the oil-producing country that’s long been ranked one of the world’s most corrupt.

Crowds to See Angola’s Latest Prisoner Show Corruption War Is Serious

“I never thought I was ever going to see this,” Maria Fernanda, a 50-year-old local pharmacist, said of the high-profile detentions that also include a former police chief and an ex-transportation minister. “It’s unbelievable.”

The crackdown is the latest in a series of bold steps by President Joao Lourenco, who was elected last year and speaks of a “duty and obligation” to crush corruption to save Angola’s ailing economy. Arrests have extended to the Dos Santos family and its allies, who’re accused of amassing fortunes through their grip on the nation’s oil, diamonds and other resources.

Fancy Cars

“The arrest of Jose Filomeno dos Santos marks an important symbolic step in President Joao Lourenco’s anti-corruption drive,” Fitch Solutions Macro Research said in a note this week. While it shows the government “is driving some moderate improvement in transparency and in reducing corruption,” action against “a few high-profile individuals will not be sufficient to resolve what many describe as endemic levels of corruption within key Angolan institutions,” it said.

Sao Paulo, a medium-security prison hospital with 20-foot-tall walls that’s now being used for high-profile inmates as well as patients, is a far cry from the glitzy skyscrapers on Luanda’s oceanfront the elites are accustomed to. On a recent Friday, drivers of cars including a brand new Lexus and a Porsche Carrera turned off the dirt road into a visitors parking area -- a sign of the prisoners’ wealthy connections.

Crowds to See Angola’s Latest Prisoner Show Corruption War Is Serious

Leading the Battle

Not spotted visiting so far: Isabel dos Santos, the ex-president’s eldest daughter and Africa’s richest woman. She’s the target of a probe looking into a $38.2 million transfer that was made at state-owned oil company Sonangol before she was fired as chairwoman last year. She has called the allegations politically motivated.

Lourenco, 64, has said the ruling People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola needs to lead the anti-graft battle. That’s “even if the first to fall are militants or even senior officials of the party that have committed crimes,” he told delegates on Sept. 8 as he replaced Dos Santos as its head.

He’s also pushing for funds he said were illegally moved abroad to be returned to Africa’s second-biggest oil producer, warning that Angolans who don’t comply by year’s end will face prosecution. Central bank Governor Jose Massano estimates at least $30 billion is held abroad, including legal deposits.

Reversing Impunity

Recent moves show the country “is finally moving in the direction of accountability and reversing decades of impunity, nepotism, patronage and corruption,” said Paula Roque, an independent political analyst who formerly worked on Angola for the Brussels-based International Crisis Group. But the actions are addressing “just the tip of the iceberg” and “other cases need investigation and competent, swift and structured legal action,” she said.

Crowds to See Angola’s Latest Prisoner Show Corruption War Is Serious

There’s some dissent. Last week, Bento Kangamba -- a former army general and the owner of football team Kabuscorp Sport Clube do Palanca -- criticized what he called Lourenco’s heavy-handed approach.

“We won’t allow things that have nothing to do with the good of society and aim to destroy the party and its militants to happen,” Kangamba, who organized the ex-president’s rallies, told Voice of America.

Jose Filomeno, 40, is accused of trying to siphon $1.5 billion from the central bank by claiming the money would help secure $35 billion of financing for Angola, the Finance Ministry said in April. The move allegedly occurred days before Lourenco was elected president, as Angola grappled with zero economic growth, soaring inflation and a dollar shortage.

Banking Accusations

The first $500 million was transferred in August 2017 from Angola’s central bank to an HSBC Holdings Plc account in the U.K. That initial installment was blocked by U.K. authorities suspecting foul play, and part of the $500 million has since been returned to Angola.

Jose Filomeno vowed to cooperate with the investigations. He now spends much of his time in the prison’s VIP section, where he and others watch TV and eat food brought by their relatives, according to a guard who asked not to be identified because he isn’t authorized to speak to the media.

The guard said the ex-president’s son typically declines visitors and responds to prison officials with single words. Former Transportation Minister Augusto Tomas is more gregarious, spending time with his relatives, friends and religious officials, he said.

Lourenco, popularly known as the “terminator,” isn’t just going after the big fish. A public official was arrested this week for allegedly seeking bribes of just 1,000 kwanzas ($3.32) from candidates applying to be professors in one province, the local Novo Jornal newspaper reported Thursday, citing the prosecutor’s office.

On the day Dos Santos’ son was arrested, Lourenco presented what he dubbed a “New Angola” to potential investors in New York.

“Angola has entered a new political cycle,” he said, touting economic reforms and the war on corruption. “In only one year, this is the Angola that I present to you, with a new business climate that is investor-friendly.”

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