Joao Lourenco. Picture: REUTERS
Joao Lourenco. Picture: REUTERS

Lisbon/Johannesburg — Corruption used to be so widespread in Angola that "gasosa", the Portuguese word for a fizzy drink, became a common term for bribes. Now, President Joao Lourenco is on a drive to change that — and the son of his predecessor could soon be put on trial.

Popularly known as the "terminator", Lourenco is one of several African leaders who have put fighting graft at the centre stage of their policies, pledging to dismantle corrupt business networks that have undermined state revenue.

SA’s Cyril Ramaphosa, Tanzania’s John Magufuli and Ghana’s Nana Akufo-Addo have also encouraged the prosecution of corrupt officials and criticised citizens for normalising a culture of bribery.

Lourenco has some way to go. Angola consistently ranked among the world’s 20 worst offenders on Berlin-based Transparency International’s corruption index after the country emerged from an almost three-decade long civil war in 2002 and tapped huge offshore oil reserves that transformed it into Africa’s second-biggest oil producer.

"Things are changing so fast that people are scared of taking bribes," Nuno Borges, head of the country’s car dealers’ association, said by phone. "Today, it’s rare for someone to pay a bribe to a policeman because they know they can get into serious trouble."

Thirsty policemen

For years, offering "gasosas" would give access to basic public services or materialise multimillion dollar building contracts. Police officers or government officials who signalled they were thirsty and in urgent need of a fizzy drink were in reality asking for a bribe.

But the culture of bribery is losing its allure as Lourenco has vowed to hold corrupt officials accountable. It’s part of his strategy to make Angola more attractive to foreign investors and help the oil-dependent economy recover from the 2014 drop in crude prices.

"Corruption happens because there is impunity," Lourenco said in January. "That’s the reason why corruption is widespread at all levels — from the person who asks for a bribe on the street to those who hold prominent positions."

In November, Edson Vaz, the treasury director at the finance ministry, was accused of embezzlement and sent to jail. In February, a judge in the capital, Luanda, handed suspended prison sentences to two officials at the health ministry for the misappropriation of state funds meant to fight malaria.

Dos Santos family

Graft became pervasive under Jose Eduardo dos Santos, who ruled for almost four decades. When he stepped down as president in September, his children held top positions. His billionaire daughter Isabel was at the helm of the state oil giant Sonangol, his son Jose Filomeno headed a $5bn wealth fund and two other children had contracts to manage Angola’s public TV channels.

Even though Lourenco was picked by Dos Santos as his successor, he swiftly moved to untangle the grip of the Dos Santos family on the country’s economy, dismissing Isabel and Jose Filomeno within weeks of assuming office. Isabel dos Santos, Africa’s richest woman, has told the Portuguese newspaper Negocios that the government was conducting a politically motivated campaign to tarnish her reputation.

Then, in March, authorities charged Jose Filomeno and the former head of the central bank, Valter Filipe da Silva, with fraud for allegedly transferring $500m from a central bank account to a bank in London shortly before presidential elections in 2017. The finance ministry said the transfer was part of a plan to defraud the government of $1.5bn.

Both men were barred from leaving the country, according to deputy state prosecutor Luis Benza Zanga, who said the case involves other people.

Jose Filomeno dos Santos said in a statement in March that he would co-operate with authorities "for the full and satisfactory resolution" of the case.

The fact that Jose Filomeno, who was previously untouchable, has been publicly named as a suspect and will be prosecuted "was crucial in sending the message to ordinary Angolans that, from now on, everyone is equal before the law," said Paulo Carvalho, a sociologist at Agostinho Neto University in Luanda.

"Angolans were used to a law that only applied to the weak and poor," he said by phone. "What we are witnessing is the rebirth of hope for ordinary people who have been neglected for many years."