African democratic reform falters and falls

Mo Ibrahim. Photo Chatham House via Wikipedia, Creative Commons
Mo Ibrahim. Photo Chatham House via Wikipedia, Creative Commons

JONATHAN MANTHORPE: International Affairs
June 17, 2016

Two events in the last few days make it depressingly clear that after a few years of great political and social advances, Africa is slipping back into its bad old ways.

On Thursday, the Mo Ibrahim Foundation announced that yet again there is no one worthy of receiving its latest prestigious and lucrative prize for excellence in African leadership. Only four times since the award was launched 10 years ago have the judges found democratically elected leaders who qualified by having willingly left office when their mandate ended.

The second event this week gave focus to the foundation’s bleak assessment. In Angola, President Eduardo dos Santos, who has ruled the south-west African oil state for nearly 40 years, announced that his daughter, Isabel, 43, will be put in charge of the state-owned oil company Sonangol. To all intents, Sonangol is the Angolan economy and Isabel dos Santos is already judged by Forbes to be Africa’s richest woman by dint of being daughter of the president. Putting Isabel in charge of Sonangol looks very much as though Eduardo dos Santos is securing both the succession and the family fortune.

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The thumbs down on Africa’s leadership by the Mo Ibrahim Foundation follows the publication in April of its regular assessment of the state of governance and human and social rights in Africa. The latest exhaustive assessment concluded that while overall governance in Africa improved between 2000 and 2008, “since then it has been stagnating.”

Indeed, over much of Africa there has been a marked deterioration in human and political rights, the rule of law and sustainable economic opportunity.

The improvements in governance in Africa in the first years of the century flowed from enthusiasm for the newly-created New Partnership for African Development (NEPAD). The inspiration for this initiative was that the time had come for Africa to take responsibility for its own future. To that end, NEPAD committed Africa’s 54 countries to pursuing good government, democracy, human rights, conflict resolution, and an attractive environment for economic growth.

It is on these principles that the Mo Ibrahim Foundation has judged the continent’s progress and, in the last few years, lack of it.

In a commentary on the foundation’s analysis, the British-based Oxford Analytica, which describes itself as “a global analysis and advisory firm drawing on a macro expert network to advise clients on strategy and performance in complex markets,” foresees Africa returning to an era of instability.

Oxford Analytica points to rising authoritarianism, declining respect for civil liberties and opposition disillusionment with electoral politics highlighted in the foundation report.

While much of this abandonment of the NEPAD principles is undoubtedly home-grown, Oxford Analytica points to two external forces. One is the reduced emphasis by Western donor countries on human and political rights development as a prerequisite for aid. The other is the increased availability of aid from authoritarian regimes like China and Saudi Arabia. Beijing and Riyadh put no stock in encouraging the development of broadly democratic values and are much happier dealing with pliable petty despots than with open and representative systems.

It is not only in Africa, of course, that countries have discovered that money from the current Chinese and Saudi regimes comes with a heavy dose of the corruption virus.

Mo Ibrahim, 70, has been described as Britain’s “most powerful black man.” He was born in Sudan, then a British colony in all but name, of a Nubian family. He got his first science degree at Alexandria University in Egypt, then also a British domain. Ibrahim went on to get his masters degree in electrical engineering at the University of Bradford in England, and a doctorate in mobile communications from the University of Birmingham.

With mobile communications clearly the coming thing, Ibrahim was snapped up by British Telecom, the state telephone company, and became technical director of its Cellnet subsidiary. But in the late 1980s Ibrahim struck out by himself, founding his own consultancy and software company, which he later sold to the electronics giant Marconi for a small fortune.

In the later 1990s Ibrahim founded what has become Celtel. This company aimed at Africa where it has sold over 24 million cell phones in 14 countries. In 2005 he sold Celtel for $US3.4 billion, and set up the Mo Ibrahim Foundation with an endowment of about half that money.

The aim of the foundation is to encourage the NEPAD principles, and one of those is to persuade Africa’s leaders, who are notoriously averse to retirement, to ride off into the sunset when their shelf life is done. Ibrahim’s approach to getting Africa’s “Big Man” leaders to move on is crudely practical. He pays them off.

To be eligible for the Mo Ibrahim Foundation prize the African leaders must have been democratically elected and must give up office when their mandate is over. No Presidents-for-Life need apply. To those qualified and chosen the foundation gives an initial payment of $US5 million followed by a pension of $US200,000-a-year for life. But although this is the world’s most lavish prize for statesmanship – far exceeding the $US1.3 million of the Nobel Peace Prize – it is, sadly, not enough. Only leaders of the smallest and poorest African countries find the Mo Ibrahim prize seductive. For most the lure of being President-for-Life and the over-stuffed tax haven bank accounts that go with it are far more attractive than a paltry $US5 million and the $US200,000-a-year beer money.

This is why only four former African leaders have merited the award in the 10 years of its existence. South Africa’s Nelson Mandela was made an honourary laureate in 2007, but this was really a bit of publicity to kick off the prize. Otherwise, the winners are not household names, even in Africa. There was President Hifikepunye of Namibia, President Pedro Pires of Cape Verde, President Festus Mogae of Botswana, and President Joaquim Chissano – probably the most widely known — of Mozambique.

There are no foreseeable circumstances under which Angola’s Eduardo dos Santos would be eligible for the prize, or be bothered to seek such a small sum. He may have presided over one of the poorest countries in Africa since 1979 where about 70 per cent of the 22 million people live on less than $US2 a day, but dos Santos and his family are rolling in wealth.

Dos Santos is one of the few remaining classic African revolutionaries from the colonial era. As a schoolboy in the early 1960s he joined one of the organizations fighting against Portuguese rule, the Marxist People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA). He went into exile and wound up in the Soviet Union, where he earned degrees in petroleum engineering and in radar communications from the Azerbaijan Oil and Chemistry Institute in Baku. During this period he met and married a Russian woman, Tatiana Kukanova, the first of dos Santos’ three wives and the mother of Isabel.

After the Portuguese withdrew from most of their colonies in 1975, Angola fell into a three-cornered, tribal-based civil war. The MPLA kept control of the capital, Luanda, and much of the north of the country, including its oil reserves. The diamond fields of the south financed the forces of the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA), led by Jonas Savimbi, allied to South Africa and the United States. The civil war continued until Savimbi’s death in 2002.

After independence in 1975, dos Santos rose through the ranks of the MPLA, and in 1979 became the party’s leader and Angola’s president. Elections, all of highly questionable authenticity, have come and gone and he has remained firmly in charge especially since the end of the civil war. In recent years dos Santos has not bothered to hold presidential elections. Now and again there have been parliamentary elections, which the MPLA inevitably wins. Dos Santos has taken the view that as he is head of the MPLA, that automatically makes him president again.

From the start, dos Santos turned Angola into one of Africa’s premier kleptocracies. International oil companies loved dealing with a president with a degree in petroleum engineering and a no-nonsense approach to the cost of doing business. But dos Santos’ acquisitive instincts have gone well beyond the oil industry, which now accounts for 98 per cent of Angola’s exports and 75 per cent of government revenues. During and after the civil war he cornered control of several natural resource industries as well as other emerging companies.

To its credit, the MPLA retains a strong strand of anti-authoritarianism. In a fit of revolutionary pique a few years ago the Angolan Parliament passed laws making it illegal for the president to have equity holdings in companies or organizations. Dos Santos did the sensible thing and swiftly transferred his assets to his daughter, Isabel.

She is undoubtedly a woman of talents – she has a degree in electrical engineering from King’s College in London – but her billing as Africa’s most successful businesswoman is only partly justified. Forbes figures she’s worth $US3 billion, and that most if not all that money came her way either directly or indirectly through her father. As former Angolan Prime Minister Marcolino Moco told Forbes a few years ago: “There is no doubt that it was the father who generated such a fortune.”

The supposition, of course, is that Isabel is holding the family fortune in trust for her father so that he has a safe and secure retirement. When that might be, however, is anyone’s guess. In 2001, Eduardo dos Santos did say that he would step down soon, but it never happened. And in March this year he said he would retire in 2018, after elections due to be held next year. However, given his past equivocation on this subject, no one is holding their breath.

More than that, he is being purposefully obtuse about who his successor might be. Speculation has focused on Manuel Vicente, the state oil company boss who became vice-president, then to dos Santos’ son Jose Filomeno, and most recently to his daughter Isabel.

With Isabel’s appointment a few days ago to oversee the restructuring of the state oil company Sonangol, her name has leapt to the fore. In essence, she now heads the Angolan economy.

Sonangol needs restructuring because so much has been looted out of its treasurer chest that the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has been called in to cast its magic over Angola’s debt problems. Last year the dos Santos government borrowed $US10 billion — $US6 billion from China – just to fund health, water, electricity and road projects.

When the IMF first got involved in 2012 one of the first questions that turned up in Sonangol’s books was a missing $US32 billion, equivalent to a quarter of Angola’s entire gross domestic product. Well, thankfully, the IMF was able to put minds at rest by deciding that the missing oil money was linked to “quasi-fiscal operations.” Apparently this means money that Sonangol spent on the government’s behalf, but which didn’t get recorded in the official accounts. That’s all right then.

Yet there is reason to question whether dos Santos will try to make Isabel head of the MPLA and Angola’s head of state. She has little party political experience and, like most organizations with revolutionary Marxist backgrounds, the MPLA doesn’t like having people foisted on it who have not fought and bled on the frontlines. Also, Angola remains a strongly patriarchal society where the concept of a woman leader has not yet permeated the political culture.

So Isabel’s role will probably be to look after daddy’s pile and coming to terms with the disappointment that there’s no Mo Ibrahim Foundation prize in her future either.

Copyright Jonathan Manthorpe 2016

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Further information:

Mo Ibrahim Foundation

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Manthorpe B&WJonathan Manthorpe is a founding columnist with Facts and Opinions and is the author of the journal’s International Affairs column. He is the author of “Forbidden Nation: A History of Taiwan,” and has been a foreign correspondent and international affairs columnist for nearly 40 years. Manthorpe’s  nomadic career began in the late 1970s as European Bureau Chief for The Toronto Star, the job that took Ernest Hemingway to Europe in the 1920s. In the mid-1980s Manthorpe became European Correspondent for Southam News. In the following years Manthorpe was sent by Southam News, the internal news agency for Canada’s largest group of metropolitan daily newspapers, to be the correspondent in Africa and then Asia. Between postings Manthorpe spent a few years based in Ottawa focusing on intelligence and military affairs, and the United Nations. Since 1998 Manthorpe has been based in Vancouver, but has travelled frequently on assignment to Asia, Europe and Latin America.


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