from PEDRO AGOSTO in Luanda, Angola
LUANDA – THE controversial firing of the head of Angola’s state energy giant has underlined President Jose Lourenco’s eagerness to cement his grip on power, crush dissenting voices in his increasingly divided ruling party and brought the purported anti-corruption campaign into the spotlight.
Carlos Saturnino, dismissed as chairperson of Sonangol, is the latest executive to feel the wrath of the leader who is becoming more and more trigger-happy.
Critics have also questioned the timing around Saturnino’s dismissal, while his replacement of an individual seen as a blue-eyed boy of Manuel Vicente, one of the most influential, if not controversial, politicians in the oil-rich Southern African country has further raised eyebrows.
At face value, Saturnino’s downfall is the aftermath of a fallout from an embarrassing fuel shortage that has left the country in dire scarcity of the commodity despite Angola being the second biggest producer of crude oil in the African continent after Nigeria.
A statement from the Presidency blamed “lack of dialogue and communication between Sonangol and the different state institutions.”
The president has not stated publicly the reason to sack the man who replaced the also-dismissed Isabel dos Santos, the daughter of Lourenco’s predecessor, Jose Eduardo dos Santos.
She was dismissed in late 2017 following accusations of fraud.
She denied the charges, which critics argued were a ploy by the incoming president to tighten his grip on power from the former leader.
Saturnino’s dismissal has also been shrouded in some mystery.
“Ostensibly, the latter (Saturnino) has been made the scapegoat of the fuel crisis in the capital Luanda and other cities around the country,” stated the business risk intelligence firm, EXX Africa.
Sonangol blamed “difficulties in accessing currencies to cover costs of importing refined products, high debt of the main clients of the industrial segment and systematic failures in cabotage vessels.”
Sources disclosed Saturnino was an opponent to the restructuring of Sonangol, one of the signature projects of Lourenco.
Another think-tank, Africa Intelligence Excellency (AIE), said the pick of Sebastião Gaspar Martins, a veteran engineer with 40 years-experience at Sonangol, showed the influence former Sonangol chair, Vicente, wields in Angola’s political economy.
With a beleaguered reputation, is the advisor to Lourenco.
He chaired Sonangol from 1999 to 2012.
Vicente was the country’s Vice President from 2012-2017, when Lourenco was the Minister of Defence.
Martins meanwhile is the former understudy of Vecente’s at Sonangol.
He was general manager from 1999 to 2000, then chair of its exploration and production entity, Sonagol P&P, then board member from 2010 to 2013. That was before he headed Somoil, a company that bigwigs of the ruling People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) founded in the 1990s.
Somoil retains stakes in offshore oil blocks and interests in onshore production permits. There are concerns Somoil’s links to Martins and Vicente, could see it improperly benefit from Sonangol’s asset sales.
The industry experts pointed at the timing of the expulsion of Saturnino coinciding with Sonangol’s extensive asset divestments.
AIE noted it came as energy companies from Russia eyed opportunities in Angola.
“Russian energy giants are looking to snap up big contracts as Putin Russian President Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin) and Lourenco, seem to enter a honeymoon period,” it stated.
Among firms said to have show interest include RusHydro and Rosatom.
VTB Africa, an entity of universal Russia bank, VTB, also in Luanda has lent Angola US$1,5 billion (R21,63 billion), a deal sealed in 2014.
“There is ample precedent indicating that Angola’s new ruling elite is seeking to capitalise on positions of patronage, while the country’s embattled president is facing off ruling party rifts and the prospect of mounting unrest over IMF-(International Monetary Fund) -mandated austerity measures,” EXX Africa stated.
IMF has dissuaded Angola from its extravagant public spending. Despite his purported commitment to reduce government spending, Lourenco’s administration is synonymous for chartered planes and hefty military spending – in a country that is battling a foreign and domestic debt estimated at nearly $80 billion (R1.2 trillion).
IMF earlier this year intervened to stop a bid to acquire 15 Bombardier and Boeing aircraft for TAAG Angola, the national airline, noting it infringed Angola’s compliance with the goals spelt in the IMF Extended Credit Facility.
Loyalists of dos Santos are making the most of the escalating grievances of the populace over the economic malaise.
The changes at Sonangol also cast doubts on the credence of Lourenco’s clampdown on corruption, which critics argue is aimed at ridding government and MPLA of dos Santos’s associates.
Besides Isabel, Jose Filomeno dos Santos (nicknamed Zenu) was fired, arrested and released without charge, alongside his associate Jean-Claude Bastos de Morais, who heads asset management firm Quantum Global.
The assets in question were under the Sovereign Fund name and ownership all along. Angola lost the court case because there was no mismanagement proven.
The United Kingdom High Court stated that the Angolan government omitted relevant information to it (court).
There had in fact been no grounds for the arrests of de Morais and dos Santos’ son.
Attorney General Hélder Pitta Grós, conceded their case was weak.
“We had nothing and we preferred to release Mr Bastos,” he was quoted on video.
None of the ex-president’s children have been convicted but there are indications Lourenco is still eager to purge the former first family.
Daughter, Welwitschia dos Santos, has fled to the United Kingdom, fearing for her life after alleged threats by the secret service.
A ruling party MP, she has previously demanded Lourenco’s resignation.
“This gives credibility of the dismissal of the anti-graft crusade as a determination to hound out dos Santos children and loyalists out of the government, out of the party and now out of the country,” said Socio-political analyst, Dominique Jordão, said.
The prospect look dim, with strikes and protests projected, especially in the cities where people are worst affected by the economic slide. A split in the MPLA thus would exacerbate the situation in a country that suffered 27 years of civil war after independence in 1975.
– CAJ News