Gary van Staden | NKC African Economics
Angolan President Joao Lourenço on Wednesday, November 15, sacked Isabel dos Santos as head of the board at State-owned oil company Sonangol in a move that cements his power and influence over a key sector while at the same time addressing the concerns of international investors.
While the removal of Ms Dos Santos has clear political connotations – she was one of the kingpins in the financial empire of her father, former President José Eduardo dos Santos, as well as a symbol of the former president’s influence – the action was also widely welcomed as a decisive move to improve efficiency and productivity at the crucial State-owned enterprise.
Ms Dos Santos was proving an ineffective leader and was accused of frustrating international oil companies with a series of unexplained project delays that damaged foreign investment sentiment and harmed domestic production.
In the wake of the recent Angolan elections, local media reported that international oil companies operating in Angola wrote to Mr Lourenço outlining grievances with the state of the oil industry – inefficiencies, bottlenecks and general inability to take decisions – all believed to be direct criticisms of the leadership qualities, or lack thereof, of Ms Dos Santos.
In addition, Mr Lourenço simultaneously sacked most of the Sonangol board and replaced them with new members generally more competent in the oil sector.
“Isabel dos Santos is out and now it is up to the new board to show results in a short timeframe, or they will also lose credibility,” a source at an international oil company in Angola told Reuters on Wednesday night.
In a twist of fate, Ms Dos Santos was replaced as chair by Carlos Saturnino, formerly the secretary of State for oil who was sacked by Ms Dos Santos.
It was a win-win situation for Mr Lourenço: he needed to improve the efficiency and productivity of Sonangol, the nation’s crown jewel and virtually sole provider of revenue, and he needed to demonstrate his political willingness and ability to dismantle the Dos Santos financial empire.
Mr Lourenço has indeed started to prove he is something of his own man given the general opinion beforehand that he was little more than a Dos Santos clone who would do his former master’s bidding.
But some caution is required. Moving against high profile individuals who are largely without their patron’s ability to protect them any longer is one issue – to take on a rigid, closed and paranoid political and security system is going to be a harder nut to crack and to date Mr Lourenço has left those structures largely untouched.
Cutting off the heads of unpopular relics of the Dos Santos era will earn kudos and some applause – tackling institutionalised repression and authoritarianism with an inherently undemocratic culture will be the real test of any promise to fundamentally reform Angola.
The people still wait for change, though now perhaps with a little more hope that real change is possible. Mr Lourenço dare not disappoint this hope.