Although Angola has one of the fastest-growing economies in the world, it is a country plagued by inequality and rife with corruption. World Policy Journal spoke to Angolan journalist Rafael Marques de Morais, who in 2009 founded the watchdog website Maka, dedicated to exposing state corruption and human rights abuses. In 2011, he wrote “Diamantes de Sangue: Corrupção e Tortura em Angola” (Blood Diamonds: Corruption and Torture in Angola) for which he was charged with criminal defamation in 2015. He is a recipient of the 2013 Integrity Award from Transparency International, the 2014 Gerald Loeb Award for international reporting, and the 2015 Allard Prize for Integrity.
WORLD POLICY JOURNAL: What is the situation in Angola at the moment?
RAFAEL MARQUES DE MORAIS: The situation is awkward because the country is in serious economic trouble, with serious shortages of food and spiking inflation. And yet when you watch the government’s propaganda, the government’s narrative, everything in the country seems to be on the right path and going OK. So we have these two competing images in which the state television, the national radio, and the only daily newspaper projects an image that the country doing great every single day. And the reality is that you go to shops and you have a scarcity of milk and basic products. There’s no garbage collection in the city and now we have an outbreak of yellow fever, and over 70 people have died—those who have been accounted for by the government. There is a huge contrast between reality and the official narrative.
WPJ: You’ve experienced the government’s censorship laws—which in some ways resemble lèse majesté laws—firsthand. What are the nuances of these laws? Have they changed with time?
RMM: Since 1992, until very recently, the state media, particularly the national television and state newspapers—had Brazilian marketeers crafting the messages and training the journalists. So in the state media there is no need for censorship because people know what the line is. They’ve been trained to broadcast propaganda—that’s their job. They know their job. And there will be no cases in which journalists will try or attempt to show the other side.
I’ll give you an example. Days ago, I had a debate with a special envoy of my president [Angolan President José Eduardo dos Santos] in Washington. We finished the debate, which was live-streamed. Then the national radio interviewed him, and did not interview me, so only his message passed through the national radio. Of course have gave a completely different version of what happened in the meeting, in which he had no argument. He did nothing but contradict what I had to say. And the national television picked one thing I said about the hospitals, and spun it to hide the fact that the president’s envoy made a fool of himself in the debate. It was embarrassing to see someone appointed by the president with such poor arguments. To justify the fact that the president awards all the major contracts to his daughter, he said in the U.S. George H.W. Bush’s son also became president, so why can’t the Angolan president give to his children? And he tried to use the example of Bob Kennedy and John F. Kennedy. And an American would say, We have elections in the U.S—if people voted for the son, that’s the people’s choice, not the father’s choice. And with Bob Kennedy, his appointment had to be confirmed by the Senate.
We have this crisis with the outbreak of yellow fever, because garbage is not being collected in the street, but you will not find that on the national television or in the state media. Now, what is the private media? We only have weekly newspapers which we could call independent or private. They don’t print even 100,000 copies a week, and just in the capital we have 6 million people. They don’t have a distribution system that reaches out to the country. And they’re extremely expensive to buy, ordinary people don’t buy them. The majority of newspapers also belong to interest groups connected to the regime. But the idea is to give the veneer of freedom of expression, to show that there is plurality in the media when in fact we have a government that uses the state media, which is run with taxpayers’ money, as a party propaganda machine.
WPJ: What are you doing to break this monopoly on information?
RMM: I publish sometimes two articles a day, one in English and one in Portuguese. Regularly it’s one article a day. I share on Facebook. The size of my audience is superior to that of the Angolan news agency and the state newspaper—that gives you an idea of where the people’s interests are. I provide the kind of information that people want to read and they will follow that. So the articles on my website in Portuguese that have the lowest readership have around 40,000 views per article. The ones with the highest readership have over 100,000 views. Once information is critical and relevant to a public that is eager to find out what’s happening in the country, they will find their way—through social media, through the bush telegraph—to get the information they need.
WPJ: Are there enough journalists in Angola and in the region doing the kind of work you do?
RMM: It’s very difficult for many Angolans, and those in repressive regimes in the region, to do this work. I’ve been doing this for more than 20 years, and getting into all sorts of trouble. But I have to tell you that people of good will are enough to make a strong chain of change in people’s mindsets. What’s most important is not to change the regime, but change the mindset of people, the way people perceive power. Not just a central power, but power among themselves—power in the community. Unless that changes, the changes in the way countries are run will not be very significant. So this kind of work, digging into what is going wrong and what needs to be done right, what laws are being broken, it helps to create a culture of a rule of law, for the common good.
WPJ: What do you think is driving state corruption—a topic you’ve written much about—in Angola?
RMM: Greed? On the president’s part, to start with. His own mediocrity. When he took power, there was an ideology to protect him. Everything could be done and be disguised as part of an ideology. Now, as the country has no ideology to follow, corruption has become the mainstay of his power. He doesn’t know how to justify it. And therefore he tries to persuade the population that anyone who is lucky enough to partake in the corruption scheme will be very rich. So that’s basically the idea—making corruption appealing to the majority of the people, like a lottery, and those who enter it might have the winning ticket.
WPJ: What ideology had cloaked state corruption in the past?
RMM: Marxism-Leninism. And after Marxism-Leninism, the justification was war. Nowadays the president comes out publicly and says we must engage in private accumulation of capital because that is the way Europe and the United States also created a bourgeoisie. And of course what the president has not explained is that the primitive accumulation of capital was not undertaken in democracies by the leaders in government.
WPJ: Would you say corruption is tied personally to Dos Santos [the Angolan president]?
RMM: It’s fairly personal to him because he made it his main policy to remain in power. That’s why I make it my main work as well, because the system must be brought down.
WPJ: Would removing him dismantle that system?
RMM: He entrenched the system of corruption. Those who are against it must entrench a culture of accountability and transparency, because that’s how things change. It’s not just about removing an individual, because of course someone else might come in and do the same thing. We need to share information, educate people on the perils of corruption and what it does to the social fabric of a nation, and how it can destroy a nation like opium. It gives this false sense of one being high when in fact it destroys one’s life and livelihood.
And another thing that needs to be entrenched is common purpose. Angolans since independence have been taught to follow an ideology; and then they were taught to wait for the end of the war to do something about their freedom. And so there is this continuous suspension of people’s rights, the ability for people to affirm themselves as individuals. So this kind of work also proves that not everyone is interested in becoming rich, or a politician, or in taking advantage of the regime for one’s personal gain, but that there are also people who are fighting for the common good.
WPJ: So do you think that’s the responsibility of a citizen in such a context, to promote alternative narratives?
RMM: Yes, absolutely, I’ll give you an example. The government continues to say, Look we’re doing a great job, we built new hospitals, we provide healthcare for free. But people know when they go to hospital, there are hardly any doctors. In a recent case, in one area, for 150,000 people there were five North Korean doctors who did not speak Portuguese, the official language, did not have interpreters. And they’re the ones in charge of providing healthcare for 150,000 people.
So it’s a matter of bringing back information to the public. How does the government try to perpetuate itself through propaganda? By annihilating those who have different opinions; by removing from sight those critical social media and newspapers that are at the forefront of bringing critical information to the public’s knowledge, so that people can an informed decision.
WPJ: How is the corruption seen in Angola different from the corruption in other African countries?
RMM: You have corruption in many other countries, but the difference in Angola is the level of impunity and transparency with which leaders loot public resources. In South Africa you have corruption, and the president is in trouble for corruption. In other countries, too, you have corruption, but once people start talking about what is happening, something is done. Let’s take the example of Uganda. If the president of Uganda gave a $600 million contract to his son, it would cause an uproar. In Angola the president in recent months gave his daughter the contract to restructure the national oil company, which accounts for more than 90 percent of Angola’s exports and its big budget. And a contract to build a new waterfront area. These are very corrupt deals, because it’s against the Angolan legislation but the president continues because he feels he has impunity. And the daughter goes and hires an American company, the Boston Consulting Group, and a Portuguese company, to give her legitimacy as a good businesswoman, someone who is doing legitimate business, when in fact it’s a very corrupt business. A company like Boston Consulting Group should not have consented to engage in that deal. In fact they should be investigated under the FCPA [the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act of 1997] for that.
WPJ: So what can be done to curb state corruption, both from within Angola and from outside?
RMM: No African leader wants to loot the country to keep the money in the country. The principle is very simple: take away from the country, stick it in Europe or in a safe haven controlled by Europe or America. A few have also tried to stash their money in Latin America, but it’s never really safe there. A few tried in Asia, but basically all the proceeds of corruption end up in America or Europe. So if the scrutiny on money coming from Africa is tightened in Europe and in the U.S., and the deals between companies and these corrupt officials are scrutinized closely in the U.S., then we will have a reduction in the way these individuals are looting. It will be far more difficult for them to park large sums of money in American banks. During the ’80s, we had some of the most notorious gangster presidents in Africa, like Mobutu, Kasa, and others. These individuals actually had the support of the West. Bokassa had France, Mobutu had the U.S.
When it comes also to taking measures then the Chinese can also be very corrupt—but very extreme as well when it comes to punishment, if they feel it’s hurting the country’s interests. In Europe and the U.S. it’s far more relaxed because crooks have greater opportunities to hire the best legal minds to represent them. European leaders and U.S. leaders should restrain from giving succor to leaders who are associated with corruption by preventing themselves from shaking hands with them, by keeping them at bay, because these individuals need international respectability. If they’re seen as international pariahs, they might still abuse their own people, but they will not be able to use the West and America to continue to ransack their own countries.
WPJ: You’ve reported on the corruption of prominent people in the government despite the very real threat of harm and imprisonment, which you’ve experienced personally. Given those stakes, what compels you to do the work that you do?
RMM: I am a citizen of Angola and I want a better country. For that I need to do my part—no-one will do it for me—and this is my contribution to changing the landscape. That’s the duty of a citizen, as Kennedy once said. This is my simple contribution.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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[Photo courtesy of Rafael Marques de Morais]