JOHANNESBURG - Angolan President Joao Lourenco has made headline-grabbing changes in the nation’s vital oil sector since taking power in 2017. Economists say these changes should improve Angola's economy, and may even provide a model for other resource-rich African nations. But Lourenco’s critics say the reforms are cosmetic and haven’t brought benefits to ordinary Angolans.
Oil has long been a blessing and a curse for citizens of this Southern African nation. Allies of longtime president Jose Eduardo dos Santos allegedly enriched themselves off oil profits, while most citizens remained desperately poor.
But since taking office in 2017, Lourenco has been making welcomed changes.
“The current president really, really has — I wouldn’t say he has turned it around, he has taken some major steps that the industry has been waiting and the economy has been looking at," said NJ Ayuk, head of the Johannesburg-based Centurion Law Group and chairman of the Africa Energy Chamber of Commerce. "And we are seeing things improving if these steps are actually implemented and they actually go forward.”
Lourenco is trying to diversify the oil-dependent economy, announcing the nation’s first diamond auction later this month.
He also sacked several of the former president’s children from top positions, including his daughter, who was running the state oil company Sonangol.
Lourenco also reformed Sonangol, streamlining operations and regulations to make it easier for foreign investors to work in the oil sector.
Economist Cobus de Hart of NKC African Economics said it’s too soon to be optimistic.
“Most of the improvement is due to higher oil prices," he told VOA. "And obviously it will take some time for the reforms at Sonangol to translate to increased earnings and also a marked improvement in inefficiencies. But moves have thus far seem to have attracted more interest from global oil majors to invest more in the country.”
Angolan journalist and human rights activist Rafael Marques, a frequent critic of the government, said the leadership changes at the state oil company are cosmetic and misleading.
“The way contracts are allocated, you still have companies that belong to politically exposed persons providing services," he said. "So, some reforms are being implemented. But the point is not to replace one set of crooks by another set of crooks. Most of the public contracts [Lourenco is] signing off are without public tender. And remember, that’s where the oil money goes to.”
Nonetheless, Ayuk, who recently visited Angola, said he is hopeful.
He said if Angola continues reforming its oil industry, it could trigger similar efforts in other African countries.
“What is really exciting is that most observers are looking at this and saying, ‘Maybe this could be something that we can really build upon and look at as a model that works for Africa.’ The truth of the matter is that if Angola gets it right, there is no reason why Mozambique or South Africa, or Namibia, or Nigeria, or Equatorial Guinea cannot get it right. Because people are tired of not seeing these resources translate to development.“