Trucking around COVID-19: the million missing.

In Angola, kleptocrats are well known for their lavish way of life paid with the State credit card. When COVID hit, the state coffers were still empty to face the crisis. While luxury cars were still entering the state, the Angola government launched a private call for donations to feed the poorest. Let Jorge, a trucker, drive you through the mess left.

Presidential Decree nº81/20 is a bureaucratic document, but has radically changed the life of Angolans who had to abide by the 15-days national state of emergency and of “Public Calamity” starting on March 27th, 2020. The decree was renewed several times, the latest holding Angolans lives till July 2021, restricting travels, imposing a curfew and limiting every aspect of their daily routine. The civil service, security agencies, individuals, vendors, artists, construction companies, schools/universities, nobody was left unaffected.

Jorge is a truck driver: his income relies on moving around Angola. He was informed of the State of Emergency by his wife who had heard it on the TV. He found himself in trouble, as he had goods in his truck from a trip he had just made to Saurimo in Lunda Sul province. Like many, he heard about the first flight landing from Portugal which brought the first cases of COVID in the country. This seems very distant to him.

The sudden travel restrictions and quarantines were much less distant: roads were blocked by cars, while armored vehicles would make sure they would not go further. Military and police Special Forces were on the street restricting people’s right to free movement in neighborhoods such as Hoje-Ya-Henda, Futungo, Cassenda, Talatona and even areas in Kilamba city. For Jorge, this meant he could not feed his family. So he had to find his way out.

The fake promises of kleptocrats

Oil could have made Angola better prepared for the COVID emergency, and money flooding for years could have filled the state coffers. With a GDP per capita of 3,104 USD, it fares as well as Morocco and Egypt. But like many countries in the neighborhood, a clique of kleptocrats have seized all the money for their own profits, while maintaining a tight grip on the people using a sense of nationalism and patriotism. This left the country at the bottom of the Human Development Index, ranking 158th.

In 2017, President João Lourenço replaced incumbent José Eduardo dos Santos, who was in power for 25 years. But while the face of the regime changed, the same elite kept doing its business. The only thing that changed is that, through fighting, Angolans suddenly realized the worth of the spoils.

There were positive signs of change. Former Transport Minister Augusto Tomás became the first office holder to be tried. He was sentenced to 14 years in prison on charges of embezzlement, and money laundering, organized crime in the National Council of Shippers (CNC) case which defrauded the Angolan State of more than one billion kwanzas (the equivalent of 1,53 millions USD ).

Another corruption scandal that shook Angolan society was the famous GRECIMA case that involved the former CEO of Rádio Nacional de Angola, former minister and MP Manuel Rebelais. He defrauded the Angolan State of more than 22.9 billion kwanzas (32 million USD) of funds received from the National Bank of Angola (BNA). He was sentenced to 14 years in prison.

There was also the $500 million Sovereign Fund case, which involved the son of outgoing president José Eduardo dos Santos and president of the Sovereign Fund of Angola, Filomeno dos Santos, along with his Swiss-Angolan crook friend, Jean-Claude Bastos de Morais, and the then Governor of the National Bank of Angola, Mr. Walter Filipe. The State claims it recovered part of the money, and the perpetrators were sentenced to 5 years in prison.

One of the most astounding cases of corruption involved the former chairman of the Board of Directors of Sonangol, the former Vice-President of the Republic, and Member of the National Assembly, Mr. Manuel Vicente. He is accused of several corruption crimes under investigation in Portugal under the “FIZZ operation”, but for now is protected by an immunity set to expired in 5 years as NGOs worried that he will simply not face justice. Vicente has strong connections with the China International Fund (CIF), a Chinese company with Angolan assets and several businesses that defrauded the State of millions. He is one of the richest Angolans, surpassing Isabel dos Santos and other billionaires in the country with a fortune of over one billion US dollars. He recently bought a 16 million dollar palace in Dubai.

Mr. Manuel Vicente

The list can also go on forever. Isabel dos Santos, the eldest daughter of former President José Eduardo dos Santos, embezzled more than $100 million from Sonangol to Dubai as President of the National Oil Company Sonangol the day her father left power. Former State Minister and President’s chief of staff Edeltrudes Costa is involved in a multi-million-dollar scandal and is accused of being in possession of 30 million USD.

Corruption is at all levels of government. An investigation has been launched on the management of 12 embassies, including the Democratic Republic of Congo Consul stealing more than 400,000 USD. Operation “Caranguejo” dismantled a network of corruption involving high-ranking military officers responsible for a multi-million fraud scheme.

Domingos Jerónimo, president of the National Police’s social security fund, accused the outgoing management of an absence of records of revenues and expenses. The fund’s finances plunged into a catastrophic situation worth $1 million debt. There are office holders who have more than 70 buildings with more than 8 to 12 floors, houses in every corner of the country. Also they own vast acres of land. 99% of Angolan leaders took large sums abroad; money that will never return.

All these cases might send a sign that someone is finally cleaning up the system. But it does not: many of the accused have never faced justice, while President Lorenço is increasingly accused to use anti-corruption to consolidate his own power, while Angolans watch the score settling like a telenovelas…. Still waiting to get back the share of services.

A truck’s driver journey through Covid

Jorge Mayala drives everyday through the impact of kleptocracy: potholes and narrow roads, no rest areas, lack of bridges and road signs, no health posts.

This is where another Presidential Decree, which was intended to help him, became a three-day nightmare.

“In order to facilitate the process and meet the needs of families it was decided that the tests for Covid-19 would be free for truck drivers and assistants delivering essential services for the festive season, such as food, beverages, fuel, decorative products, toys, among others specific goods. In the light of Presidential Decree 314/20, of 10 December.”

DAY 1

Jorge was relieved to hear the new decree. Reality turned otherwise. He left his home in Viana at 5:45 am, crossing Capalanga, a particularly dangerous area at night. When he arrived at 7:45 am to the Luanda test facility, he realized he was too late: some people spent the night there and yet, nothing was happening. Few hours laters, fewer people got tested that his fingers could count. The facility was overcrowded with mask-less truckers, and social distancing was impossible. Meanwhile, truck drivers working for the kleptocrats would show up with notes or had pre-arranged their visit through phone calls that were tested on the spot, regardless of when they had arrived. Corruption already took control of the process.

DAY 2 

Jorge and his assistant Kinito did not sleep that night, doing their best to be at the testing site by at least at 3:30 or 4:00 am. Arriving at the appointed time, they entered the yard of the testing site. Still, the site was already packed. A guard did not hesitate to insult people in the waiting room. And, despite the decree, health workers were asking for money.

Jorge joined a group of truck drivers who were angry with the situation and the injustices they witnessed. They were soon arrested by the protection services on the spot and accused of being troublemakers. Official reports accused them of having received money from third parties to create a riot and tarnish a process that, according to official sources, was going very well.

Jorge didn’t have the worst day. A colleague, who also tried to get tested the previous day, was killed on his way home in the dark. The price of his life: a cell phone and a bit of money. He might have been simply unlucky, but lack of public lightning or of functioning police are also part of the problem.

DAY 3

While Jorge sees corruption, embezzlement and lack of care affecting his livelihood, the kleptocrats found a way to profit from the situation from their luxury mansions. Truckers had to pay bribes up to 10 to 15,000 Kwanzas (between 15 and 23 USD) for tests, while a fake test market was created. At the testing center Jorge went to, technicians asked only 5,000 to 7,000 Kwanza (between 7,5 and 11 USD). In the center, a colleague has been trying to get through for a third day, crying as he realized that he would not get through, as the perishable goods would go rotten in his truck. In the meantime, kleptocrats’ lorries passed and went.

DAY 4

The government and the national police have been clear that they will strictly apply the presidential decrees to an illness that remains invisible for a lot of Angolans. They might label Jorge a “hooligan” for demanding services, but the trucker sees it differently.

Jorge has been driving trucks for over 30 years, delivering goods even in the worst of the civil war. With his hand on the steering wheel and foot on the accelerator, he tried to make up for lost time. His goal was to reach Catete/Lunda Sul passing through Kwanza-Norte, Malanje and going up to Saurimo and delivering cargo then descending to the Bengo towards Cabinda, crossing the border of Luvu, Democratic Republic of Congo and entering Cabinda to deliver various products and receive his payment. With nostalgia he remembers the stops made in Catete to rest and refuel the truck. This after having to overcome the traffic jams in the city of Luanda . He remembers his old friends Zé Toy, Carlitos Puma, and Ndala Minguês who were killed for not wearing a face mask. He also remembers his cousin Bento Minguês, now a superior officer in the armed forces who grew alienated from his past revolutionary camarades. 

“Today the war is different”, he tells his assistant: it’s invisible. Some benefit and others lose. He looks at his assistant. “Eh… Kinito, does this disease exist or are you kidding us? I know Covid-19 took my friend Cachinguenje. I didn’t even have time to say goodbye.” Jorge blamed himself for not taking his friend home for treatment. For four hours unattended, hours of terror, despair in a hospital corridor. “It’s revolting,”

he said.

But he also knows that the lack of care is chronic. He knows a girl who died three weeks ago from a stomachache when a nurse gave her the wrong treatment. Citizens are left to fare for themselves. And still, kleptocrats have a freeway.

Untenable situation

One year later, truck drivers adapted, even if restrictions are still there. In May 2021, truckers still had to struggle at the sanitary checkpoints between regions, often waiting for a long time. But they now know that many of them can be discreetly crossed at night. They also got to know which official they could bribe, and in some cases realized that several policemen posted in isolated areas are left without much food.

Meanwhile, COVID-19 cases are exploding, reaching a cap of more than 300 cases per day in Angola in May 2021, while most cases go unnoticed. Truckers, who must be tested often, while often asymptomatic, face the consequences of inconsistent procedures as authorities have never set clear guidelines. Honorato, another trucker, describes 12 drivers who tested positive, but asymptomatic, held at the checkpoint, waiting for a public ambulance for three days without food. Finally, they were picked up by relatives. Honorato added that when it rains, Covid-19 patients leave the isolation tent where there are only 5 seats, settle on a porch and join other people including agents on duty. He also reveals that, while at the checkpoint, those tested positive used the service bathroom available to everyone.

As usual, Jorge became increasingly concerned about the situation.

“Specific treatment should be given to citizens of the countryside who bring food to Luanda as they are illiterate and most of them do not have access to information either via radio and TV, which inform and disseminate the measures adopted by the Government. I believe there is some lack of information in the countryside on the subject: there is a need to spread the message in the villages through megaphones, pamphlets and other means that impact rural communities,”

he said..

Jorge continued his journey to his destination. He is uncertain if he will stop by again so soon at this post full of stories that is Zenza do Itombe. This post that keeps many people awake, including truck drivers, traders, and perplexed travelers. But he was further perplexed to learn that the authorities of the Democratic Republic of Congo began not to accept the Covid-19 tests carried in Angola. Drivers are required to take their tests in Congo at $45 each and the Congolese pay less.

The government begging for charity

Angolans were shocked when they received a call for donation by SMS from the government. After inquiries by citizens as to how the 16 million Kwanzas raised (about 25,000 USD) were spent, the Minister, in an interview with Angolan Public Television, said that the amount provided by the government was also allocated for logistics, training and infrastructure for the provision of a quality service. The International Monetary Fund gave 4.5 billion USD to Angola, while several other millions were promised.  Oversight bodies have yet to disclose any information.

THE COLLECTIVE DRAMA

The Angolan modus vivendi has a lot to do with the position held on state apparatus; it has a lot to do with the family surname. Life is defined according to social status and financial power which is why truck drivers and non-truck drivers suffer the atrocities of a demagogue policy that protects some and not all. Dissatisfaction is seen on every Angolan face whether employed or unemployed. US$500 million from the Sovereign Fund, €13 million from CNC, €24.4 million from Grecima, €100 million from Sonangol , 16 million in the purchase of a palace and more than 1 billion USD in possession one single person, the 20 million of a single individual or even the 400 thousand dollars and more than billion dollars of an army major who at the end of the day defends the interests of generals would serve for the government to give better treatment to Covid-19 such as facilitating tests and vaccines for truck drivers. It would be possible to improve the conditions of the roads, create relief stations (medical posts and health centers), and build schools which would make life easier for Jorge, who pays for private school for his children. Many truck drivers like Jorge live in rented houses, but there are thousands of abandoned houses and apartments. The money stolen from the country could prevent decades of accrued debt to the IMF and China. The money should be invested in more than just COVID-19 relief and infrastructure, but also in all types of social services. Or on vaccination campaigns. As few people are vaccinated yet, lack of trust in authorities has led to an important misinformation campaign.

While the kleptocrats have a good life, it is Jorge who pays the price.

Visuals: https://www.angola24horas.com/index.php/sociedade/item/17956-manuel-vicente-compra-palacio-de-16-milhoes-de-dolares-no-dubai