Interview: Angolan anti-corruption activist Rafael Marques de Morais on fighting for what’s right

This piece is part of a larger blog series on transparency in the extractives industry. Stay tuned for more updates on this topic.

In 1992, Angolan journalist Rafael Marques de Morais was asked to write an investigative piece, for the state daily newspaper Jornal de Angola, on a number of thefts taking place at a terminal in Luanda’s harbor run by a member of parliament for the ruling Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA). From his reporting, he discovered that the culprit was in fact the MP himself, and the army. He would let his employees steal merchandise from the shipping containers to sell at his retail stores. Then, the employees would lock up the containers again and send them back nearly empty to clients. Members of the Angolan Armed Forces also frequently stormed the harbor with their guns firing, and took their loot.

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De Morais wrote the story and got it published. The next day, his photographer who took photos of the empty shipping containers for the piece, came back to the newsroom beaten up and bloodied. He had been attacked and threatened by the MP. The newspaper was ordered to deny everything. The MP sent his brother, a general, to the newsroom for the editor to write a denial piece, the editor refused. Then the MP himself turned up on the newsroom and demanded de Morais’ to write the denial piece, de Morais refused. De Morais was an obedient man, but on that day, upon seeing his colleague bloodied, he could not bring himself to say yes. “If you want to deny it, deny it yourself,” he told the MP. And it was precisely at that moment when he realized the damaging effect that corruption has on society.

In a country where standing up for what is right can put your safety and life at risk, fighting corruption is not a popular line of work. But since that fateful incident in the newsroom, de Morais has devoted his whole career to increasing transparency in Angola. He holds international and local companies accountable to Angolan anti-corruption laws, and exposes violence, rampant killings and other injustices to workers and miners in the oil, gas and mining industry. He also urges his fellow Angolans to educate themselves on Angolan law and speak out against corruption. Over the course of his career, he started Maka Angola, a democracy watchdog organization, and has published a number of books, including “Blood Diamonds: Corruption and Torture in the Lundas” an expose of human rights abuses and corruption.

De Morais recently came by the ONE office in Washington to discuss our extractives and transparency campaign with us. We had a chance to interview de Morais and ask him more about his work in Angola, corruption in the oil and gas industries, and what ONE members can do to help.

Can you give us an idea of how much money Angola has lost in corruption? And where is this money now?
The most recent case was reported by the International Monetary Fund. About $32 billion is missing from 2007 to 2011. But what is critical is that the IMF now says that it’s an accounting problem, and it’s not missing. It’s incredible that a reputable institution would say that, as if it were peanuts going down the drain. It is irresponsible for them to make the statement. Where has it gone? The government must explain. There should be pressure for the Angolan authorities not to receive international financial aid until this issue is clarified.

Are there secrecy laws in Angola that prevent companies from disclosing what they pay your government? Are they criminally liable?
There is no criminal liability for disclosing audited accounts and disclosing information that might be helpful to prevent corruption taking place to explain where companies are investing. There are no such laws, and I have been going through legislation. Yes as in any business, there is a need to protect confidentiality. Therefore, the Angolan law is more on the side of defending the companies to be transparent than promoting secrecy.

Sometimes, it’s hard for people to visualize how corruption can take a toll on a nation’s ability to function and prosper. Can you give an example of a country that changed for the better thanks to increased government transparency?
Cape Verde is a country with no resources. It’s an island. They have one of the best government performances in Africa. But because it’s well-governed, the levels of poverty are not as subhuman as those in Angola. It’s just one example where country with nothing can provide a lot. And a country [like Angola] with billions of dollars cannot even provide basic conditions.

What is the most interesting thing that people need to know about corruption as a phenomenon?
That corruption and the scale of it that takes place is a crime against humanity. It deprives an entire nation of its future.

Any advice on how to be an effective activist for our ONE members?
The first important issue is to have a good grasp of the issue one is campaigning about. The second is just to be forthright and resourceful in pushing for things to happen. And to have guts. That’s the recipe.

Learn more about ONE’s work on corruption here.

Say thank you to journalists like Rafael who risk their lives each day to report on the news that is happening in our world. Leave a comment for him below.