KLEPTOCRACY

Democratic Activism and the Battle Against Modern Kleptocracy

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In July 2018, famed Angolan jour­nal­ist and anti-cor­rup­tion activist Rafael Marques de Morais was acquit­ted after a two-year legal bat­tle against the Angolan gov­ern­ment. Marques and his co-defen­dant Mariano Brás, the edi­tor of the week­ly Angolan news­pa­per O Crime, faced seri­ous charges of crimes against state secu­ri­ty and of insult­ing a pub­lic fig­ure which result­ed from an inves­tiga­tive report that Marques pub­lished on Maka Angola (which Brás repub­lished) expos­ing the ques­tion­able acqui­si­tion of high-val­ue beach­front prop­er­ty by for­mer Angolan Attorney General João Maria de Sousa.

This is not the first time Marques has faced pros­e­cu­tion for his work expos­ing Angola’s klep­toc­ra­cy. His 1999 arti­cle, “The Lipstick of Dictatorship,” crit­i­ciz­ing for­mer pres­i­dent Jose Dos Santos, land­ed him in pre­ven­ta­tive deten­tion for 40 days, includ­ing 11 incom­mu­ni­ca­do, fol­lowed by a six-month sen­tence for defama­tion, which the UN Human Rights Committee ruled ille­gal. His pub­li­ca­tion in Portugal in 2011 of Blood Diamonds: Corruption and Torture in Angola land­ed him back in court in 2015 to face charges of mali­cious denun­ci­a­tion, result­ing in a six-month sus­pend­ed sen­tence. Another law­suit was threat­ened in ear­ly 2017 by the British law firm Schillings on behalf of Jean-Claude Bastos, a busi­ness part­ner of President Dos Santos’ son. Ironically, Marques has found that the more the author­i­ties pur­sue him, the bet­ter he is enabled by the judi­cial sys­tem to access doc­u­ments expos­ing their mis­deeds. In addi­tion, his per­se­cu­tion has drawn inter­na­tion­al atten­tion to the sor­did char­ac­ter of the Angolan regime.

Kleptocratic regimes across the globe attempt to silence voic­es that expose their lead­ers’ theft. Stifling inde­pen­dent media and civ­il soci­ety is one of the most effec­tive tools in main­tain­ing the sta­tus quo.

Kleptocratic regimes across the globe attempt to silence voic­es that expose their lead­ers’ theft. Stifling inde­pen­dent media and civ­il soci­ety is one of the most effec­tive tools in main­tain­ing the sta­tus quo. To hide their crimes, klep­to­crat­ic lead­ers also must ensure that the judi­cia­ry and oth­er account­abil­i­ty mech­a­nisms are in their pock­ets. While main­tain­ing a repres­sive regime at home, klep­to­crats are able to use the inter­na­tion­al finan­cial sys­tem to fuel their cor­rup­tion. Lawyers, accoun­tants, pub­lic rela­tions firms, and real estate agents in democ­ra­cies assist, some­times unwit­ting­ly, in laun­der­ing and dis­guis­ing stolen wealth. However, as might­i­ly as they may try, klep­to­crat­ic regimes can­not com­plete­ly silence dis­sent, and sev­er­al key lessons for civ­il soci­ety and the inter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty can be drawn from Marques’ expe­ri­ence in Angola.

First, dis­si­dent voic­es such as Marques, often very lone­ly, but always coura­geous, man­age to pre­serve some hope and vision for an alter­na­tive that is free and demo­c­ra­t­ic. As long as their voic­es can be heard and a flame is still burn­ing, that alter­na­tive vision can spread. Indeed, Marques is not so lone­ly any more. New Angolan voic­es are fol­low­ing his exam­ple. Young rap­pers, blog­gers, and activists of all kinds are stand­ing up and join­ing the fray, carv­ing out more polit­i­cal space by demand­ing change.

Second, dic­ta­tors get old. They may grow weak­er. They will always die. Some will groom suc­ces­sors to pro­tect their lega­cy, and it may take many years or decades, but it is impor­tant for oppo­si­tion to be pre­pared for change to hap­pen. In Ethiopia, Meles Zenawi died in office, but his care­ful­ly cho­sen suc­ces­sor could not hold on to pow­er, and a reformer has emerged from with­in the rul­ing par­ty to embark on a demo­c­ra­t­ic trans­for­ma­tion. Developments around the world—most recent­ly in Burkina Faso, the Gambia, Malaysia, and Armenia—show that even the most seem­ing­ly entrenched auto­crats are not for­ev­er.

While activists in Angola and oth­er resource-rich coun­tries across the con­ti­nent deplored the gen­er­al feck­less­ness of some in the inter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty, greedy for a share in the oil wealth that the regime so lib­er­al­ly deployed to con­sol­i­date its rule and enrich its friends, not every­one could be silenced.

It is also incum­bent to acknowl­edge the impor­tance of sol­i­dar­i­ty. Marques’ brav­ery, tal­ent, and charis­ma won him many admir­ers both with­in and out­side of Angola. It was this grow­ing pub­lic net­work of inter­na­tion­al and domes­tic sup­port that served to pro­tect him. Marques faced many ardu­ous legal bat­tles and con­stant harass­ment and threats, but the regime had to be cau­tious. It could not risk inter­na­tion­al con­dem­na­tion, and Marques has pre­vailed to this day. While activists in Angola and oth­er resource-rich coun­tries across the con­ti­nent deplored the gen­er­al feck­less­ness of some in the inter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty, greedy for a share in the oil wealth that the regime so lib­er­al­ly deployed to con­sol­i­date its rule and enrich its friends, not every­one could be silenced.  Governments could be shamed, inde­pen­dent news media could spread the word, and judi­cial sys­tems could be pressed to rule in a more free and just man­ner.

Finally, democ­rats around the world must become more assertive in pro­mot­ing core val­ues. Kleptocrats and dic­ta­tors have become skilled at buy­ing col­lab­o­ra­tors, silenc­ing crit­ics, and deceiv­ing the peo­ple. Some have even been suc­cess­ful in gen­er­at­ing secu­ri­ty and eco­nom­ic devel­op­ment, even if this is built on soft sand. Democrats have some­times failed. But this is not just a mat­ter of com­pet­ing polit­i­cal sys­tems. Freedom is an intrin­sic val­ue: human beings will always pre­fer it to tyran­ny. Even if demo­c­ra­t­ic change starts with a small band of true believ­ers such as Marques, a peace­ful, non­vi­o­lent, demo­c­ra­t­ic path to free­dom is pos­si­ble. It requires courage, cre­ativ­i­ty, and sac­ri­fice to get there.

Dave Peterson is Senior Director of the Africa Program at the National Endowment for Democracy. Follow him on Twitter @Obapeda.

The views expressed in this post rep­re­sent the opin­ions and analy­sis of the author and do not nec­es­sar­i­ly reflect those of the National Endowment for Democracy or its staff.

Democratic Activism and the Battle Against Modern Kleptocracy

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