Devin Stewart Interviews Angolan Activist Rafael Marques

Apr 15, 2010

With examples ranging from mobile phones to diamonds, Marques tells of his brave fight to expose the rampant corruption that afflicts Angolan society from top to bottom. The only way to bring about change, he says, is if his fellow Angolans take responsibility for their country.

DEVIN STEWART: Hi. I'm Devin Stewart, here at the Carnegie Council in New York City.

Today we're talking with Rafael Marques.

He is a renowned human rights activist in Angola. He is also the recipient of several awards, including an award for outstanding courage [Percy Qoboza Award] from the National Association of Black Journalists and also the recipient of the Civil Courage Prize from the Train Foundation for his human rights activities.

Rafael, thank you very much for coming to the Carnegie Council today.

RAFAEL MARQUES: Thank you very much for inviting me to be here. It's a pleasure.

DEVIN STEWART: It's good to see you.

So what brings you to New York today?

RAFAEL MARQUES: I'm here in New York to discuss my current research on corruption in Angola. I have been in touch with a number of organizations. I had a discussion at Columbia University, based on the work I'm doing currently, not just on corruption, but also I have a keen interest in human rights issues and the relation between both.

So you're giving several talks in New York this week?

RAFAEL MARQUES: In New York, yes, and in Washington as well. I'm going to have a meeting at the Council on Foreign Relations, a roundtable, to discuss corruption in Angola and Nigeria as well, with a Nigerian citizen.

DEVIN STEWART: You have been doing this work for many years. Tell me, what are some of your general findings? What is the message you're trying to convey during your talks this week and next week?

The most important message is that Angolans need to be more aware of the international pressure on the country because of the natural resources and on the government because of such resources; on how to have individuals in the country to push for changes, which are very much necessary, because Angola is one of the most unequal countries in the world. It has one of the most unequal systems. We have one of the fastest-growing economies in the world, and yet the Human Development Index keeps dropping. We have some of the worst health statistics in the world, education statistics, and so forth.

So it's quite important to look at the country and try to see how individuals can take responsibility to bring about change, in the sense that the country is for everyone and that the government serves the people, and not themselves and the foreign interests.

DEVIN STEWART: Do you feel that, on the whole, the foreign influences, be they corporate or individuals or media, are having a positive impact on Angola, generally speaking, or is it making things worse? Or is it hard to say?

RAFAEL MARQUES: Historically, it has a very negative impact. What attracts and what defines policymaking towards Angola is the access to oil, diamonds, and other natural resources. The competition among countries, particularly countries with a seat at the permanent Security Council—initially, the Soviet Union against the U.S., and now the U.S. and China juggling for influence on the government—that basically excludes the needs of the majority of Angolans. That's what needs to be changed. That can only be changed when Angolans take responsibility for what is happening and the other sectors of the society come forth to present a different view of the country and what really is needed for Angolans.

What is the device that's going to help the Angolan people to take more responsibility and have more of a positive role?

RAFAEL MARQUES: I say that, because we have an historical background that has basically eliminated individual responsibility towards the country for the common good, and that is the kind of Portuguese colonialism that we had in the country. After that, we had Marxism-Leninism from 1975. Angola had one of the longest colonializations in the world, up to 500 years. After that, we had a system of Marxism-Leninism, in which individual skills did not count. What counted was what the party said. And that has been carried on.

Now it's important to find individuals—because the country is made up of individuals—and these individuals need to have a voice and need to bring out their own knowledge on the country and discuss that. It doesn't need to be necessarily the party in power or the international organizations or countries that engage with Angola, but Angolans themselves can take up that responsibility.

One way of doing it, as I have been doing through my human rights work—for instance, now I work as an independent, for the past six years—is to try to bring out those cases of human rights abuses, write reports on them, regardless of who sponsors me or not. It's all about my individual responsibility towards the country. The work I'm doing now on corruption, the research—I've set up an anticorruption watchdog—is a very small home-based initiative, but it's quite powerful in the sense that after four months, my research now every week is published by the local independent media, because they have now a source of information that is objective and is based on the legislation.

So you're saying that amplifying the voice in Angola involves building civil society, with the watchdogs, and also having a positive flow with the press? You are getting these messages out there. You are exposing some of these problems.


What is your watchdog called, by the way?

RAFAEL MARQUES: It's called Maka. In the local language, in my mother tongue, Kimbundu, maka means "addressing an issue," a complex issue, a problem that needs to be addressed. This is a term that captures the essence of the work I'm doing.

The essence of what I do is to read the current legislation—some work that for years has not been done in the country—on corruption and then see a trend that has developed over the years in which government officials are transferring most of the state assets to their own names, through what they call privatization, which is illegal under the Angolan law and under the international treaties on corruption signed by Angola. The law basically says that no government official should engage in business deals with the state for personal benefit. When a government official takes 20 percent in an oil bloc, which is the biggest resource the country has, which generates 95 percent of our revenues from abroad, that is very grave. Basically, it's the country being looted, to put it mildly.

It's stolen.

RAFAEL MARQUES: Yes. The reason why also I'm here is that for years, for instance, the State Department has had on its website that Angola does not have legislation on corruption, which needs to be corrected. Angola always had legislation on corruption. The fact of the matter is that the legislation has never been used because the courts of law are controlled by the same regime. Therefore, there was no need to use such laws. But it doesn't mean that the laws do not exist and do not apply both to foreign investors and to government officials.

DEVIN STEWART: You've looked at the diamond industry, obviously, and you've looked at the beverage industry. I believe you looked at the energy sector as well.


DEVIN STEWART: Tell me about some of the cases that you're allowed to talk about at this point. Take us through some of the stories that really kind of capture this.

RAFAEL MARQUES: The story I'm working on at the moment, just to give you an example, is the public mobile company that was set up in 2003. It's a company worth over $1 billion. It has over three million clients. Just last September, the Council of Ministers announced the privatization of this company. The minister of telecom and a few other ministers split the shares among themselves of the company. There is no record that the state has benefited a penny from the transfer of these important strategic assets to private hands.

Another example is in the beverage sector. One involves a company that has also links in the U.S., SABMiller and Coca-Cola. Basically, it established a partnership at the time, in 1994-1997, with the then-chief of staff of the president and the secretary of the Council of Ministers and other individuals that have high positions in the state hierarchy, including also the second commander-general of the national police. These are the business partners of the multinationals in Angola, not private businessmen.

That creates a situation which deprives the country of competitiveness, of a market economy, because what we have, basically, is self-dealing. The main businessmen in the country are the top government officials. That creates a distorted economy.

So basically it's creating a situation in which corruption is likely. Is that what you are saying? Because they're not businessmen; rather, they are officials or they are military people.

RAFAEL MARQUES: Yes. Last year I wrote a dissertation for a master's in African studies at Oxford. The title of my dissertation was "The Transparency of Looting." The process has become very open. Corruption has become institutional. There is no other way to do business now except through corruption. That needs to be addressed.

In the competition to see who is more corrupt, who gets the attention, the partnership of a government official—for instance, foreign investors preferably seek the presidential family for partnerships, because that means complete access to the Angolan market, one, and second, impunity and immunity from prosecution. Having this family that has such an authoritarian and arbitrary power, the companies can engage in all sorts of deals and there will be no oversight on their activities, no taxes, no benefits for local employees whatsoever, the repatriation of capital—no control whatsoever.

That is creating a situation in which the gap between this very tiny fraction of government officials that are now trying to compete with the Russian oligarchs to also have billions of dollars, in a country that has very little education—in Russia, for instance, we have a sector of the population that is highly educated and productive. In the case of Angola, it's completely different. That creates quite a potential for animosity between the rulers and the ruled.

There's this cliché in corruption studies that corruption is needed to grease the wheels of business, in order to get business going. It's a very controversial statement. How would you respond to that idea? It sounds like you're almost saying that one of the problems in Angola is that corruption is needed to get business started. How do you answer that?

Let me just put it that it becomes the question of the egg and the chicken. Which comes first? The hen.

Let me say, throughout my work and contacts with international players, one argument that I've heard repeatedly is that the Angolan ruling elite needs to be corrupt in order to create a middle class. That is the argument. So what is being plundered is going to create a middle class. I've heard that from very important policymakers, decision makers.

From many different countries or—

RAFAEL MARQUES: From different countries, and even here in the U.S., I heard that quite often, which, to me, is very disturbing. It's possible—if the country has no rules to abide by, then corruption doesn't become just an internal problem. Once the U.S. companies operating in Angola start engaging in corruption, that corruption also expands to the U.S., as it expands to Portugal, Brazil, and other countries that have strong business interests in Angola.

The Chinese—initially, the Chinese were quite concerned with the levels of corruption in the country. Now, for instance, from my own studies, the Chinese have joined in. Why? Because of the facilities for the managers of the companies and others also to profit for personal benefit, and not just for the companies. And in that sense, it's not that corruption is the only way to do business. It's just the easiest way that multinationals and government officials have found.

That has also created a problem. Now there is a need for the international community to support these extremely corrupt regimes, in order to protect its business interests. Once the regime is under the spotlight, then all these international ramifications come to light as well, and what foreign companies are doing in the country.

How are American companies able to avoid the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act and other American legislation that tries to control American companies' levels of corruption?

RAFAEL MARQUES: That is why most of the American multinationals limit their work to the oil sector. It's very difficult for U.S. multinationals to work in the construction sector and other sectors, beyond the provision of services, the export of goods to the country. In the oil sector, there is a bit more protection for these companies.

DEVIN STEWART: How so? How does that work?

RAFAEL MARQUES: Because of the bilateral agreements. Yet one of the major issues now is that, by having government officials' companies, shell companies, in oil blocs with U.S. multinationals, that creates also the problem of sharing the profits with individuals who are acting in an illegal manner. I think, by the time it gets exposed, a discussion will be generated in the U.S. on how the U.S. companies should be more concerned about the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.

For instance, there was also pressure on some Norwegian companies on the same issues. That is why it is important for people like me within the country to generate this information and to link up to a wider audience beyond the country, so that there is a conversation on how the country must be brought back to a state of the rule of law.

Are there examples of companies in Angola, either foreign companies or domestic companies, where you are very happy with the progress that they're making or you see them as having a positive overall contribution in the country's development?

Unfortunately, that is something I cannot attest to. I have seen more companies helping to cause more damage, exactly because of the nature of their relationship with government officials, in that dual capacity of businessmen, business partners, and government officials.

That is why I think it is just about time that a wider conversation takes place on the levels of corruption in the country. That is not beneficial to grease—and it's not even greasing the wheel of business, because it has stripped away competition. It works like a cartel. For instance, the way the Portuguese and Brazilian construction companies dominate the sector through their partnerships with government officials, it's like a cartel. Angola, as a consequence, has the most expensive real estate market. It is even more expensive than New York, with the lowest standards of construction possible.

DEVIN STEWART: Right. That's the real effect of corruption. Prices get all out of whack and you actually get inferior products. That not only hurts the consumers, the people, but it also hurts the companies. It taints whole sectors. I've heard energy companies in Southeast Asia complaining that corruption scandals don't just stay in one place. They spread out. It has a sort of cancerous effect.

RAFAEL MARQUES: One example. I took this 800-kilometer trip two weeks ago to the northeastern part of the country, to the diamond areas. In one section, tens of kilometers of road that were finished last November had been closed down. Why? Because it's the rainy season, and the rain alone destroyed the road that was just built three, four months ago. Why? Because the quality of it was so poor. Yet Angola now is indebted several billions of dollars to China. This was work done by a Chinese company, which had no oversight.

It's just one of many examples of corruption.

DEVIN STEWART: What are some of the softer impacts of this? How do Angolans feel about these foreigners coming in and building certain things and then they have to come back and repair them? Do they feel cheated?

RAFAEL MARQUES: There is a great resentment within the larger population. But the other problem is also that people, in order to survive, had to engage in all sorts of corruption and this has not only become a problem at the level of the government and foreign investors. Even the average citizen, to survive, has to engage in corruption, because salaries do not make ends meet. That is why there is great difficulty in a society where everyone is forced to be corrupt. It's extremely difficult for people to decide between good and bad. Only with the provision of more information and more research is it possible for people to see the consequences.

I'll give you one example. I addressed the role of a particular company, called Grupo Gema, that is in partnership with SABMiller. This company—since 1994, its shareholders have always held the position of either the chief of staff of the president or of the secretary of the Council of Ministers, these two positions. This means that all business—in Angola, any business beyond $5 million needs approval by the Council of Ministers. I wrote about the ramifications of this company and how this company now, out of thin air, built a $2 billion-a-year revenue from its partnerships with foreign multinationals.

The newspapers—we have some independent newspapers—then published my research, took it out of my website. By coincidence, when this issue came out, the head of the company, the former chief of staff of the president, Mr. José Leitäo, responded aggressively against me, calling me obsessed, that every Angolan had the right to be an entrepreneur, and they were great entrepreneurs and that's why they were making lots of money, and I was just obsessed in bringing them down.

Then a week later, he signed an agreement with the provincial governor of a province 500 kilometers from the capital [Luanda], north of the capital, and the agreement entails this private company, Grupo Gema, to basically run the provincial budget and decide on all public contracts for that province.

In one of the newspapers there was the picture of the gentleman in question and of the governor signing the agreement. This company also has a bank. Basically, all the budget for the province will be deposited in his bank.

That is what I call the privatization of the state. The newspapers talked about it. That's when the public realized the extent of corruption, to the extent that one private company takes over an entire province and says, "We will decide on what to do with the budget and we will decide on the public contracts."

DEVIN STEWART: Is one sector most egregious? Is one sector worse than most of the others? Does one stand out?

RAFAEL MARQUES: The worst sectors are those where there are more profits to be made—the oil sector, the diamond sector, the construction sector. It's all about maximizing profits.

DEVIN STEWART: There's not much of a brand stake either, not much accountability.

RAFAEL MARQUES: There is none. One example—you mentioned accountability—we have a Court of Accounts that is supposed to check on a regular basis the accounts of the public companies and how the government is doing with the public budget, with the state budget. The head of the court is elected by Parliament every three years. It happens that the head of the court, the presiding judge, ended his mandate in 2004, and for the past six years, he does not have a mandate to run the court. That is done on purpose, because he does not have the legitimacy to check on the public accounts and what ministers and others are doing. That's why the president let him remain without a legitimate mandate.

DEVIN STEWART: These days you hear a lot about China's activities in Africa, trying to acquire as many natural resources as possible. Some people are talking about the Chinese companies being more vulnerable to being corrupt than others. Do you feel that certain countries are worse in their activities in Angola?

RAFAEL MARQUES: Honestly, the levels of corruption in Angola do not distinguish Chinese companies from Western companies.

DEVIN STEWART: So they're equally bad.

RAFAEL MARQUES: It's equally bad. That's how I see it.

DEVIN STEWART: That's bad news.

You were speaking to me earlier about some of the worst cases you have heard in the diamond industry, even some people being killed.

RAFAEL MARQUES: And this is the most recent research I have been doing. Upon arriving in the diamond areas, most of my investigation is focused on the Cuango Basin. There is a town called Cuango as well.

DEVIN STEWART: What part of the country is that?

RAFAEL MARQUES: It's the Northeast of the country, 800 kilometers from the capital.

The reason why I base most of my research in that particular area is because it has the biggest alluvial production of diamonds—basically, diamonds harvested from riverbeds.

Is this done with machine or by people sifting through?

People sifting through. It's the biggest diamond area, both for industrial mining and for artisanal mining. I interviewed one lady whose son was hacked on February 5 by a private security company, Teleservice, which also serves U.S. multinationals, like Chevron and others.

DEVIN STEWART: Where is that company based?

RAFAEL MARQUES: It's based in Angola. It's an Angolan company, owned by top Angolan generals.

DEVIN STEWART: But it does activities all around the world?

RAFAEL MARQUES: No, just in Angola.

But on behalf of multinationals.

On behalf of multinationals. It also provides protection services for some Western embassies.

DEVIN STEWART: So then what happened?

RAFAEL MARQUES: The lady just exposed the case of the son who was hacked by a private security guard because he did not have $1,000 to pay. So these guards formed a racket—

To bribe. He didn't have enough money to be corrupt enough, so he lost his life.

RAFAEL MARQUES: Yes, yes. Basically, what the guards do is allow the artisanal miners to work in some of the areas of the concession awarded to the company they serve. This particular individual—it was a group of five artisanal miners. The others had money and paid. He did not have money. He said, "Okay, let me sift through the gravel and whatever diamonds I find we share. I will pay you." Once they had received the money from the other individuals, they hacked him and disposed of his body.

Then what the security guards did was to provide the survivors with four buckets of gravel, so that they could go to the river and sift through these four buckets, as pay for them not to disclose the murder they had just witnessed.

DEVIN STEWART: Wow. So the corruption is just endless. It just keeps spiraling.

RAFAEL MARQUES: This is one example of how corruption is tied to violence, to human rights abuse, and to the degradation of human relations in the country.

DEVIN STEWART: Was that company ever held to account for that?

RAFAEL MARQUES: Never, because the owners of the company are the top army commanders. Therefore, there is no way to bring them to account.

But through my work, I was able to, through some external exposure, have some of the multinationals they serve write them letters asking for a clarification of their role in these human rights abuses. I think that is where the U.S. and U.S. citizens and organizations can help, by reading these cases and pressing the companies that bankroll the operations of these private security companies. If Teleservice doesn't have the resources allocated by Chevron and the other companies, definitely they will not have the ability to go around killing people and feeling that they can act with impunity.

After I interviewed the lady on this case—and she tried to engage the authorities to seek some answers. All she wanted was to have the body of her son back, and it was never given back to her. Then I finished the interview with her and I said, "Do you have any other son?"

She said, "Yes, I had another son, but the other son was killed on September 5, 2009, by the army."

DEVIN STEWART: How did that occur?

RAFAEL MARQUES: One of the processes of mining is that the artisanal miners, when it's in a place with rocks which is difficult for digging, will dig vertically and then dig a tunnel, like the coalminers here, and then extract the gravel from the tunnel, to make it easy, instead of just going through excavating the whole earth.

Forty-five individuals were in the tunnel. The army came, and basically what the soldiers did was to pull the tree trunks that were holding the tunnel, some of them, and with some heavy instruments they pushed the earth and made it collapse on the 45 diggers.

Why would they want to do that?

RAFAEL MARQUES: Because they said, "We are tired of chasing you away." So they just buried these 45 people alive.

I visited one mine to understand what really happened. This is what happens usually. There is a company that is involved in this process, which is a U.S. company, Lazare Kaplan International (LKI), run by Mr. Morris Tempelsman.

Mr. Morris Tempelsman has an agreement with the Angolan diamond company, ENDIAMA [Empresa de Diamantes de Angola, the national diamond company of Angola], to buy diamonds from artisanal miners. What SODIAM [Sociedade de Comercialização de Diamantes de Angola], as the local company, LKI, is known, does is to have mostly West Africans as scouters and sponsors of these artisanal miners, to spend several months, sometimes a year or two, in the bush digging. Then they get 50 percent of the diamonds. So it's total exploitation.

Many times, when an area is deemed very valuable, what these West Africans and the company they are related to do—and another company is run by an Israeli tycoon, Lev Leviev, that also deals with gems extracted by artisanal miners—is to call in the army or the police to take over the mine, because these poor souls have already done the dirty job and have hit the gravel. Then the army comes in, kills them, removes them, and takes over the operations. It's not that they will chase them away and disappear. No. They remain there, because the artisanal miners have done most of the digging, sometimes for a year. Then the soldiers round up individuals in other places, in mines, and put them into forced labor to work for them, and then they go and sell to the company.

It's just one example of why this violence, senseless violence, has an underlying objective.

DEVIN STEWART: Rafael, you have described a really dramatic situation in Angola. You've described a couple of ways that people listening to the podcast can get involved. In a very simple manner, how can people know that they are buying ethical diamonds or ethical gold or other jewels or jewelry? Is there such a thing as an ethical diamond?

RAFAEL MARQUES: It is possible. But in the case of Angola at the moment, it's not possible, for one reason. The perpetrators of such human rights abuses are the ones who certify the diamonds as clean. That is the pitfall of the Kimberley Process. I've denounced the Kimberley Process many times, because the Kimberley Process was designed basically to drive rebel movements out of the diamond areas, not to address governments that are culprits in abusing their own people.

I think one way of helping is—and I've written extensively on the Kimberley Process, and I can provide that information—I think the public here ought to ask the authorities, those involved with the Kimberley Process, the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative and other initiatives, about the real meaning of the Kimberley Process, because in Angola it serves as a cover-up for indescribable human rights abuses. The ones who abuse are the ones who have the stamp to say the diamonds are clean.

One question is central to this issue: What is the difference between the killings executed by a government and the killings executed by a rebel movement, when what are at stake are profits for individuals, not for the good of the country?

I think that is one way, not to ask at the jeweler whether the diamond is clean or not, or if it comes with a certificate. It's about the source. I think I have already produced enough information on this particular area of the country where most of the diamonds are harvested by artisanal miners. That should be a basis to generate more discussion.

Those who are willing to support this work—and I've had jewelers here in the United States contact me, interact with me, just to learn what is happening on the ground. I even received a letter once from the World Diamond Council also questioning and saying, "Your revelations are quite disturbing. We are asking questions as well."

So I think the public and other institutions here who are concerned with human rights should pay attention and ask the question: What is the purpose of the Kimberley Process as far as Angola is concerned? I can provide more information on that.

DEVIN STEWART: Thank you very much, Rafael. Before we sign off, is there a website that people who are listening can go to and check out your work?

Yes, I have my website. It's called

Rafael, thank you so much for coming and visiting us.

RAFAEL MARQUES: Thank you very much.

DEVIN STEWART: It's wonderful to meet you.

RAFAEL MARQUES: It has been a pleasure talking to you. Thank you.

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