Can EITI make a difference in Angola?

More than a year has passed since the creation of an inter-ministerial working group to evaluate the possibility of Angola joining EITI (‘working group’), and there is still no information on what the outcome of this evaluation is, or whether a decision has been reached.

Progress on this front is no doubt being closely monitored by transparency advocates and Big Oil. Angola has long been regarded as a strong candidate for EITI. Not only is it Africa’s second biggest oil producer with the world’s highest child mortality rates, but also the sixth most corrupt country according to Transparency International. As such, its membership would be considered an important win for campaigners who have repeatedly called on the government to join EITI.

This move would equally come as a great relief to many multinational oil companies, whose reluctance to actively promote oil revenue transparency in the country is often blamed on the government’s lack of implementation of EITI. Total, among others, has made its disclosure of revenue payments conditional on host countries’ membership of EITI, and has therefore deliberately withdrawn any fiscal information concerning its Angolan operations in the country’s 2014 financial transparency factsheet.

While such companies prefer to hide behind EITI, analysts are rightly questioning whether it is actually making, or likely to make, a difference in the real world. This is an issue that will undoubtedly be addressed this week in Peru, where EITI is hosting its 7th global conference and elect a new chair.

As far as Angola is concerned, there remain several unanswered questions. One has to do with civil society participation, which as the latest protocol indicates is fundamental to achieving the objectives of EITI and ensuring that it leads to greater accountability. The first question here is: what would constitute an Angolan civil society organisation, in other words, who will be allowed to participate in the EITI process? This is an issue that has fuelled antagonism between local actors in the past, leading many local voices who were among the most engaged on the issue of oil sector transparency to be subsequently excluded from this debate.

This is compounded both by links between civil society actors and the ruling party, and by the prominence of parallel employment in the country. Indeed, a relatively recent study shows that nearly half of those working in the NGO sector have a parallel job in the public sector (76.5%) and private sector (19.9%), partly to offset the low wages offered by NGOs. As the authors of this study remark, this creates capacity issues as well as huge difficulties for those organisations doing advocacy work.

A second and related question is whether one can reasonably expect that any of these CSOs would be willing and able to engage in predictable ways, knowing that they suffer from lack of funding, legitimacy shortfalls, and that they operate in an increasingly tough environment. In the year since the announcement of the working group, in fact, the government has issued a new NGO decree restricting NGOs’ ability to operate freely, and jailed young activists for allegedly planning a coup d’état. This campaign of harassment follows the controversial sale and apparent co-option of a string of media outlets by the regime.

Yet an ‘enabling environment’ is not all that the government has to guarantee. It also has to dedicate human and financial resources currently in short supply.

All this raises a third question which is, just how committed to the EITI process is the government likely to be? It is fair to say that so far, Angola’s transparency reform agenda has had mixed outcomes, owing in part to the fact that changes are often introduced that offset the effects of other more positive reforms. This is the case in the oil industry, where after cleaning up the offshore side following a probe by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission over Cobalt’s Angolan operations, the regime decided to reward its own with oil blocks during the recent onshore licensing round. If anything, these contradictions give a hint of the difficulties ahead.

Some would argue that the foregoing challenges are not insurmountable and that the EITI would actually be operating in a familiar terrain, given that transparency is enshrined in several national laws and the Ministry of Finance website already contains useful information on the oil and diamond sectors. But this too would suggest that EITI would have to do things differently in order to make a difference. For no insight into the amount of revenues, or discrepancies in the estimates of revenues, from the extractive sector would now come as a surprise in Angola. Besides as Clare Short – EITI’s outgoing chair – stated, success would not be measured by the number and length of reports or implementation costs, but by whether the EITI process has strengthened government and corporate accountability.

The key and final question therefore is: what could EITI do for inhabitants of the little-known town of Soyo which has become Angola’s largest oil-producing region in recent years; or for the people whose human rights are abused in the diamond-rich Lunda-Norte province?

One’s answer would be to build on (and whenever possible link with) existing home-grown initiatives and make EITI more inclusive so as to reflect and/or address the concerns, needs and experiences of all stakeholders, including those at the subnational level previously kept on the fringes of the debate. However, and leaving aside the criticism that EITI is still too centralised and removed from local realities, one simple fact is that the potential of subnational governance can only be harnessed in those countries that really want to promote decentralisation, which is yet another thorny issue for Angola.

And so whilst it pays to be cautious and not read too much into the government’s recent move, it will be all the more exciting to see how EITI plays out in Angola, arguably its toughest prospective candidate to date.

This blog was written by Liliane Chantal Mouan who is an independent researcher based in Coventry, United Kingdom. She recently completed a PhD that examined how domestic and external actors sought to institutionalise oil revenue transparency in Angola (2002-13). Read her previous blog “40 years on from independence, Angola remains full of potential despite challenges“.

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