Rafael Marques de Morais: Changing the Status Quo in Africa

Rafael Marques de Morais: Changing the Status Quo in Africa

By Emily Cadei


Exposing corruption in Angola just might, one day, help divert some of the flow of oil industry revenue from the powerful to the aid of ordinary people.

By Emily Cadei

Angola’s premier investigative journalist, Rafael Marques de Morais, grew up far from Moscow, but in some ways he had a typically Soviet childhood. Born in 1971, Morais came of age in the last gasps of the Cold War, and his home country in the southwestern corner of Africa was one of its final battlefronts — a 27-year proxy war that pitted the Soviet-backed government against an American-funded rebel insurgency.

In some ways, Morais is still fighting the legacy of that period — going after corrupt government officials, exposing ill-gotten wealth and challenging authorities in ways that plainly hurt them.

Not all of the Soviet-era legacy is so bad. Morais remembers watching classical Russian music or Russian ballet programs during times of mourning for socialist heroes. “I can tell you all about Soviet cartoons, because that was all we consumed,” Morais laughs softly.

Other influences from that era are far less amusing.

Like decades of Soviet-style propaganda that help explain how the Angolan government has remained in power since 1979, Morais says, even while government leaders funnel billions in oil and other resource wealth into their own pockets. The kleptocracy itself is not the biggest problem, he believes. Rather, it’s the public’s acceptance of the status quo. As one of the country’s leading independent journalists, he hopes to change that, framing his work as a sort of civics lesson in government accountability. 

Angolan Economics

  • Angola ranks 153 out of 177 countries on Transparency International’s corruption index.
  • Freedom House rates Angola’s press as “not free.”
  • 36% of Angolans live below the poverty line, according to the African Development Bank.

“Only journalism can help that, because Angolans have been ruled by propaganda and the fear that comes with it,” he says with quiet conviction. Exposing the truth “makes people think and be critical.”

With that mission in mind, Morais started the website Maka Angola in 2008. It’s a platform to publish evidence he’s dug up implicating various parts of the government in corruption schemes and human rights abuses. Before that, he spent much of the last decade investigating Angola’s $1 billion-a-year diamond industry, exposing oppression of local people in the diamond-producing northeastern province of Lunda. Last year, he helped Forbes out Isabel dos Santos, the eldest daughter of longtime President Eduardo dos Santos, as Africa’s only female billionaire. Her fortune came in large part through presidential decrees writing her into business deals, something Morais painstakingly documented.

The 43-year-old journalist has had less success digging into Angola’s booming oil industry, which is closing in on Nigeria as the biggest producer in sub-Saharan Africa. It accounts for roughly 80 percent of the government’s revenue.  Tracking the complex network of massive multinational energy corporations simply “requires more resources,” says Morais, who relies on $85,000 in grants from the U.S. Congress-funded National Endowment for Democracy to keep his website up and running.

Still, one U.S. policymaker who works on African issues says that when it comes to Angola, Morais “understands what’s going on in terms of corruption better than anybody I know.”

Articulate and understated, Morais gives off the air of a scholar. Indeed, he obtained his master’s degree in African studies from Oxford in 2009, and he’s a far cry from the reckless rabble-rouser that the Angolan government has made him out to be.

This is a regime that has mastered the art of keeping society down … more through corruption than violence.

– Rafael Marques de Morais

Of course, he’s pugnacious in his own way. Challenging authority has been his habit from the get-go.

As a schoolboy, he refused to join in the civil-war-era anthem that classmates sang every day, promising to die for Angola “with the weapons of war in my hands.” He recalls thinking, “I’m a child — I don’t want to die.”

He thought once he might want to be a priest, but his mother’s habit of buying him the newspaper eventually rubbed off, piquing his interest in journalism.

Only journalism can help … because Angolans have been ruled by propaganda and the fear that comes with it.

– Rafael Marques de Morais

After a failed stint at Angola’s main, state-controlled newspaper in the 1990s — he proved miserable at toeing the government line — Morais began writing independent commentary. In 1999, his blunt critique of the ongoing civil war, and the government’s role in it, entitled “The Lipstick of the Dictatorship,” landed him in hot water with the dos Santos regime. He was charged with defamation and tossed into jail, but a domestic and international outcry pressured the government to release him after 40 days.

The dos Santos government, he surmises, needed to maintain its international legitimacy, reliant as the country is on foreign investment in the oil and mining sectors for the vast majority of its wealth.

And anyway, it no longer relies on old-fashioned police or military crackdowns to maintain order. 

“This is a regime that has mastered the art of keeping society down … more through corruption than violence,” Morais says.

Now he’s harrassed in different ways. Isabel dos Santos’ Portuguese PR firm launched a broadside against him after he co-authored the Forbes report. And he’s in the midst of a new legal battle against another set of government defamation charges, this time in response to allegations that Morais published, fingering seven Angolan military officials for abuses related to diamond mining.

man on left watching two men bending down in a river.

Along the river Kwango, thousands of garimpeiros search for diamonds through the river’s waters in the region of Luzamba, Angola.

Source Hulton Archive/Getty

Morais has no plans to leave this nation of 19 million people, even though he has little optimism that the climate there will improve anytime soon.

Some outside observers are quietly hoping the aging dos Santos’ days in power are dwindling, opening a pathway to democracy. But Morais says that dos Santos’ departure, whenever it comes, won’t alone prompt change. 

“He’s the head of a system, of a mindset that has ruled this country for nearly 40 years now, and that doesn’t go away with the departure of one person,” Morais says. “There will be no changes unless people change their attitudes and become more demanding in terms of accountability — I see no other way.”

Morais, obviously, has plenty of crusading investigations ahead to keep him busy.