IF ANY country ever needed a fresh start, Angola does. It is more corrupt than Nigeria; its infant mortality is higher than Afghanistan’s. Until September it had been ruled by the same man, President José Eduardo dos Santos, for 38 years—more than twice as long as most Angolans have been alive. Even in retirement, many expected Mr dos Santos to continue pulling the strings; he remains head of the ruling party. Hardly anyone expected his successor, João Lourenço, to break the chokehold that the dos Santos family and their cronies have on the Angolan economy. So Mr Lourenço’s first few months in office have pleasantly surprised (see article).

He has ousted Mr dos Santos’s daughter, reputed to be Africa’s richest woman, from her perch at the top of the national oil firm, and sacked the former president’s son from his job running the sovereign-wealth fund. He has even allowed the junior Mr dos Santos to be charged with fraud, which he denies, over the transfer of $500m out of the country. That would never have happened under his father’s regime. The $640bn question is whether Mr Lourenço’s anti-corruption drive is real, or whether he plans to replace one set of snouts at the trough with another.

$640bn is the amount of money that Angola is thought to have made from oil and gas exports since 2002. That was the year its ghastly, three-decade civil war ended, leaving its people traumatised and its soil studded with landmines. Soon afterwards oil prices surged, giving Africa’s second-largest oil producer a chance to reap a huge peace dividend and rebuild its bombed-out cities. This chance was not entirely squandered—Angola has more roads and dams and skyscrapers than before, and its people are a bit less poor. But the main benefits of the oil boom flowed to a tiny elite.

Tens of billions of petrodollars simply vanished. Many more were grabbed by bigwigs who won permits for projects and let their foreign partners do the work. Practically everything in Angola costs more because cronies take a cut: Luanda, the capital, was recently ranked as the most expensive city in the world for expats. Genuine entrepreneurs are crushed. “It is virtually impossible for meaningful economic activity to occur outside the charmed circle of the politically protected,” wrote Ricardo Soares de Oliveira in “Magnificent and Beggar Land: Angola since the Civil War”. When the oil price crashed in 2014, Angola was left with stalled growth, vast debts to China and no export industry of any consequence to replace hydrocarbons. This is the mess Mr Lourenço must clean up.

Lourenço’s toil

Some early signs are encouraging. Besides sidelining the dos Santos clan, he has pushed through a law making foreign investment easier, by removing a requirement to have a local partner, and asked the IMF how to stabilise the economy. But this is not nearly enough. Since Angola’s biggest problem is corruption, the government’s most urgent tasks are to promote transparency and accountability. A good start would be to allow an independent audit of the country’s public debt. How was it created, and where did the money go? The opposition is calling for such an audit, and some members of the ruling party would support it. Those who object are largely people with something to hide. Unfortunately, they are a powerful constituency in Angola. It remains to be seen whether Mr Lourenço has the will and the wherewithal to defeat them.

The ruling party is no longer Marxist, but it still seeks to control too many aspects of Angolan life. A growth-blocking forest of licences and regulations enriches those with the power to grant or waive them. It should be slashed. Political meddling in Angola’s courts grants impunity to the mighty. It should end. And assaults on press freedom shield the elite from much-needed scrutiny. Rafael Marques de Morais and Mariano Bras, two graft-illuminating journalists, are on trial—behind closed doors—for insulting the former attorney-general. The cases against them should be dropped, and the media unmuzzled. Mr Lourenço once promised to root out corruption even among the most powerful, adding that “the law is for everyone.” Angola can escape from his predecessor’s long, dark shadow only if he means it.