an introduction to Angola

In less than one month, Angolans go to the ballot box for the first time in sixteen years, and only the second time since independence from Portuguese colonial rule in 1975. Last night I gave a talk here at WISER, an attempt to provide an introduction – including my own personal views in the second half – to Angola today. Justin Pearce (currently doing a PhD at Oxford – see his work here and here)also spoke about his research in the central highlands of Angola. Sadly, Rafael Marques who was due to speak had trouble with the er, airline. Anyway, here’s the talk.

I. Earlier this year, Angola overtook Nigeria as the leading oil producer in Africa, pumping out close to 2 million barrels of oil a day. Almost a third of that goes to China, putting Angola ahead of Saudi Arabia as the leading exporter of oil to that country. Over a quarter goes to the USA.

Another major project on the horizon is the Liquefied Natural Gas Plant being built in Soyo, in the north-west corner of the country. Exports of LNG are due to begin some time in 2011, aimed at the US market. Sonangol – Angola‘s state oil company – say this project will bring in 10 billion dollars in taxes alone.

WHAT YOU OFTEN DO NOT READ IN THE NEWSPAPERS IS THAT: despite Angola‘s almighty oil production, its refinery capacity is very poor: Angola currently imports between sixty to seventy percent for domestic consumption. And when you go to a petrol station in Luanda, you might have to wait for an entire afternoon to fill up. This is likely to change with the building of the Lobito refinery – likley to be completed in 2015.

II. After Botswana, Russia, Canada and South Africa, Angola is the world’s fifth largest diamond producer. Last month, a senior official from the state diamond company, ENDIAMA, stated that Angola will rise to third place in 2010. This is impressive

BUT: it’s worth keeping in mind: this year, Angola has traded 3.9 million carats at a value of over 600 million US$: in comparison, Botswana produced 34.3 million carats in 2006! Moreover, as the report produced by Rafael Marques this month explains, the diamonds are dug up at a very high cost to the Angolan people.

III. When I first went to live and work in Angola in 1998, inflation stood at 1,400%: today that figure has reduced somewhat superlatively to 13%. According to the Economic Intelligence Unit, Angola has one of – if not the – fastest growing economy in the world, increasing its GDP by 23% last year, and predicting between 16 to 21% this year. In 2007, Angola cancelled all negotiations with the IMF on the grounds that it could manage and sustain economic stability on its own. In that year, it produced around 585m barrels of oil, worth over $30bn – which was more than the entire Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development aid to the whole of Africa in 2006.

It’s interesting to note, nevertheless, that among the other top ten fastest economies in the world are Sudan, Azerbaijan and Equatorial Guinea… all oil-producing countries. As the Economic Commission for Africa has noted, “African trade performance is… vastly dominated by the terms of trade for oil and minerals…” Currently oil prices are high: we don’t know what will happen when and if they drop, and when the oil runs out…

IV. Then there’s the construction industry, estimated to be the second largest sector after oil. People say that Luanda is like one big building site at the moment. Personally, I don’t think that’s true. At least, visually it is not. However, the skyline is changing pretty fast. Fifteen-storey hotels are erupting from the ground, no matter that they are in the middle of a residential area and surrounded by colonial Portuguese bungalow architecture. I have heard it suggested that soon there will be bridges connecting the sky-scrapers, and these bridges will be over and above the roofs of the tiny pink houses beneath. I have regularly read on the South Africa Angola Chamber of Commerce circulars that Luanda is 3,000 hotel beds short for the clamouring queue of businessmen and women. The speed of construction and growth is reflected in the ports at Luanda and Lobito: on any day in Luanda you will see long traffic jams of freight ships across the sea, all queueing to dock. Once the ports are developed, “The sky,” as one economist told me, “is the limit”. And that’s certainly the way the Angolan elite see things… The tallest building in Africa will, in the not too distant future, appear in Luanda at an estimated cost of 800 million dollars. At 325 metres, it will be a metre higher than the Eiffel Tower, and will have 70 storeys. All very exciting.

BUT: the current construction wave is having some worrying social and employment consequences. The owners want their buildings finished ‘yesterday’. One hotel I know of, currently no more than its foundations, is already full booked up for the end of 2009. Because of the pressure to complete, the Angolan labour was, one day, sacked and Chinese labourers brought in as replacement. Why? Because the Angolan owners (two men who came straight from Futungo – the presidential elite circle) say the Chinese are quicker: and they don’t want to lose business. But the Portuguese site manager told me this is not true. He says that the Chinese are cheaper because they all live in the same area and can be transported in and out in one minivan. The Angolans live in individual houses – or shacks. They must make their own way to work in kandongueiros (taxis). This costs more and the kandongueiros don’t run all night – but the building site does. Angolans have family matters to deal with – whereas the Chinese are normally in Angola only to work. They come alone.

V. Another factor that – certainly the Western/Northern media seem to be obsessed by – is the Chinese, and Angola. There’s been a lot of noise about Chinese credit – or loans – to Angola: at the end of 2007, they were valued at 7 billion US$ if you take into account public and private loans. Most Chinese investment has gone into the oil sector, but also diamonds, copper and a whole lot else. The Chinese are also very heavily involved in constructions projects – of roads, railways, housing, and a new aiport in Luanda … the list goes on… Rumours abound about the number of Chinese living and working in Angola: experts at South Africa‘s own Stellenbosch University estimated that there were 20,000 to 30,000 Chinese at the end 2007. But I’ve also heard more recently that that figure has climbed to 80,000. Some have compared this with the Portuguese-Angolan population, estimated to stand at 50,000. Personally I think quite a lot of what is reported about the Chinese stems from some racism or perhaps envy from Western journalists and their editors. How many articles are written about the returning Portuguese: all those people who fled in 1975, and are now rushing back claiming they want their “old homes” back?

VI. OK, my final run on the statistics is to just dip very quickly into what you might call the ‘humanitarian’ statistics, again, much quoted by journos and so-called experts on the country. These are pretty dismal:

The UN estimates that one in four Angolan children don’t make it to their fifth birthday. The UN also estimates that a little under 70% of the population live below what is dubbed “the poverty line”, which I think is currently put at 2 US dollars a day. Bear in mind that Luanda has recently been judged by the EIU the most expensive city in the world: these statistics are usually based on how much it would cost to live, what they call a little presumptously, “a Western lifestyle”. Even so, in my experience, Luanda is expensive no matter who you are.

And a final one: Angola is ranked 162 out of 177 on the UN human development index. Sanitation in many urban areas is appalling: and in 2006 there were over 70,000 cases of cholera and 2,800 deaths.

So there you have it: the good, the bad and the ugly. Having given you those statistics, I now want to tell you that I get sick of reading them. Much of what is said about Angola today tends to highlight the data – a message of extremes, or as the British Men’s magazine GQ headlined it this month, Welcome to the World’s Richest Poor Country! Obviously, on one level, this is true – this is the state of the Angolan nation today – but the obsession with the fastest growing economy in the world, high oil prices, Chinese loans and UN data of doom and gloom hides a place that has a whole lot more going on.

One month to this very day – the 5th September 2008 – Angolans will go to the polls to vote in legislative elections. Justin, shortly, is going to discuss his research in the central highlands, focusing on traditional supporters of the União Nacional Para a Independência Total de Angola (UNITA), and how their politics and possible voting patterns might be changing, and why. But so that you are aware, Angola has had just one set of “multiparty” elections before. They were sixteen years ago, in 1992; that was seventeen years after independence from Portuguese colonial rule was celebrated, in 1975. The 1992 elections – legislative and presidentials (they were held at the same time) – ended in what I’ve often heard described as ‘disaster’. War swiftly resumed and, in certain places, some of the worst violence ever experienced in Angola was during that post-election period.

There are many political parties in Angola today – but only one has ever held power. The Movimento Popular da Libertação de Angola – MPLA – has ruled… or governed… or led the country since 1975. Today, there is what is known as a Government of National Unity and Reconciliation (the GURN), but to all intents and purposes – partly due to a majority in parliament – the MPLA is in power. That said, over and above the MPLA is the president, José Eduardo dos Santos, and between him and the MPLA is a very small clique of powerful people… loosely referred to as futungo. Futungo refers to the president’s former private residence, Futungo de Belas, just south of Luanda city centre. Soon, I understand it is going to be transformed into a elite-tourist-zone-cum-giant-luxury-shopping-mall. But President Dos Santos – also known as Zedu – now stays in the old colonial palácio in the centre of Luanda. Zedu has been numero uno since 1979, when he took over from Agostinho Neto who held office from 1975 until his death – or, some allege, murder in Moscow, four years later.

Until six years ago, Angolans lived through more or less consistent conflict from the start of the struggle for liberation in 1961, to the Luena Accords in 2002, which came shortly after the killing of Jonas Malheiro Savimbi, UNITA leader. It’s commonly understood that Savimbi’s UNITA was supported by the United States and the apartheid government of South Africa, and that the MPLA were supported by the Cubans and the Soviets. Loosely, this is true up until 1990, but the support was not without its complications – and it was never as simplistic as it is sometimes made out to be: for example, in 1976, the so-called Socialist MPLA signed accords with the American oil company – Gulf Oil, or Cabinda Gulf – to allow oil exploration to continue off Cabinda‘s coast. Cabinda Gulf drilled its first well off Cabinda in 1958. Later, that same base – known as Malongo – was surrounded by Cuban mines to protect the US installations from possible rebel attack… as if the divisions of Left and Right, of Socialist and Capitalist were so simple…

Those landmines are still there to this day – although I have heard that a contract is up for grabs to remove them…

When I first set off for Angola, a little less than ten years ago, I had this idea based on the books and newspapers I’d read about the country, as well as – incredibly – a university education, that I would participate in the tail-end of a Cold War struggle. I’ve always thought it a bit embarrassing to admit quite how naïve and stupid I was – until I began to realise how many other people, with more experience and more education, also thought the same as me…. Many of them still do… Then, I was on the Left, a Socialist (still am, if a little more aware of the complexities) and was keen to learn about the MPLA’s struggle against the USA et al. This was not quite as dumb – though almost – as it sounds: to this day the MPLA is a member of the Socialist International, that worldwide organisation of so-called Socialist parties. Amazingly, the British Labour Party is also a member…

As I say, I was extremely naïve, and once I’d arrived in Angola, quickly began to see that this country which had been written about by many as a Cold War victim, as a place where right fought left, and left… right, where evil sought to quash good, and so on ….was a lot more complicated. I went into the so-called “war zones” to try to see for myself what was happening. And everything that I had been told seemed to be wrong. In areas where UNITA claimed victory, I found soldiers from the Angolan Armed Forces, or FAA. In other areas where the FAA claimed to be in control, I travelled through miles and miles of no-man’s land where no one and nothing was in control at all… except fear. I met soldiers who’d run out of bullets but not booze, and boys whose only dream was to slaughter Jonas Savimbi. I sat on the telephone to UNITA generals who told me they were not bombing Malanje, and yet I was in that city at the time, being bombed, watching old ladies have their heads blown off. I interviewed United Nations employees – and the great and the good of the humanitarian world – who all confessed great affection for the Angolan people, yet ran for the safety of Luanda or London or Washington whenever the need in the provinces was greatest. I met more senior aid workers who struggled to explain why they were paying to transport “humanitarian aid” to the interior, using aircraft owned by certain government army Generals who packed the plane full of weapons.

And I met an Angolan minister – what they call there a mulatta – at the site of an appalling plane crash in the slums, who told me that she was “like you, my dear, and not like those Africans…” I no longer understood the speeches of Western politicians like ex-South African Peter Hain who insisted the war must continue… in order to create peace… relying on the language of President Dos Santos himself… Nor did I see how I could do as a wise old Angolan journalist told me, and “pick a side… you must pick one side to support, Lara, or you’ll have no friends at all…” And in the middle of all this, time and time again, I met Angolan people who’d been brutalised or lost their relatives or suffered terrible human rights abuses at the hands of UNITA and the FAA or MPLA forces…. The longer I stayed, the more convinced I was that there was no good or bad… it was all bloody dreadful. I became increasingly confused by information and counter-information, by propaganda and lies, not just of the warring sides, but the international community whose representatives would drop in to give nice “pressers” on pretty green lawns, to discuss ‘oil production’ and ‘excellent cooperation’ and, of course, ‘the people of Angola’…

After just over two years reporting Angola to the BBC, I decided I had to leave. I was concerned that I was going a bit insane.

That was in 2000.

When I’ve been able to get a visa – no mean feat believe me – I’ve gone back to Angola to visit old friends and work. This year, I went on a three-month overland trip. Thanks to my fellowship here at WISER, I was under no pressure to produce any news reports at all. I just travelled about, hung out with priests, walked many miles with very old women, talked to informal diamond diggers, politicians, an ex-mercenary, old journalist colleagues and housewives. I hitched with truck drivers, chatted to streetkids high on glue, and bag men wandering the streets of Luanda. I met a King who asked me to arrange a meeting with Queen Elizabeth, so desperate he is for support, for help; and I interviewed musicians who write brave and very critical lyrics in a bid to levanta voz do povo – to raise the voices of the people. I had a wonderful time – it was an incredible journey – but I left Angola feeling deeply downhearted.

I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that: it is to enter a state of some madness to live in Angola today. The Angolan state is, I believe, a totalitarian state. There is a semblance of freedom – and we might say freedom of expression – but it is a semblance. There are many private newspapers, that’s true. But few get further than the capital, Luanda. The media in Angola is dominated by State and MPLA funded media. Journalists are paid to keep quiet. Last year, one reporter was said to have been paid $50,000 not to print a story on a particular minister. A few months ago, one of State televisions most loyal presenters – a man I often wondered, when watching, whether he was really Luanda’s version of a Stepford wife – was “suspended”. Ernesto Bartolomeu’s sin was to tell a group of journalists and civil society members that state TV censored the news. Believe me, if you watch it – a sea of red, black and yellow every night for one hour on the news – you will realise quickly how censored it is. But for stating the obvious, Bartolomeu was sent out to grass until October… conveniently one month after the elections. No wonder so many Angolan journalists are, in my experience, bebedos ou bufos… Drunks or spies…

But it’s not just the obvious stuff like public information that is controlled: your way of life is constantly under pressure, under some sort of threat. People are watched by neighbours who are told to take notes on the number plates of cars that come and go. Some of my own friends have been told not to be seen with me in public – or they might lose their jobs. Your soul and your spirit are penetrated by the ambitions of the State. And the State in Angola, is the ruling party… and the ruling party is the State… it’s very difficult to tell the difference, if there is one…

I had dinner with a man who I’ve known for ten years. He is well-educated, funny, and usually lighthearted. Middle-aged and working in “consultancy”, he told me over beer, “It is getting harder and harder to know who you can talk to. You need to understand that I no longer trust even my wife. I cannot talk to her properly any more because I do not know who she is working for. Sometimes we have conversations that don’t make sense; we enter a discourse of insanity.”

Another man I met, in his early thirties, a truck-driver. I spent an evening with him and his fellow truckers, drinking beer and eating dry fish. He tried to explain to me why he is unhappy, why he struggles to keep going. He said that he’d fought for both sides in the war: six years with each. But it was not the memories of killing that cause him most difficulty, it’s the level of control over his life today. Só temos companheiros, he said, não temos amigos… “We only have mates/acquaintances, we don’t have real friends.” And he also said, “Even my wife, I love her, but we have no intimacy because I do not know, tomorrow, who she might be working for.”

Another man, a government official, with whom I spent several days working, would, each day, pass through a period during which he would struggle not to break down in tears. The first time we met he was sleeping at his tiny provincial desk, as he does every day – his secretary said – because there’s nothing else to do. He told me at first, he was an ardent Party member, meaning the MPLA. But as our relationship grew, he became more open. By the time of our final meeting, he told me he hated his life, that he knows he is being watched all the time, and that I must hide all my notebooks and get away from the area where we met. “Whatever you do, please don’t discuss politics, forget about politics,” he pleaded on our final meeting.

Many people I have met have told me about how they have been recruited into working for SINFO. Sinfo is the Serviços Internos de Informações – the Angolan secret services. They explain their work in terms of having no choice: if they didn’t accept to spy for Sinfo, they will lose their work, their house – and their families and close friends would be threatened. I met another man whose friend was shot dead at point blank range last year: “Up to this day,” he told me, “we have no idea why he was killed. This country is just like Russia.”

This fear is not something new…

In 1977, two years after independence, there was perhaps the first and last major political uprising in Luanda. It was led by senior members of the ruling MPLA, a Soviet-backed faction, who were angry with President Agostinho Neto and his immediate circle for a number of reasons – related to ideology and wealth, and allegations of corruption and racism. The uprising – which was probably, but not definitely, a coup attempt – failed. It was surpressed, to large extent, by the Cubans who backed President Neto. There is much dispute – and silence – about exactly how the uprising was put down, but for the lack of time now, I will simply state that many thousands of people were killed in the weeks and months that followed. Many of them were quadros, well-educated young men and some women, whose deaths impacted the development of Angola. And many of those killed were members of the MPLA party, killed by their brothers within the same party.

I have interviewed many people about this event, people who today remain in fear of the State because of that event – but there is one in particular, that always stands out. She is an Angolan woman whose husband disappeared on the day of the uprising. She was, in many ways, lucky. She managed four months later, to flee Angola and get to Lisbon, where she has remained ever since. When I went to interview her two years ago, she told me how – until very recently – she had always pretended she was a Mozambican. She remained in a state of terror that the Angolan secret services would track her down in Portugal, and capture, detain or kill her. Until I interviewed her in 2006, she had only told one other person about the circumstances surrounding her husband’s death. Not even her daughter – born two weeks before the uprising of 1977 – knew how her father had been killed.

To conclude, I’d like to say this: Angola, today, is a country to feel optimistic about. All that macro-economic growth. All that petrol. Et cetera… And also, elections are coming very soon, and if they pass peacefully, that will give many Angolan people a confidence boost that voting is not automatically followed by war. However, it is my firm belief that Angola is a country riddled with fear and riddled with a system of tolitarian rule, largely taught to the MPLA by the East German Stasi and the Soviet KGB. I haven’t said much about opposition – perhaps this could come up in the questions after – for there is opposition, Angolans do act with great pride and humanity, to the overriding power of the state. The situation is not hopeless. But I strongly believe that the optimism of the Angolan elite – or some of them – and that of the international community with dollars in their eyes, is misplaced. They don’t seem to see the fear and resentment of the majority of Angolans who are fed up with being told how lucky they are to have oil and diamonds. Ask them what they think, they are more likely to tell you “Fomos vendidos, estamos esquecidos”… We were sold, we are forgotten.


One thought on “an introduction to Angola

  1. Angola;despict all your Acquaintances you look doom to live in.i felt a pity to the citizen and more especially Foreigners that dwelt in you.

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