Angola: the elites live with their backs to the country

Angola’s capital looks like a modern day Eldorado for the small elite, who pay regular visits to fancy clubs and drive their SUV’s through endless traffic jams. Chinese builders construct roads, railways and soccer stadiums throughout the entire country, but in the crowded slums millions of people have to get by on hardly anything. MO* wen t to Angola to see what really needs to be done to make the country new, for all Angolans.
In an old little notebook I’ve found near to an apartment building in Southern Kwanza, I find the following information: “Angola is a great and beautiful country. It is part of the African continent. Because of its vastness, it is one of the biggest countries in Africa.”
José Marty, who probably underwent a good spanking for losing his notebook, goes on describing his beloved country’s “extensive fishing reserves as well as rivers and abundant mineral treasures”.
José is right. Angola has a shore of over 1600 kilometers, rivers who could supply their neighbors in South-Africa with electricity should hydro-electric power stations be installed on them, very fertile soil and lots and lots of space (1.247.000 km², as much as Spain, Portugal, France and the Benelux put together) for 18 million inhabitants. On top of that, diamonds, oil, bauxite, gold, and other valuable commodities generate money. Lots of money.
Unlike in Nigeria, the offshore oil fields of Angola are not under sabotaged by rebel forces, and as a consequence, international oil concerns have shown a lot of interest the past few years. More foreigners are attracted by the massive number of construction contracts and the very lucrative import. Even milk, such an important, everyday product, is imported by Nestlé under the brand name Nido.
The country has so much oil at its disposal, and at the same time, due to its recent boom, it needs so much food and construction material, that Europeans, Chinese, Americans, Brazilians, Russians, Indians and Lebanese are jostling each other in the crowded ports of Luanda and Lobito. Up until the crisis, a ship could wait for a whole year before it was offloaded, according to Olivier Claerhout, a Belgian and employee of the logistics corporation TLC.

China loves Angola too, because it needs the oil to keep its own economy going. Trade between China and Africa has increased fourteen fold in the last decade and sums up to over 100 billion dollar at the moment. According to the World Bank’s local representative, Ricardo Gazel, Angola has a credit of 4.5 billion dollar at the Chinese Export-Import Bank (Eximbank). In return, China wants more petroleum.
In 2007, China imported more oil from Angola than the United States did (11.2 billion dollar compared to 10.2 billion dollar). In spite of the globe spanning crisis, which affected oil prices, number of barrels, and consequently tempered Chinese-Angolan trade, Angola remains a firm African economic force. Before the crisis, Angola’s economy was growing at a rate of no less than 20 percent per year. In 2008 the economic growth slowed down only a little, to a rate of 15 percent, which is a unique performance in Africa and the world.

A white experience

“The people of Angola are generous and hardworking”, can be read in the notebook of José Marty. “It seizes opportunities and cultivates its wealth to improve its state of living.” Unfortunately, this is only José’s wish, held true. There are approximately 18 million Angolans, of which two third is living on less than two dollar a day. Over half of them has to get by on 1.25 dollar a day, or less. Angola scores badly for inequality. Its Gini coefficient is 58.6, where zero and 100 indicate perfect equality and absolute inequality respectively.

A monthly salary of 700 dollar is quite normal for the Luandese, though in the capital it is nearly impossible to feed a family of six for 300 dollar a month. The content of your wallet will last a little longer if you don’t shop at the supermarket, but still. Most people have second jobs to get around, while the elite enjoys one of the many sensational activities, as advertised by a local casino.
At a yachting club at ‘The Island’ in Luanda, incredibly expensive yachts are aligned, and when I go clubbing in Miami Beach, I hear about the 300 dollar entrance fee of the club next door, because of the white experience they’re having, a dance event imported from the West where everybody’s dressed in white.

Angola is a nation of extremes. “One of the undesired effects of our economic boom is compulsory migration”, explains Felizardo Epalanga of the NGO Open Society.

“Recently, inhabitants of the ‘Iraq’ and ‘Bagdad’ quarters were robbed of their houses, that were demolished to make way for new roads or housing projects. Nobody living in the musseques or slums received any compensation, according to him. “You are considered lucky if the government gives you a tent.” Jacob Massinga, a photographer from Luanda, experienced this injustice firsthand.
“I had just bought some land and got to constructing a second floor, when I was forced to move. Now I’m renting this place, spending most of my modest salary. My complaint has never been handled, and my file is still in court.” In his rented home made of loam in the suburbs, I see two rooms, a light bulb and a television displaying a Brazilian telenovella. Once the rainy season starts, the street outside his doorstep will be flooded for weeks.

Safe and crowded Luanda

The civil war (1975-2002) never fully raged in Luanda, but still a lot of Angolans fled to the capital, because it was a stronghold of the government party MPLA, and thus better defended against the rebels of Unita. However, when Unita’s leader, Jonas Savimbi, died, and peace was reinstated, lots of refugees did not return to the province, since they lacked a home, family, a job or facilities.

This explains some of Luanda’s problems, like the chaotic traffic and the shortage of affordable housing, which causes many people to live in the musseques. “There is no running water, no electricity meaning no lights at night”, says Leonardo Manuel Mário of the NGO Solidariedade para o Desenvolvimento da Infancia (SDI). “This stimulates criminality. On top of that, people drink water from tanks, where the water is kept for some time, which causes regular outbreaks of dysentery.”

According to UN development program UNDP, the average life expectancy in Angola is 47, and only half of the Angolans have access to clean drinking water. Approximately 31 percent of the children under five suffer from malnutrition. Angola ranks 143th in the Human Development Index, a list of 182 nations. All this in spite of a high average income per inhabitant.

Hard soft drinks

The civil war did make some people rich as well. Important members of the once Marxist MPLA and business-people they were close with made good money on the candonga, the black market, which provided an alternative to the rationed and subsidized goods during the socialist period and the civil war.
President Dos Santos, who was involved in the French weapon scandal Angolagate, is reputedly the man with the second most possessions in Brazil, and his daughter Isabel, the owner of, among other things, one of the only two cell phone companies in Angola, is said to be one of the richest women in Portugal.
The national company Sonangol decides solely which corporations are welcome to share in the oil wealth, and the international oil concerns have divided the blocks in front of the shores of Angola neatly amongst themselves.
“The political elite has done nothing but enrich itself”, a cynical ambassador from Europe claims. “Development is not in the book of the elite. The Angolan government is only preoccupied with her own self preservation and personal enrichment.”

Angola had to give in a couple of places on Transparency International’s shortlist of corruption this year. It falls back from number 158 to number 162, on a total of 180 nations. In 2009, it got a score of 1.9, on a scale from one to ten, with one being the most corrupt). This corruption score takes into account the millions of dollars that disappear from public treasury, without a sound, as well as the small bribes to get attended to quicker in a bank or city hall.
One day, a police officer in Luanda stopped me to check my visa. He pretended his superior had to see my passport too before I could proceed. Unfortunately he was away, so I had to wait. After insisting a moment, he suggested that I paid him a gasosa, not a soda pop, but a bribe of about 1000 kwanza (8 euro). I was able to get away using the honest I’m-on-my-way-to-the-bank-and-out-of-kwanza excuse.

Dropping the masks

Since foreigners too know that it’s easier to do business when you have powerful connections, the rush on Luanda has made the ruling elite even more corrupt and arrogant. Even the IMF (International Monetary Fund) offered a new loan at the end of September. This proves that on the one hand, Western money is still very attractive for the Angolans, especially now the crisis caused the Chinese to lose interest a bit.
On the other hand, it’s an indication that also for the IMF there’s room for interpretation. Angola did not convert to good government and democracy just like that. The lack of those was the main reason why Western donors ignored the country years ago.

“In Angola, the masks are dropped”, a European diplomat responds. “If you want to do business around here, don’t come knocking bearing nice principles. Why would Hillary Clinton ignore the topic of good government when she visited Angola on her trip through the African continent?
The Angolans wouldn’t stand for it.” That pride has its good sides too, according to Machteld Cattrysse, a Flemish employee of the Dutch embassy in Luanda. “In Angola, a foreign businessman isn’t able to go around the locals in power.

Everything goes according to locally set game rules, in which the elite have the final say. Politics and economic establishment are thoroughly intertwined. “
Millions of dollars disappear in the pockets of an elite who doesn’t have to report to the people of Angola. Whoever wants to build something up soon finds himself tied by the strings of clientelism. Practically everyone I meet in Angola with some standing and a little money, appears to have powerful friends inside the MPLA. To my surprise, I see the minister of foreign affairs walk into our pension one night, and kiss the manager cordially. “He’s my brother”, she confesses later.

When I drop off a member of the party crowd after a big night out in Miami Beach, he practically drags me off of his terrace. “I don’t mind talking politics with you, but it has to be inside. Anyone could hear us here, and my wife might get in trouble.” With some panic in his voice, he points to the bottom of his apartment building, where the governor of Luanda is supposed to live. “I just returned from Portugal, and I disapprove of this corruption as much as you do, but what can I do? My wife’s mother is a member of parliament for the MPLA. My wife and I just had a baby and without our connections I could never afford this apartment. I don’t want any trouble with the neighbors, alright?”.

The road to Tomboco

Paulo Lourenço, minister-advisor at the Portuguese embassy in Luanda, is optimistic. According to him, the Angolan elite is realizing the need for a responsible policy and for taking the development of Angola seriously. “Even if it’s only because Angola has the ambition to play a bigger role in the region and the world. Because of its size, economics and geographic location, and also because it is increasingly recognized as a regional and international partner, Angola will feel obliged to follow the international game rules, including those for good government. When I talk to Angolans in private, they seem well aware of this. You mustn’t forget, and this I say without any paternalism, that the Angolan elite has been educated abroad, and they are very competent.”

Developing Angola is only possible by creating jobs in the inland, according to my driver. Else, few Angolans will want to leave that ‘stinky, dirty, crowded’ capital. Andre Rodrigues himself came from the province of Uige, but has been living in Luanda for years now. While he cruises the sandy roads to M’ banza Congo like a genuine rally pilot, he brings some ideas to mind.
“The first city we’ve crossed, N’ Zeto, is bursting with fish. One could start up a pilchard factory or salt extraction plant. In Tomboco pineapple, oranges and mandarins are cultivated. There’s also manioc, peanuts and bananas. Why not start a juice factory?” Today however, all eyes are set at the port of Soyo, and the rest of the province of Zaire is left alone, in spite of its glamorous history as center of the old Congo kingdom.

In Southern Kwanza and Benguela driving is easier on the asphalt roads constructed by the Chinese. I see them working on the old railway from Benguela to Lobito. It’s out of order now, due to work in progress. Women with multicolored shawls sell manioc, tomatoes, onions, pineapple, papaya: all the good the Angolan soil has to offer. The railway tracks the women sit on could stimulate the economic development of the province, and this is well understood by Luanda.
Chinese are pouring concrete for the new line, and the carcass of the new train station of Catumbela is ready yet. The much bigger train station of Benguela is also in construction, though the works have been put on hold since the Chinese have to attend to the soccer stadium nearby. Next year the African Cup is held in Angola, and the country wants to make a good impression.
The money the Chinese inject into Angola is supposed to be spent on Chinese contractors, who employ their own, with their own digging machines and cement, sand and paint brushes. Nonetheless, I see Angolans working side by side with Asian workers.

Oil floods agriculture

The frenetic activity in oil havens and drilling platforms is in severe contrast to what’s happening in other sectors. Petrol is responsible for half of the gross domestic product, and practically all export has to do with oil. In 2007, Angola exported for 44.4 billion dollar, of which 43 billion dollar covered oil and related products, and 1.2 billion covered diamonds. Agriculture doesn’t even represent 10 percent of the GDP.
“Nowadays, Angola imports 80 percent of its food, while approximately 65 percent of the farmers lives of survival agriculture”, we hear from Marco Polo Germano de Morães. This young Brazilian advises the Angolan vice-minister of Agriculture. In 2009 the government spent only 1.01 percent of its budget on agriculture, according to the advisor. For 2010, this number was raised humbly to a lean 1.84 percent. “This still isn’t much, and a lot less than what Angola spends on transport (7.63%) or defense and security (11.28%). Though I think the government is now realizing that Angola can’t survive on diamonds and petrol forever, and is obliged to diversify.”

It has only been seven years since peace came to Angola, and the process of demining, reconstruction and repopulation takes a while. About four million homeless and over 400000 refugees had to be reinstalled after the civil war, which lasted for about 30 years. Ever since 2002 the agricultural production increased slowly, and in 2006 that growth reached as much as 9.8 percent. By 2013 Angola hopes to expand its cultivated area to four million hectares.
Marco Polo: “Angola has the potential to meet their own nutritional needs in time, and even to export its surplus. Today, however, there’s a lack of investments and expertise. In Angola there are only 190 agricultural experts, while Embrapa, the Brazilian governmental institute of agricultural research, has no less than 2125 researchers. The Angolan government has set a goal of educating 300 extra agricultural specialists in the next ten years, and to set up sixteen national centers for agricultural research in the next four years.”

Lonely at the top

Why should Brazil teach Angola how to farm, I ask rather direct. Aren’t the big multinationals in Brazil taking advantage of the small farmers? “The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has asked us to assist Angola wherever we can, because Brazil has about the same topography and similar climate conditions. On top of that, we speak the same language, and we can show good credentials. The last thirty years, Embrapa has caused a revolution in Brazilian agriculture.“ According to the FAO, Angola has the fourth greatest cultivatable area, following Brazil, India and the DR Congo.

Angola has high expectations of coffee in particular, among other crops. Before the civil war, the country ranked number three of world coffee producers. Nowadays, a lot of plantations are destroyed and desolate. “Since the meek Ovimbundo have turned against the fazenda keepers, there’s no one to do the hard labor on our undulating coffee fields”, speaks the elderly Josefa Armada Nunes (75), whose coffee plantations are left deserted.

“Without mechanization and fertilizers, coffee doesn’t stand a chance in Angola anymore”, says Samuel Barata, the director of the research centre for coffee cultivation in Gabela, which used to be the pre-eminent region for coffee. Judging by his colonial house on the property, the glory days of the colonial coffee cultivation are nothing but a vague memory.
“However, with the appropriate investments, we could be world leaders again. On this height, there’s a yearly rainfall of approximately 1200 mm, which allows us to cultivate Robusta that comes near to the taste of an Arabica, without its susceptibility for diseases and plagues.” As if to confirm Barata’s words the heavenly portals go wide open. Dark green coffee leaves shine in the rain as we drive away from the property.

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