Published 09 Sep 08
by J. Peter Pham, Ph.D.
World Defense Review columnist
Angola: A Potential Powerhouse Inches Forward
A little over four months ago, with very little fanfare, Angola slipped past Nigeria to become Africa's largest petroleum producer. In addition to the more than 1.9 million barrels of oil which the Southern African country is currently pumping out each day, it is also ranks seventh worldwide in terms of the raw volume of diamonds mined from its soil and fifth in terms of the actual market value of the stones. And, although it has yet to fully develop its other natural resources, Angola also large deposits of gold, iron ore, bauxite, phosphates, and uranium as well as extensive forests and rich Atlantic fisheries. With these blessings as well as the recent record prices for oil and other commodities, it is no wonder neither that the real growth rate last year of Angola's GDP was estimated by the Central Intelligence Agency to have been 21.1 percent, making it the third fastest growing economy in the world in 2007 (its average annual growth rate of 7.4 over the course of the preceding decade ranked it tenth among fast-expanding economies according to the World Bank), nor that the country has attracted $53 billion in foreign direct investment.
The natural wealth and positive balance sheets are only half of the picture, however. More than half of adults are unemployed. The same proportion of the population of 17 million does not enjoy access to clean water. While comprehensive data is hard to come by, the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) estimates that the incidence of the epidemic has infected some 4 percent of the population since the first case was detected twenty years ago. According to the CIA's 2008 World Factbook, with an appalling 182.31 deaths per 1,000 live births, Angola has by far the highest infant mortality rate in the world (the corresponding figure for second-placed Sierra Leone is 156.48). Those Angolans who survive early childhood can expect to live just a little less than 38 years, during which only half of them will even have an opportunity to receive any formal schooling. Given these data, it is hardly surprising that, according to the UN Development Programme's Human Development Report 2007/2008, Angola ranks 167 of 177 countries surveyed in terms of the Human Development Index.
Why is there such a gap between the country's potential and its reality? Part of the answer undoubtedly lies with the more than a quarter-century of civil war which only ended six years ago, a conflict killed at least 1.5 million Angolans, displaced over 4 million others, and drove another half million into exile, to say nothing of what it did to the extensive infrastructure that had been built up during the nearly five centuries of Portuguese rule, first as a colony and later as an overseas province. However, a greater part of the explanation might be found in the country's governance. As the Nobel Laureate-economist Amartya Sen has long argued, "Developing and strengthening a democratic system is an essential component of the process of development." Yet in its thirty-three years of independence, Angola has had just one election, in 1992, and that poll degenerated into an armed conflict. Thus the historic importance of last Friday's elections for the 220 seats in Angola's National Assembly can hardly be exaggerated.
Following the 1974 "Carnation Revolution," Portugal decided to grant independence to its overseas holdings the following year. At that time, there were three nationalist factions in Angola. The strongest in military terms was Holden Roberto's Frente Nacionale de Libertação de Angola (FNLA, "National Front for the Liberation of Angola) which, while supported by the People's Republic of China, also enjoyed contacts to the CIA. The FNLA was based in Mobutu's Zaïre and operated largely in the north where it drew its primary support from the Bakongo. Agostinho Neto's Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola (MPLA, "Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola"), which was centered in the Kimbundu areas east of Luanda, was backed by the Soviet Union and also enjoyed a large urban following. Jonas Savimbi's União Nacional para a Independência Total de Angola (UNITA, "National Union for the Total Independence of Angola") was supported by the Ovimbundu, Angola's largest tribe, and received some outside assistance from China. Even before the Portuguese precipitously abandoned their erstwhile province—in the end the final high commissioner sent out by Lisbon, Admiral Leonel Cardosa, simply lowered the flag over the Fortaleza de São Miguel and announced he was handing power over to "the Angolan people" without specifying any actual persons before sailing away with the last of the garrison—intense fighting broke out between the groups. With an influx of Cuban advisors and Soviet weapons, the MPLA drove the FNLA and UNITA out of Luanda and occupied the separate oil-rich Cabinda enclave where another liberation movement the Frente para a Libertação do Enclave de Cabinda (FLEC, "Front for the Liberation of the Cabinda Enclave") had been preparing to establish a provisional government (see my report last year on this persistent, but little-known, conflict).
Despite a belated effort by the United States to support the FNLA and UNITA (America would not recognize MPLA-led government of the Republic of Angola until 1993) in conjunction with the apartheid regime in South Africa, which feared the presence of a Marxist government on the borders of South West Africa (Namibia), the intervention of Cuban combat units airlifted by the Soviets was decisive. By early 1976, the FNLA had been defeated while UNITA was on the run. UNITA survived long enough to benefit from the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 and the subsequent promulgation of the eponymous doctrine of providing both direct and indirect U.S. assistance to anti-communist movements in an effort to "roll back" Soviet-back regimes in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Savimbi's fighters, with South African backing, gradually gained control of much of southern and central Angola, including the diamond-rich Lunda region. To counter the threat, the MPLA, led following Neto's death in 1979 by José Eduardo dos Santos, a Soviet-trained petroleum engineer, imported more and more Cuban troops, whose ranks eventually ballooned to some 50,000. By 1987, the United States had successfully leveraged its support of UNITA to preside over the secret negotiations in May 1988 which led to the withdrawal of both Cuban and South African troops from Angola. The talks, led by then-Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Chester Crocker, nonetheless left the internal struggle between the Angolan regime and UNITA unresolved.
After prolonged negotiations, an agreement was reached in Lisbon in May 1991 between Santos and Savimbi which set the stage for elections the following year, to be overseen by a UN envoy, British diplomat Margaret Anstee. As it turned out, the hatreds after nearly two decades of fighting were too strong, the expectations of the peace process too ambitious, and the timeline for demobilization and integration of combatants too compressed. About 90 percent of the electorate turned out for an orderly poll which the UN deemed "generally free and fair" notwithstanding certain "deficiencies." The official results, announced two weeks after the voting, gave the MPLA 53.74 percent of the vote and 129 seats in the National Assembly, while UNITA won 34.1 percent of the vote and 70 seats, with the rest of the votes and 21 seats going to assorted minor parties. In the presidential contest, Santos won 49.57 percent of the vote to Savimbi's 40.07 percent. While the constitution required a run-off, it never took place since fighting broke out and, after three days of intense battles, forces aligned with the MPLA regime engaged in a "cleansing" (limpeza) of UNITA supporters. The renewed civil war, during the final phases of which the government resorted to a scorched-earth campaign, dragged on for another decade until Savimbi was ambushed and killed in early 2002 by, ironically enough, South African mercenaries in cooperation with Israeli special forces, if a Times of London report is to be credited. Subsequently, UNITA agreed to a ceasefire and, giving up its military wing, turned itself into a civilian opposition party.
While the war continued in the Angolan hinterlands and, especially, since the fighting ended, the Angolan state has grown so rich from its oil and other resource revenues that it is no longer dependent on the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and other multilateral institutions with their demands for reform and transparency. In fact, as a 2004 report by the non-governmental organization Global Witness noted, beginning in 1997, at least $1.7 billion goes missing from official revenues each year. Surveying developing countries where revenues from oil, gas and mining that should be funding sustainable economic development have been misappropriated and mismanaged, the London-based NGO concluded:
Nowhere are the devastating effects of revenue misappropriation and state corruption more starkly illustrated than in Angola, where one in four children will not live to see the age of five. One in four is also the ratio of money that disappears from the state budget each year. The two figures are related: while most Angolans suffer devastating poverty, oil income has enabled some top officials of the ruling [MPLA] to become very, very rich. As one Angolan journalist puts it: "The workers' party has become the millionaires' party."
According to local press reports cited by Dr. John McMillan, a professor at Stanford University's Graduate School of Business, in a 2005 paper entitled "The Main Institution in the Country is Corruption," at least ten Angolans had fortunes exceeding $100 million, while another forty-nine were worth at least $50 million: "Topping the rich list was President José Eduardo dos Santos,…followed by a parliamentary deputy, two officials in the president's office, an ambassador, a former army chief of staff, and the minister of public works. The seven richest Angolans were all in the government." A study last year by the independent Madrid-based Fundación par alas Relaciones Internacionales y el Diálogo Exterior (FRIDE) noted: "In Angola, donor agencies have not had the leverage they enjoy elsewhere in Africa. That is chiefly because Angola's political class has become empowered by its insulation from donor pressures (for 'good governance' and 'sound economic policies,' for example) by its financial and even ideological alliance with the hydrocarbon industry, and more recently by the rising importance of China as a competing mercantile power."
Today, Angola is one of China's most important oil suppliers (it is back-and-forth between Luanda and Riyadh for the honor of being Beijing's largest source). Angola remains China's largest trading partner in Africa. In a pattern it has replicated elsewhere (see my report earlier this year on "Khartoum's Partners in Beijing"), China has been very solicitous of its partner, providing it with two concessionary $2 billion lines of credit through the Chinese Export-Import (EXIM) Bank in 2004 and 2007, as well as a $2.9 billion loan from the China International Fund in 2005. Altogether, China has extended more than $11 billion in credit to Angola, including $2 billion in financing for the construction of a railroad from the interior to the port of Lobito which represents the largest of infrastructure project in the country's history. The Beijing mandarins' generosity has its rewards. In 2004, for example, a proposal by Shell Exploration & Production Angola to sell a 50 percent equity share in an oil block to an Indian company, ONGC Videsh, was blocked by the government-owned monopoly Sociedade Naçional de Combustíveis de Angola (Sonangol), which ensured that the stake in question was sold to a Chinese company. Subsequently the China Petroleum and Chemical Corporation (Sinopec) acquired concessions in Angola's Block 3 and Block 18, the former once a prize possession of France's Total, which the Angolan government declined to renew in favor of the Chinese firm. Russia, which as I noted last month has become increasingly involved once again in Africa, has also begun to invest heavily in Angola, getting authorization to open last year the first foreign-controlled bank in the country, an operation in which the Russian foreign trade bank, Vneshtorbank, controls 66 percent of the stock. According to spokesman for the bank, it is especially interested in "natural resources, energy, telecommunications, construction, and trade."
Thus, not only because of Angola's energy resources—according to the Department of Energy's Energy Information Administration, during the first six months of this year Angola exported 92.09 million barrels of oil to the United States, a figure representing approximately 5 percent of America's imports—but because the wealth gives it the potential for considerable prominence in regional affairs, it would behoove Washington to make developing a stronger relationship with Luanda a priority as it seeks a more strategic approach to Africa (see my column in June on "U.S. Engagement of Africa in the National Interest"). Given the history of bilateral relations (or lack thereof), it would be prudent, as a report earlier this year by the Council on Foreign Relations suggests, "to begin…with sensible Angolan priorities, take steps to advance shared, nonpolitical objectives, and commence regular bilateral discussions with a comprehensive agenda." That is to say, given a political economy that does not favor conditionalities, the United States has to invest in long-term strategies to contribute to building the social, economic, and political preconditions for Angolan citizens and institutions to become empowered. Moreover, while the State Departments budget for fiscal year 2009 requests a relatively generous $42 million for Angola, including $6.3 million to assist with humanitarian demining in one of the most landmine-ridden countries in the world, the mere $400,000 which is allocated for international military training and education (IMET) of Angola's military is rather parsimonious—and it won't go very far if you're trying to play catch up and help a country develop a professional and capable military capable of helping, at the very least, with contributing to maritime security in the Gulf of Guinea which is so important to its own national interests (see my report last year on "Securing the New Strategic Gulf").
Pushing greater American engagement, however, will require—as it has in so many other areas of the world—an interested domestic constituency advocating it. This, in turn, will require private sector engagement in Angola beyond the oil industry's investments in offshore blocs. However, substantial investments are unlikely without potential investors having greater confidence in prospects for the rule of law in the African country, a fact which leads back to the significance of last week's parliamentary elections (and the presidential poll which has been promised for next year and municipal elections the year after that). While 5,198 candidates, representing some ten parties and four ad hoc coalitions, are competing 220 seats in the National Assembly, the real contest is between the MPLA and UNITA and whether the ruling party might capture enough seats to have a two-thirds majority in the chamber and thus have free rein to make constitutional changes without the need for support from any of the other parties.
While voter registration efforts were impressive—more than 8 million people were registered nationwide—some observers have questioned the credibility electoral exercise. The country has only one television station, Luanda's Televisão Pública de Angola (TPA), which is, not surprising, state-owned, as is the one national radio broadcaster, Rádio Nacional de Angola (RNA). Thanks to a law passed two years ago, all other radio stations can only broadcast in a 50-kilometer radius—UNITA's Rádio Despertar was, conveniently enough, subject to a 180-day suspension earlier this year for transgressing this regulation, effectively knocking it off the air through the election. The BBC reported that the Angolan Development Bank had given the MPLA a $42 million campaign slush fund. Last month, Human Rights Watch issued a report which, citing intimidation of opposition parties and the media as well as interference with the electoral commission, cast doubts on the prospects for a free and fair poll. FLEC called on Cabindans to boycott the poll, citing the contested legality of the incorporation of their enclave into Angola. In Luanda and Huambo, two cities where the contests were expected to be close, credentials were withheld from hundreds of members of an Angolan civic coalition, the Plataforma Nacional de la Sociedad Civil Angoleña para las Elecciones (PNASCAE, "National Platform of Angolan Civil Society for the Elections"), which had organized independent poll monitors. As if to confirm critics' suspicions, visas were denied to several foreign journalists—including reporters from Portugal's second-largest television channel, SIC, and the former colonial power's newspaper of record, Público—just one day before the poll, apparently because authorities did not like their earlier reporting.
Despite these shortcomings, Angolans turned out in massive numbers last Friday. While the crowds were largely peaceful, one European Union (EU) election observer called the process itself an "organizational disaster"—in some polling places lacked ballot papers, ink to mark voters' fingers, and even election officials to open the station up—and the voting was extended one additional day at the 320 polling places in Luanda, where one-third of registered voters reside, although the problems persisted, leading UNITA's leader Isaías Samakuva to issue a statement challenging the poll's legal validity in Luanda and calling for the voting to be redone. The head of EU delegation, Luisa Morgantini, vice president of the European Parliament, told Reuters that Angola violated its own electoral laws by failing to have voter registration lists at the polling places: "We cannot say the process was done according to the rules." Another EU observer, Richard Howitt, who monitored the vote in Cabinda, told the BBC that he had witnessed bribery by the ruling party as well as soldiers and MPLA officials intimidating voters. Nonetheless, the EU delegation's overall preliminary report, released three days after the poll, concluded that despite unequal media access and inconsistent procedures with respect to voter rolls, both of which "fall short of basic international standards," the poll represented "a positive step towards strengthening democracy." (In contrast to EU's measured response, the observers from the African Union and the Southern African Development Community—in the same manner as their counterparts had during the first round of the Zimbabwean election in March—covered themselves in ignominy by rushing to proclaim the poll "successful" and "peaceful, free, transparent, and credible" even before the voting was finished. As if it could not get more farcical, the SADC delegation was headed by Dr. John Kunene, a courtier from Swaziland, an absolute monarchy that bans political parties.)
Even if the electoral processes were less than perfect, it would nonetheless be difficult to argue that the overall results do not, however roughly, approximate the popular will. (As of noon Monday, with two-thirds of the votes counted, the National Electoral Commission was reporting that the MPLA had won 81.6 percent to UNITA's 10.5.) While the MPLA certainly abused the prerogatives of incumbency, it is not that clear that UNITA leader Samakuva ever presented a compelling positive case for his party—and the opposition party still suffers from negative associations with the prolonged civil war. Nonetheless, given the history of what has happened when opposition concerns have not been addressed, it is important that UNITA's complaints be investigated. All that said, however, the very fact that a multiparty election took place after almost sixteen years represents significant progress. This is especially the case if this vote it is followed with the presidential poll taking place as scheduled next year giving Angola a regularly elected head of state for the first time in its thirty-three years of independence.
However, elections are only a first step in what remains a very long road. Noting that "the rule of law cannot be guaranteed by Angola's legal system, which suffers from political interference by vested interests and weak statutes," the Heritage Foundation's 2008 Index of Economic Freedom, a measure of performance on ten areas such as trade freedom, business freedom, investment freedom, and property rights which is used as one of the Millennium Challenge Corporation's seventeen official indicators, places Angola in the 143rd position out of 157 countries ranked, ahead of only Syria, Burundi, the Republic of Congo (Brazzaville), Guinea-Bissau, Venezuela, Bangladesh, Belarus, Iran, Turkmenistan, Burma, Libya, Zimbabwe, Cuba, and North Korea.On Transparency International's 2007 Corruption Perception Index, Angola tied with Guinea-Bissau, a place that even the UN Office of Drugs and Crime has described as a "narco-state," for 147th place out of 179 countries ranked (see my report last year on the latter country). Not only because the United States has important strategic interests in the stability and progress of Angola, but also because the patient advancement of democracy and good governance there is consonant with our deeply held values, America needs to intensify its engagement with this geopolitically significant country.
— J. Peter Pham is Director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. He is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington, D.C., as well as Vice President of the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa (ASMEA). In addition to the study of terrorism and political violence, his research interests lie at the intersection of international relations, international law, political theory, and ethics, with particular concentrations on the implications for United States foreign policy and African states as well as religion and global politics.
Dr. Pham is the author of over two hundred essays and reviews on a wide variety of subjects in scholarly and opinion journals on both sides of the Atlantic and the author, editor, or translator of over a dozen books. Among his recent publications are Liberia: Portrait of a Failed State (Reed Press, 2004), which has been critically acclaimed by Foreign Affairs, Worldview, Wilson Quarterly, American Foreign Policy Interests, and other scholarly publications, and Child Soldiers, Adult Interests: The Global Dimensions of the Sierra Leonean Tragedy (Nova Science Publishers, 2005).
In addition to serving on the boards of several international and national think tanks and journals, Dr. Pham has testified before the U.S. Congress and conducted briefings or consulted for both Congressional and Executive agencies. He is also a frequent contributor to National Review Online's military blog, The Tank.
© 2008 J. Peter Pham
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