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AFRICA-PORTUGAL: Three Decades After Last Colonial Empire Came to an End

Mario de Queiroz

LISBON, Nov 23 2005 (IPS) - The 30th anniversary of Angola’s independence, commemorated this month, also marked the same period of time since nearly six centuries of European colonialism in Africa came to an end.

As in Asia, it was the Portuguese who initiated the long era of colonialism in Africa, on Aug. 21, 1415, when Henry the Navigator’s fleet landed at what is today the Spanish enclave of Ceuta, in modern-day Morocco.

A total of 560 years passed before Portugal pulled out of its colonies. On Nov. 11, 1975, then governor of Angola Admiral Antonio D’Alva Rosa Coutinho, a member of the Armed Forces Movement, handed over the reins of power to independence leader Agostinho Neto, the first president of Angola, which was the last European colony in Africa.

Known as the “red admiral”, Rosa Coutinho, who one year earlier had taken part in the revolt staged by a group of left-wing junior officers – the “captains of April” who overthrew Portugal’s 1926-1974 dictatorship – was one of the main proponents of the decolonisation of Portugal’s dying empire.

In 1974, Lisbon recognised the independence of Guinea Bissau, unilaterally declared a year earlier and recognised by 47 countries. And between June and September 1975, Mozambique, Cape Verde and Sao Tomé and Príncipe won their independence. Two months later, Angola followed suit.

In Africa today there are “dependent territories” not formally considered European colonies, such as the Canary Islands and Ceuta and Melilla, which are under Spanish control; Madeira, administered by Portugal; the French overseas territories of Mayotte and Reunion islands; and Britain’s Saint Helena.

Reserve Colonel Vasco Lourenço, who was a central figure in the Armed Forces Movement, told IPS that “the independence of the former Portuguese colonies had important repercussions” because it represented the end of the last colonial empire.

But “obviously not everything has been wonderful in the new independent countries,” said Lourenço, who was a captain and a member of the Council of the Revolution when he assumed control of the Lisbon military region in 1975.

That “is only natural, because you could say the life of these nations is just beginning, with the difficulties entailed in having been victims of civil wars that were clearly provoked and influenced by foreign interventions, despite which these countries have increasingly staked out a place for themselves in the international community, especially Angola,” he added.

According to Lourenço, Angola and Mozambique “had a strong influence on the independence of (the former Portuguese colony) of East Timor” and on the end of the racist apartheid system in South Africa in 1994.

East Timor, located between Australia and Indonesia in the Pacific Ocean, became independent in May 2002, after a quarter-century occupation by Indonesia during which one-third of the population of 680,000 was killed.

The colonel also said the Community of Portuguese-Speaking Countries (CPLP) would play “an important role for the future of humanity.”

The CPLP, which is made up of Angola, Brazil, Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique, Portugal, Sao Tomé and Príncipe, and East Timor, was founded in 1996 on the initiative of former Brazilian minister of culture José Aparecido de Olivera, with the support of then presidents Itamar Franco of Brazil and Mario Soares of Portugal.

Thirty years after achieving independence, the former Portuguese colonies in Africa, and Angola in particular, remain heavily dependent on Portuguese foreign aid and investment, and are countries of strong contrasts, with vast social and economic differences, largely the result of civil wars or palace coups.

Four decades of war – the 1961-1975 war of independence followed by the 1975-2002 civil war – left Angola in ruins, with little infrastructure still intact and severe social problems.

Luanda, the capital, is now home to four million people, a full one-third of the population of Angola, with everything that implies in terms of unemployment and subsistence in a city that was not prepared to house, or provide jobs for, so many people.

But despite the lack of public security and the fact that the cost of living in Angola is among the highest in Africa, according to the Lisbon newspaper Diario de Noticias, the influx of foreign investment into Angola is larger than ever before.

That is due to the enormous oil wealth of a country that is now producing more than two billion barrels of oil a day, at a time when international prices are soaring and when it seems that the country’s output could double within the next five years.

That would put Angola at the centre of one of the largest inflows of revenues that Africa has seen in its independent history, which dates back half a century in the case of most countries on the continent.

Projections by oil market experts cited by Diario de Noticias indicate that the oil exports of Angola, Nigeria, Democratic Republic of Congo, Chad and joint ventures in the Gulf of Guinea could generate total revenues of 349 billion dollars by 2019.

Among those most interested in the role that Angola could play in that future flow of black gold would seem to be China, which recently opened up a two billion dollar credit line aimed at rebuilding Angola’s infrastructure.

For foreign investors, who are interested in telecommunications, the banking sector, civil construction works, tourism, agriculture and industry, Angola’s attractive economic growth figures, estimated by independent experts at 14.7 percent this year and projected to reach as high as 27 percent next year, are irresistible.

The dark side of the coin is that the end of the civil war and the current high levels of economic growth have failed to improve living conditions for the two-thirds of Angola’s nearly 13 million people who survive on less than two dollars a day and have access to neither clean water nor health care.

Nearly four years after the death in combat of rebel leader Jonas Savimbi, the president of the United Front for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA), the promises of the government of José Eduardo dos Santos that everything would change with the end of the war have gone unfulfilled in this country that is not only rich in oil, but in diamonds, coffee and water as well.

Although the country has the resources to feed 50 million people, conditions remain desperate. Angola ranks 160th on the Human Development Index drawn up by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), and is still among the most corrupt countries in the world, according to the anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International.

Shortly before his death in 1979, Agostinho Neto, the father of Angolan independence, predicted what would occur in the continent, telling the 15th summit of heads of state and government of the Organisation of African Unity that “Today Africa is like a motionless body, and every carrion vulture is anxious to tear out a piece of that body.”

Given that grim outlook, IPS asked two writers and journalists from former Portuguese colonies in Africa, Vladimir Monteiro from Cape Verde and Jõao Carlos from Sao Tomé and Príncipe, to comment on what independence has meant.

Monteiro said that “today in Cape Verde, one of the five African countries that achieved independence in 1975, people are no longer so sure of the advantages of emancipation, and some wonder why a referendum was not held that year to ask the people whether they wanted to maintain their ties with Portugal.”

That position “is explainable today by purely economic reasons. These are people who see in that alternative the possibility of having a Portuguese passport to move around the European Union,” he added.

But in 1975, “there was a need for that independence, which allowed Cape Verdeans to define their identify. For example, the international success of their music and the rest of the progress they have made were successful thanks to independence,” said the writer.

On the other hand, Carlos deplored the fact that Portugal “handed over power to the new leaders of the countries in Africa that were demanding their sovereignty without having clear plans for creating the minimal conditions necessary for assuming the leadership of the new states with a vision of the future and a blueprint for the organisation and growth of their respective societies.”

Independence “signified at the time a clear victory, liberation from the colonial yoke, a necessary distancing from the colonising power,” said Carlos. But “Thirty years on, there is a clear perception of the errors committed in the process of the transfer of power to the nationalists,” he added.

“With the adoption of democratic regimes that replaced monolithic Marxist-Leninist socialist systems, there is once again a perception that winning independence was worth it, because the errors of the past, the political experience that has been acquired, the experience of democracy, and the challenges of an increasingly globalised world can spur Africa’s leadership to face the future of their countries with another vision,” said Carlos.

In his view, Africa as a whole “has the possibility of carving out a bigger space for itself on the global scene, if the spirit that prevailed in the struggle for independence is kept alive, thinking about the progress of everyone rather than about satisfying the interests of particular groups.”

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