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ANGOLA: Five Years of Peace Marked by Economic Boom – and Dire Poverty

Mario de Queiroz

LISBON, Feb 22 2007 (IPS) - At dawn exactly five years ago Thursday, the founder and leader of the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA), Jonas Savimbi, was shot down in an ambush by the Angolan army.

On Feb. 22, 2002, shots fired from Russian-made Kalashnikov rifles cut short the rebel leader’s life and hastened the end of the longest and bloodiest war in Africa’s history of independence and neo-colonialism.

The first skirmishes against the Portuguese colonial army in 1961 marked the start of 41 years of war: the war of independence, until 1974, and the civil war, which dragged on from 1975 to 2002.

The armed conflicts left one million dead, four million displaced, half a million refugees in neighbouring countries, and 1.2 million orphans, many of whom continue to wander around the country today, homeless.

Jonas Malheiro Sidónio Savimbi, known as “O Rei” (The King) by his ethnic group, the Ovimbundu in Angola’s central highlands, was an outstanding student in his high school in Bié, where he was born in 1934, and won a scholarship to study political science in Portugal.

But most of his life was dedicated to leading a guerrilla army against the Marxist Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), even during the war of independence, when he struck a secret deal with the Portuguese to combat the “terrorists” who were fighting the colonial overlords.

Towards that end, Savimbi received aid from Portugal between 1963 and 1974, and funding from the United States and apartheid South Africa from 1975 to 1992. But his supporters gradually abandoned him. By the time he was cornered by the Angolan army unit in 2002, he was defended by less than two dozen hungry, poorly-armed bodyguards.

Five years later, UNITA is a legal political party holding 70 seats in the 220-member parliament. The party received an infusion of democracy under its new leader, Isaías Samakuva, who became Savimbi’s successor in 2003 when he defeated the legendary guerrilla leader Paulo Lukamba “Gato”.

In the UNITA party congress scheduled for June, Samakuva is expected to face a challenge from another of the party’s long-time leaders, Abel Chivukuvuku, who a decade before Savimbi’s death even questioned whether armed struggle was the right path to follow.

Chivukuvuku was the only high-level UNITA leader who dared criticise “O Rei” during the war, which he did after acquiring diplomatic experience as the organisation’s representative in Lisbon and Washington.

But UNITA’s maneuvering capacity has been reduced today to that of a weakened, divided party which instead of getting wealthy on the vast swathes of territory rich in diamond mines that it controlled during the war, “today only lives on state subsidies,” according to Portuguese analyst in African affairs, Ana Dias Cordeiro.

Long gone are the days when funding for UNITA poured in from countries like the United States, South Africa or Morocco, as well as revenue from illegal diamond exports.

Nor has UNITA been able to shape an alternative to President José Eduardo dos Santos’ MPLA.

UNITA is in a peculiar position as the main opposition party as well as a member of the government of Unity and National Reconciliation. The 70 lawmakers that represent it in parliament receive a total of one million dollars a year from the state budget, notes Dias Cordeiro.

Dos Santos, who has been in office since 1979, recently announced that he would call elections next year,”which he plans to win,” said José Eduardo Agualusa, one of the Portuguese language’s most distinguished writers, whose ancestors came from Angola, Brazil and Portugal.

In an article published by the Publico de Lisboa newspaper, Agualusa stated that “UNITA’s leaders spend what little energy they have left fighting among themselves.”

Very few of them are capable “of defending ideas for better ways of governing the country,” he argued.

The government ministers and deputy ministers who belong to UNITA “stand out for their mediocrity,” said Agualusa. He points an accusatory finger at dos Santos, who – he argues – “only keeps them on so that voters understand to what extent the former rebels lack the necessary experience and preparation to govern.”

But the MPLA does not appear to be a highly cohesive political force either, as demonstrated this week when dos Santos publicly accused factions within his party of trying to return to “a dictatorship of the proletariat” – the system that prevailed in Angola between the winning of independence from Portugal, in 1975, and the 1992 elections.

With respect to the future elections, dos Santos has not made it clear whether he plans to be the MPLA candidate, although no name for a potential successor to him has emerged.

What is clear, according to Dias Cordeiro, is that the most powerful man in Angola, after dos Santos, is General Hélder Vieira Dias “Kopelipa”, the director of the national reconstruction office, “that administers the enormous flow of funds disbursed by China for the reconstruction of the country,” which amounted to two billion dollars in 2006.

Angola is presently the largest supplier of crude oil to China and the seventh largest supplier to the United States. About 1.4 million barrels of oil are produced daily, a figure that is expected to rise to two million this year.

For her part, analyst Carla Aguiar, economic correspondent for the Lisbon newspaper Diario de Noticias, told IPS that “a healthy future for Angola will only be possible when a new generation is ready to govern, in all of the branches of the state.”

Aguiar, who was born in Angola 38 years ago, when it was still a Portuguese overseas province, said this new generation “must value culture, education, effort, merit, and solidarity with the neediest.”

Until that happens, “the culture of striking deals and of acting as silent accomplices will reign, in which a well-connected few can make it big, with no direct benefits for Angolan society as a whole, but only for themselves, their army of consultants, and foreign companies,” said Aguiar.

Agualusa, who for the past 30 years has stood out as an independent voice, critical of both the MPLA and UNITA, says that despite the economic boom that Angola is experiencing five years after Savimbi’s death, “no one believes that in the medium term it will be possible to narrow the huge social gap between rich and poor and bring the inhabitants of the ‘favelas’ (shantytowns) into the 21st century.”

Angola is Africa’s fastest growing economy, and one of the fastest growing in the world, driven by oil production.

In the midst of last year’s 25 percent economic growth, the building of 20-storey towers, shiny new apartment and office buildings for the multinational oil companies and their staff, and five-star hotel complexes on the coast will mean that “the old Luanda, one of the oldest cities in Africa, will not likely survive this fever,” said Agualusa.

In the meantime, the new city, which “is getting ready to squash the old one,” simply ignores the fact that in its backyard there are densely populated neighbourhoods where “most people survive in subhuman conditions, with neither electricity nor sanitation nor clean water, immersed in garbage dumps and revolting puddles of slime.”

Frequently described by friends and critics alike as an “incorrigible optimist,” Agualusa says his hope is that “by taking advantage of the present momentum, something new will emerge, while the rich continue to get richer and the poor struggle for survival.”

The writer concludes with the observation that despite the dire poverty suffered by the immense majority of Angolans, “and to the surprise of foreign visitors, carnival arrives and everyone smiles, everyone dances. Then carnival ends, and the joy continues.”

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q court of thorns and roses