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ANGOLA: Irish Rock Star Geldof Riles Tempers

Mario de Queiroz

LISBON, May 8 2008 (IPS) - Irish rocker and activist Bob Geldof’s statement that Angola is a country “run by criminals” unleashed a political storm that could have an impact on Portugal’s large investment interests in the largest of its former African colonies.

At a seminar on sustainable development held Tuesday in the Portuguese capital by the Banco Espirito Santo (BES), a Lisbon-based bank, and the weekly publication Expresso, Geldof lashed out at Angola’s leaders, who he said live in luxury houses in Luanda that are more expensive than the homes in the exclusive London neighbourhoods of Chelsea and Park Lane.

In Angola, “a few have millions and millions have little to nothing,” said the anti-poverty activist, who is known for organising the Live Aid and Live 8 concerts.

The Angolan government reacted indignantly. Geldof knows nothing about the realities of Angola and has insulted all Angolans, Norberto dos Santos, spokesman for the governing Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), said Thursday.

The official newspaper, Jornal de Angola, referred to the Irish rock star as “rude” and a “drunk”, while issuing a veiled warning to the BES, saying it “should be careful about who it invites to talk about development.”

Concerned about its large interests in the southwest African country, the BES had already reacted, by distancing itself from Geldof’s remarks, even before the Angolan government spoke out.

When Geldof was awarded the Council of Europe North-South Prize in 2005 at a ceremony in the Portuguese parliament, the activist said that because of its historical ties with and responsibility towards Africa, Portugal should do much more to help fight poverty there.

On that occasion, he also lashed out at the world’s rich countries for failing to live up to their promises of opening up their markets to African products.

But while Geldof’s latest statements in Lisbon this week sparked a tempest, they were at the same time received with enthusiasm by those who are interested in openly discussing the serious problems of social inequality plaguing Angola.

Angola is presently the largest supplier of crude oil to China and the seventh largest supplier to the United States. Driven by oil production, it is Africa’s fastest growing economy, and one of the fastest growing in the world

But despite its immense natural wealth, Angola still has one of the highest poverty rates in the world.

The frequent descriptions of the regime of President José Eduardo dos Santos, reported to be Angola’s richest person, as “klepocratic” are ignored by Portugal’s political and economic powers-that-be, given this country’s major interests in its former African colonies.

Deep down, what Geldof said in Lisbon is something that everyone in Portugal knows, but few talk about, because of the “neo-colonial complex and a certain degree of political complicity that has thrown a mantle of silence over the issue,” wrote analyst Miguel Gaspar in his Thursday column in the Portuguese newspaper Público.

The Angolan government “certainly does not like freedom of expression” and its reaction to Geldof “has all the hallmarks of authoritarian nationalism that we became all too familiar with in Portugal, when those who attacked the colonialist dictatorship were branded traitors of the fatherland,” he added.

Nothing is wrong with trade and economic ties between the two countries, said Gaspar. “But there is a problem when the economy becomes a factor that conditions freedom of expression in Portugal,” he argued, referring to the silence on the part of political and economic elites in Portugal caused by this country’s interests in Angola.

Large Portuguese companies have increased their investments in and exports to Angola since the end of that country’s civil war, in 2002, and especially in the last three years, when Portugal’s economic activity in that country expanded by 200 percent.

The Grupo Espírito Santo (GES) has interests in Angola in the mining industry – including diamonds – healthcare, beer companies, agriculture, real estate, public works, aviation and fishing, while BES, which it owns, is the biggest bank in that country.

But the influence of the Espírito Santo family is not limited to Portugal and its former colonies in Africa. Their interests extend to off-shore banks in the British Virgin Islands, their base for doing business in Latin America, especially Brazil and Paraguay, and in China.

The Banco Português de Investimento (BPI), the bank that controls the Banco de Fomento de Angola (BFA), the Caixa Geral de Depósitos (CGD) and the Banco Comercial Portugués (BCP) all have businesses in that country whose success depends on the government of dos Santos.

Américo Amorim, whose companies control 67 percent of the world trade in cork, owns the Banco BIC of Angola, run by the Angolan president’s daughter Isabel dos Santos.

The Portuguese construction companies Soares da Costa, Mota-Engil SGPS and Teixeira Duarte also have a marked presence in Angola, due to their privileged relations with those in power, which have won them major infrastructure projects in the reconstruction of a country devastated by a 1961-1974 war of independence from Portugal and a 1975-2002 civil war.

As a case in point, Soares da Costa had a turnover of 268 million dollars in Portugal in 2007, compared to 343 million dollars in Angola, which made up 41 percent of its global earnings.

Portugal’s exports to Angola, meanwhile, climbed from 1.06 billion dollars in 2004 to 2.52 billion dollars in 2007, and are expected to grow 30 percent more this year.

Given the magnitude and growth of Portuguese investment in Angola, it is not surprising that BES and others were upset at the comments made by Geldof, who organised Live Aid, the 1985 multi-venue rock music concert held to raise funds for famine relief in Ethiopia.

Eugenio Costa Almeida, a political scientist and columnist from Angola, told IPS that “personally, I don’t recognise Mr. Geldof as a moral authority after he supported, like (Irish rocker) Bono, the leader of U2, the 2005 plan of (now British Prime Minister Gordon) Brown, who was finance minister at the time, which served as the basis for the European programme presented at the (December 2007) European Union-African Union summit.”

Brown’s programme “was questioned by the most lucid and prominent African leaders, and now it has also been thrown into doubt by Mr. Geldof,” whose activities and stances have been marked by “a certain level of hypocrisy, which should not be overlooked,” said Costa Almeida.

Although the analyst is himself a staunch critic of the Angolan government, he pointed out that Geldof failed to mention individuals or parties, and merely made the sweeping assertion that Angola is “run by criminals,” which means “he included everyone: ministers, governors, local chiefs – in other words, the entire country.”

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