Angola’s brush with hope and despair

In the run-up to elections, Al Jazeera finds pools of misery amid signs of prosperity in a rapidly expanding Luanda.

Luanda, Angola – Africa is a continent of rapidly changing cities, but I can’t think of any that have been transformed over the past decade to the same extent as Luanda. It’s been a bewildering experience for me. I lived in Angola in the war-torn 1990s, and my memories of that sad time are vivid.

I am finding that many streets and neighbourhoods in the city centre are unrecognisable. Brash new skyscrapers tower over the traffic-clogged avenues. And the construction is still going on. From a distance, parts of Luanda resemble a forest of cranes and concrete towers. It could be Shanghai, or another booming Chinese city – and in fact, much of the construction is being carried out by the Chinese – but no, this is an emerging African power.

On the southern outskirts of Luanda, I was even more disoriented. Where I remember sparse bush and baobab trees, I found myself in a whole new satellite city. We stopped at a giant shopping mall. The car park was so congested it took us half an hour to find a space. Inside, Angolans seemed to have taken to mall culture with a passion. They thronged around jewellery, furniture and fashion shops, gaping at the displays. Most people, it seemed, were window shopperst. Still, if you’re looking for evidence of an emerging middle class, here it is.

Road to growth

Since the war ended 10 years ago, Angola’s average annual GDP growth has been about 11 per cent. It produces 1.7 million barrels of oil per day, and the government says that this figure will rise substantially in the coming years.

In his plush offices on Luanda’s Ilha, a long stretch of beach that wraps around the scenic harbour, a wealthy Angolan businessman finished his conference call with American partners and told me bluntly, “there’s no better place in the world right now to do business”.

Spending money on new roads and buildings is the easy part. But what this country needs is investment in health, and education.”

– Carlos Rosado, economist

Well, yes, and no. This businessman has made his money in the oil services industry, and for all the investment that has gone into construction, rebuilding transport infrastructure and agriculture, Angola’s economy is still dangerously reliant on oil. This, of course, brings familiar problems. Oil revenues are controlled by an elite few who are close to President Dos Santos, and they are still notoriously opaque. So, I asked my businessman friend, is it possible to get rich in Angola without political connections? “No,” he replied honestly, before adding, “good connections can help put money into your bank account, but if you really want to build a business in this country you also need hard work, persistence and lots of patience”.

On the other side of town, I met a well-known economist, Carlos Rosado. “Spending money on new roads and buildings is the easy part,” he said, “but what this country needs is investment in health, and education”. Angola feels, to me, like a more open society than it did in the nineties. There are more educated young people, more people with experience abroad, and more people who are not afraid to speak their mind.

But all things are relative. This was a closed, one-party state for decades, and the hold of the ruling Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) on power is still so complete that it’s often difficult to distinguish between state and party. The national TV and radio stations, as well as the one and only daily newspaper, have a powerful influence, and they make no pretence at covering events fairly. The president has spent the past week inaugurating a series of construction projects, which, by happy coincidence, just happen to have reached completion in the days before the election. He receives slavish coverage, and he is carefully protected from independent journalists who might ask him awkward questions.

Growing despair

In Angola’s 2008 parliamentary vote, the MPLA got 82 per cent of the vote. Everyone is expecting the MPLA to win again, but the scale of victory may be more modest this time, if only because a younger generation is less tolerant of corruption, and more impatient for jobs, reliable electricity and water. The main opposition, UNITA, has waged an energetic campaign, but it faces huge challenges. As a former rebel movement that committed many atrocities during the war, it is looked on with suspicion by many Angolans. In Luanda, I have met many people who detest the corruption of the ruling party, but also believe that it is the only one that has the expertise and experience to run the country.

At a UNITA rally on the edge of Luanda, I saw thousands of young enthusiastic supporters cheering for their leader, Isias Samakuva. They called President dos Santos “a thief”‘ and some wore T-shirts emblazoned with the face of the former UNITA leader, Jonas Savimbi, whose death in an ambush in 2002 finally brought the war to an end. I asked a senior UNITA source how they handled Savimbi’s legacy. He grimaced. “There are great divisions around it. Some want to romanticise him, but those of us who knew how much fear and cruelty there was then are happy to have a more open, democractic UNITA,” he said.

If the city centre is transformed, life in the slums, or musseques, has changed little. I visited one grim settlement where people told me they had no jobs, no water and no electricity. They were surrounded by rubbish dumps and filthy water. The people there told me they had been living like this for eight years, ever since the government demolished their previous homes to make way for expensive housing. “We’re all Angolans,” said Francisco, “and I fought for years in the war. But now we are tired of waiting”.

At least during an election campaign, the Angolan government comes under some pressure, if only for a short period, to address social injustices. But in the long run, it will have to do much more to spread wealth and opportunity beyond a charmed circle, if Angola is to continue to enjoy growth and stability.

Follow Barnaby Phillips on Twitter: @barnabyphillips

Source: Al Jazeera