Angola may be the world’s richest failed state. This large southwestern African state of 19 million people has had a disastrous history.
The Portuguese arrived in 1575 and remained in power for four centuries. The capital, Luanda, was established in 1587, and the slave trade became the basis of the economy. More than a million people were shipped across the Atlantic to Portugal’s colony of Brazil.
Even after the abolition of slavery in 1875, Angola’s plantations worked on a system of forced labour.
In the 1950s and 1960s three rival guerrilla groups were formed to fight for Angolan independence.
The Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) was founded in 1956. In the following year the National Front for the Liberation of Angola (FNLA) was set up. And in 1966 the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) was established.
When a leftwing coup in Lisbon overthrew Portugal’s autocratic regime in 1974, the new government declared its intention to grant its colonies freedom without delay.
Angola thus found itself a sovereign state in 1975, unprepared for independence. For the next 27 years, as the rival movements fought for control of the country, the country fell into one of the most destructive civil wars in modern history.
The UNITA rebels, backed by the United States and South Africa, were led by Jonas Savimbi. The Marxist MPLA was led by Agostinho Neto, who later became the country’s first President, and had support from the Soviet Union. Holden Roberto ran the FNLA, the weakest of the three, with some Chinese backing.
All three used ethnicity to rally support. The UNITA and FNLA were largely rural, with UNITA deriving its strength from the majority Ovimbundu and Chokwe ethnic groups in central and southern Angola, while the FNLA was rooted among the Bakongo people in the north.
The MPLA’s base included the Ambundu ethnic group and the educated lusophone multiracial Mestiqos of the capital city. They managed to hold Luanda, thanks to Cuban President Fidel Castro, who sent large contingents of Cuban troops to Angola on its behalf.
But the demise of the Communist bloc forced the MPLA to give up its adherence to Marxism-Leninism in 1991. Elections held in 1992 saw the MPLA beat UNITA, but Savimbi refused to accept the result and the civil war resumed. The hostilities ended only in 2002, when assassins killed Savimbi.
Up to 1.5 million lives were lost, and another four million people displaced, during the more than a quarter century of fighting.
Though a Marxist, Neto had understood that his regime wouldn’t survive without the money coming in from the petroleum companies that had discovered oil prior to independence.
This policy continued under José Eduardo dos Santos, who became the head of the MPLA in 1979, after Neto died. He has been president ever since.
The country now produces 1.8 million barrels of oil a day. Exxon-Mobil, Chevron, the French company Total, and BP all have significant operations in Angola.
Oil revenues, which account for more than ninety per cent of Angola’s foreign exchange earnings, have brought unimaginable wealth to its political elite — the presidential cronies, generals, and their families.
The president has been accused of ignoring the economic and social needs of Angola and focusing his efforts on amassing wealth for his family. Isabel dos Santos, his daughter, is said to be worth more than $3 billion.
Diamonds are another source of wealth. In May journalist Rafael Marques de Morais accused seven generals of being linked to murder, torture and land grabs in Angola’s lucrative diamond fields.
Yet Angola remains one of the world’s least-developed nations. Half of Angolans live on less than $2 a day, infant mortality rates are among the highest in the world, and the average life expectancy, at 52, is among the lowest. The roads are so poor that farms often burn crops, because they cannot get them to market before they rot.
Because of widespread malnutrition, more than one-quarter of Angolan children are physically stunted. Rural sanitation facilities are rare and malaria accounts for more than a quarter of all childhood deaths. Yet with falling world oil prices, the government has proposed a one-third cut in the health budget this year.
Much of Angola’s oil wealth lies in Cabinda province, which is separated from the rest of Angola by a narrow strip of territory belonging to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. But a decades-long separatist conflict simmers in the enclave.
Should the world price of oil continue to decline, Angola’s kleptocrats might find themselves in trouble, though they have probably stashed away most of their wealth abroad. It certainly hasn’t trickled down to the masses.