The book is a concise, intimately researched and continuously readable account of how Angola’s changing domestic interactions since the end of the civil wars have affected its mode of insertion into the global system.
Angola is best known for its contrasts - less so for the old and recent history that explains them and holds them together. Once the ultimate destroyed and failed state, it is now sub-Saharan Africa’s third-largest economy, China’s largest trading partner in Africa, and the USA’s second-largest, with a GDP of US$21bn in 2014.
Luanda ranks with Dubai as one of the world’s most expensive capitals, and President dos Santos is received as one of Africa’s leading elder statesmen - at the same time as his regime is ranked as one of Africa’s most corrupt and the glittering bling of Luanda remains unaffordable to the country’s impoverished majority.
In this tight, lucidly written, and impressively researched survey Ricardo Soares de Olivera teases out the themes and threads that explain or at least illuminate the paradoxes. The insertion of Angola’s elite into global economic networks is certainly not new - it defines Angola’s history from its ‘violent inclusion’ in the 15th century. While as late as 1904 Portugal controlled as little as ten per cent of the territory the key coastal enclaves had been under Portuguese rule for centuries. Their trading connections and political alliances with the interior, originally based largely but not exclusively on slavery, were the embryo of what became Angola.
As important was the Afro-Portuguese community that resulted and its hybrid Creole culture, from which the earliest expressions of ‘Angolanidade’ emerged. Soares is not the first to map the distinction between this Lusophone elite and the ‘native African’ interior onto the later conflict between the MPLA and UNITA. But he is careful not to confuse the cultural hybridity of the Lusophone urban elite with its supposed mixed-race ancestry. And unlike the conventional cold war interpretation of the civil war, he sees UNITA as coming ‘close to the ideal-type of a totalitarian organisation’ while ‘the sloppier MPLA never achieved the same degree of social control’.
But although UNITA at its height controlled over 80% of the country this did not affect the economic and political viability of the Luanda-based MPLA-controlled rump. The Portuguese settlers - the largest white population in sub-Saharan Africa after South Africa - not only filled the elite economic positions but also provided most of the skilled artisans. Their departure left the country with 85% illiteracy and fewer than 100 university graduates.
The state oil company SONANGOL, created from the Portuguese-era ANGOL, was the only part of the infrastructure to survive. This combined with the wartime ‘state of exception’ created a self-sufficient parallel state answerable only to President dos Santos and his circle. SONANGOL maintained excellent relations with Western oil companies even while the MPLA initially retained its official ‘Marxist Leninist’ ideology and until 1991 retained a large-scale Soviet-supported Cuban military presence. Indeed one of the many ironies of the cold war was the sight of Cuban troops defending Gulf and Chevron’s oil wells against NATO-supported UNITA forces.
What emerged, Soares argues, was essentially an oil-based rentier state with a remarkable degree of autonomy from Angolan society, most of whose territory it did not even control before 1992. By this time MPLA had abandoned its formal commitment to socialism. The continuing civil war hardly dented the inflow of foreign oil money following the discovery of extensive offshore oil reserves. With its close, SONANGOL diversified to become Africa’s second-largest corporation.
Now the parallel system of government developed in the emergency situation of civil war was, as Soares shows, ‘recalibrated, diversified, and grew out of all recognition into a giant web of privileges and resource extraction. Avenues of undreamed-of elite enrichment were created in the new, more complex economy, with compulsory joint ventures with foreign firms providing the basis for the growth of Angolan-based business groups’.
These new interests once again bypassed formal institutions, but on a larger scale than before. ‘All of these structures were tightly run by an unconstrained presidency, which further consolidated its role as a distributor of the oil wealth to chosen constituencies, and articulator of the country’s relationship with the international economy’.
But could this elite-based policy be the route to the emergence of a ‘national bourgeoisie’ capable of leading a process of national development? The official MPLA line claims that this is the objective. Soares quotes a senior MPLA cadre now in the private sector who explains why he abandoned his earlier belief in rural development as a priority:
“The country needs to develop the cosmopolitan elites it never had…which presupposes allowing them access to wealth and power.. It may not please you to hear it but Angola needs rich, strong and powerful families that can stand up to international competition. To have a republic of better fed poor people all with the third grade is not a viable model for us.”
Or as President dos Santos puts it: “We need the companies, the entrepreneurs and the strong and efficient national economic groups in the private and public sectors and the elites capable in all domains so we can progressively leave behind [our underdeveloped status">”.
But to what extent is the economic success of the new elite based on performance, and to what extent on rentierism masked as entrepreneurship, relying on foreign partnership, akin to ‘Black Economic Empowerment’ in South Africa or Malaysia’s Bumiputra policy?
Soares draws on a mass of personal contacts, research and individual examples to confirm his negative conclusion that ‘the regime has no inclusive project of national development’. Instead there are ‘Potemkin village’ projects such as a much-vaunted ‘special economic zone’ which turns out to consist of second-hand obsolete factories producing little that is saleable, run by foreign management contractors; or much-vaunted new towns and housing estates which still stand empty. But both have already served their function by enriching local insiders and middlemen.
This system of bureaucratic patrimonialism, where control of political power and the interface with corporate interests which it offers, is leveraged for personal and elite enrichment, is certainly not unique to Angola. Nor is the attempt to disguise it under a rhetoric of national economic development and a ‘developmental state’ - a rhetoric particularly at odds with reality where in practice the regime would regard a genuinely indigenous and entrepreneurial class as an unacceptable rival.
Hence the reliance on foreign contractors and consultants, disposable and unable to generate or sustain a power base of their own, to fill the resulting gaps - again a practice with many parallels elsewhere and in history.
In this connection the Chinese ‘commodities for infrastructure’ deal offered an opportunity profitable to individuals on both sides. This has culminated in the shadowy network known as the ‘Queensway Group’. Here the considerable sums involved in the exchange of undervalued Angolan commodities for overpriced Chinese-supplied infrastructure are handled, at substantial but well-hidden commissions and rake-offs, by companies in which state-owned Chinese and Angolan enterprises are partnered with Chinese and Angolan private interests to mutual advantage - a partnership which has since broadened out globally to a range of other mutually profitable investments and undertakings.
Soares has given us a concise, intimately researched and continuously readable account of how Angola’s changing domestic interactions since the end of the civil wars have affected its mode of insertion into the global system. In an otherwise obscure text of interest only to scholars of internal Comintern disputes in the 1920s, Leon Trotsky attempted to theorise the relation between national specificities and the global nature of the wider system. National peculiarities, he concluded, were ‘nationally specific combinations of universal characteristics’. This is as good an explanation as any of why even readers with no previous acquaintance with Angola will feel an element of recognition as they meet the main actors in Soares exhaustive and compelling account.
[Magnificent and Beggar Land. Hurst publishers 2015 £25">
* Stephen Marks is a former co-ordinator of the Fahamu Emerging Powers in Africa Programme and has edited and contributed to several Pambazuka and other publications on China and Africa.
* THE VIEWS OF THE ABOVE ARTICLE ARE THOSE OF THE AUTHOR AND DO NOT NECESSARILY REFLECT THE VIEWS OF THE PAMBAZUKA NEWS EDITORIAL TEAM
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