3 April 2012
Nicholas Shaxson
(Former Chatham House Expert)


When stunned Angolans picked up their copies of Jornal de Angola in February 2002 to see the bullet-riddled body of UNITA rebel leader Jonas Savimbi, many immediately knew that the long years of war were over.

The conflict, which first erupted upon independence from Portugal in 1975, was about many things. It was a war of UNITA's oppressed rural peasants against oil-rich, predominantly coastal and urban élites. It was a struggle between different ethnic and geographical groups; and it was a proxy war pitting the United States and Apartheid-era South Africa against the Soviet Union, Cuba and its allies. It was even a war of minerals, with oil underpinning the army of the ruling MPLA, while diamonds fed UNITA. Most fundamentally, though, it was a war of ambition by Jonas Savimbi, whose dream was to rule Angola, no matter what the human cost.

When Savimbi died, Angolans had seen too many false starts, and most were too cynical about the MPLA leadership to get too excited about the future. But then there was, of course, the oil: three quarters of a million barrels per day (bpd) back then, with a bevy of billion-barrel deep water oilfields in development. Production rose steadily, and today stands at over 1.8 million bpd, making Angola Africa's largest producer after Nigeria. The government has splurged on infrastructure, helped by large loans from China and other friendly governments, and in 2010 The Economist gushed, in an article entitled 'Angola Rising: Oil, Glorious Oil', that 'the country's breakneck growth is slowly benefiting the masses.'

The surface signs of development are indeed striking: the shiny and vibrant nodes of prosperity in Luanda today bear little relation to the shabby, unkempt and raucous city of cold showers, warm beer and shortages that I knew and loved while serving as Reuters' Angola correspondent nearly 20 years ago.

Politically, however, the changes are less impressive. A few days ago an IMF report said something that could have been written back in 2002: that the authorities 'have begun to phase out quasi-fiscal operations by Sonangol, the state oil company, and are incorporating them into the budget.' This lack of progress is apparent elsewhere. A highly controlling, rather secretive government under the ageing José Eduardo dos Santos has dominated the political scene since the war ended, and, true to old form, has recently been violently cracking down on protesters and intimidating journalists.

When it comes to the ordinary lives of ordinary Angolans, a more troubling picture emerges.

One of the more unusual indicators provided by the United Nations Human Development Index is called 'GNI per capita rank minus HDI rank,' on which oil-rich Angola has a score of minus 38, among the world's worst. This number tells us that Angola's human development indicators – which indicate how well ordinary folk are faring – lag remarkably far behind where they should be for a country with so much money. For all the outward signs of progress, Angola is not harnessing its oil to make its people's lives better. (All the countries with worse scores in this particular respect are minerals exporters.)

Ten years after the war's end, Angola appears to remain a poster child for the 'resource curse'. Life expectancy at birth, at 51.1, puts it at 181st place out of 187 countries ranked. Adjust the figures to take account of inequality, and Angola slips three places further down. On the poverty statistics Angola ranks almost as badly. Politically, Angola remains rather authoritarian.

Angola may be peaceful and even, up to a point, rich. But ordinary Angolans are still waiting for their peace dividend.