Oil boom fuels Dubai dreams in Angola's capital

Just south of Luanda lies one of Angola’s biggest construction sites, part of a plan to transform the ramshackle capital of one of Africa’s top oil producers into the best city money can buy.

Freshly laid roads wind between a 120-store shopping mall, a state-of-the-art health club, schools, clinics and luxury condominiums.

With massive overcrowding in the city centre, the modern annex of Luanda Sul is an increasingly popular location, but it is not for everyone: Homes cost up to $2-million here and are bought mainly by executives, business people and foreigners.

Angola’s economic boom—fuelled by rising oil production, high crude prices and a sharp increase in foreign investment—has brought with it ambitious plans to transform the capital into an African version of sparkling Gulf emirate Dubai.

“In the next 10 years, the government’s objective is to make the centre of Luanda the financial capital of Africa,” said one state company consultant, who declined to be named.

“The idea is to create something like Dubai, which grew like Luanda is growing now, but of course with fewer inhabitants and no war,” he added.

Angola, which is sub-Saharan Africa’s second largest oil producer after Nigeria, is picking up the pieces after a 27-year civil war, which ended in 2002.

Peace and oil production have so far done little to improve the lives of most people in Luanda, a city of up to five million where sprawling shanty towns, poor sanitation and high unemployment are the norm.

Critics of the government’s big plans for the capital warn the projects will not include the city’s poor.

Already, established communities have been removed from inner city slums, sometimes violently, leaving poor families stranded far from their workplaces.

“The process [of forced removals] has been going on for several years, it’s affected many people—maybe 10 000 to 13 000 people,” said Luis Araujo, director of Angolan housing non governmental organisation, SOS Habitat.

“But the justification for destroying their homes could be applied to 90% of the population of Luanda. That means the number of people affected could be a lot higher in the future,” he added.

Schemes and scepticism

Housing is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of Luanda’s planned facelift. Construction cranes dot the skyline, marking the sites of new malls, high-rise offices, apartments and a bay-front project which Angola hopes could rival that of South Africa’s tourist hub, Cape Town.

A new South Korean-built convention centre in Luanda Sul boasts several large conference rooms, luxury on-site chalets for visitors as well as Angola’s first functioning escalator.

A bypass around the city is to be completed at the start of 2007 and a dry port, industrial centre and an enormous new airport are going up in the eastern satellite town of Viana.

While much of the work is privately funded, a $2-billion Chinese credit facility is being disbursed by the government, mainly for infrastructure projects which officials say will benefit the country’s poor inhabitants.

“What is trickling down to people—and in the next couple of years the person on the street will see—is big state investment projects like roads, hospitals, schools, the airport,” said Ari de Carvalho, director of Angola’s private investment institute.

Many Angolans are sceptical about the grand plans.

“Dubai? Let’s be realistic,” said one Angolan, who lives abroad but recently visited the capital.

“There are so many basic problems here. I don’t believe they will be able to get the situation turned around that quickly. Maybe in 10 or 15 years time,” he added.

For now, the closest many city residents will get to wealth is a glimpse of life inside the luxurious complexes of the Luanda Sul neighbourhood. Authorities say it is a vision of the future.

“In Luanda Sul, you see the young guy with his wife and kids and a nice house, young professionals,” said a senior state official. “You see the future of Angola and what it could be.” - Reuters

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