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Discontent clouds Angola’s oil boom

An oil-driven economic boom has made Angola the toast of the town in boardrooms from Houston to Beijing.

But on the outskirts of the African nation’s bustling capital of Luanda, the talk is not of a more prosperous future but rather of a stolen one.

Led by a collection of reformed Marxists and Western-leaning technocrats, Angola’s government is struggling to convince sceptical citizens that it will use the proceeds of vast oil reserves to improve living standards in a country shattered by a brutal 27-year civil war.

Construction cranes dot Luanda’s skyline and dozens of freighters are anchored in its busy port, waiting to load the 1,4-million barrels of oil produced each day in Angola. Texan drawls are now common on the city’s arcing seafront.

But such marvels are a distant dream for the people in Kilamba Kiaxi. In this slum 7km outside Luanda, raw sewage seeps into the ditches, garbage piles up on unpaved streets and residents queue, sometimes for hours, at communal taps for water that is often unsafe to drink.

”The government is building 30-storey developments in Luanda, but we don’t have basic sanitation,” said Fortunato Cangombre, a 43-year-old car mechanic who fled to Luanda in 1993 after the war engulfed his hometown in southern Angola.

”They must open their eyes,” Cangombre said.

Others are less charitable to the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) government, which has been in charge of the country since it won independence from Portugal in 1975.

”They are thieves. We will not see any of the money from the oil,” said an elderly man who identified himself as Miguelito.

‘People expect to see results pretty soon’

The belief that a significant portion of Angola’s estimated $16,8-billion in oil revenue this year will be siphoned off by corrupt bureaucrats or misdirected into projects benefiting a scant few is strong in Luanda’s slums.

Here an average monthly salary is only $50 — barely enough to pay for a steak dinner in an upscale restaurant catering to those made rich by the oil boom.

Frustration among the poor has risen since 2002, when the government’s lengthy war with the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (Unita) came to an end. Expectations were high for a so-called peace dividend that would see Luanda turn its spending from guns to butter.

”Angola is a rich country and the people expect to see results pretty soon,” said Cynthia Efird, the United States ambassador to Angola.

Efird credited the Angolan government for addressing corruption and making its economy more transparent, but added that officials in Luanda did not have the capacity to tackle all the country’s glaring social and economic problems at once.

Although Angola’s economy grew 18% last year, placing it among the world’s high flyers, the country continues to plumb the depths in a number of vital categories.

Infant mortality rate is among the worst in Africa, with one-quarter of all children dying before the age of five, often from malnutrition, malaria and other preventable diseases. Illiteracy is rampant, especially in the countryside — less than 10% of civil servants have a university education.

The war’s legacy — more than one million people died in the conflict — also continues to cast a dark shadow.

The transportation system outside of Luanda is a shambles, with defunct rail lines and many inaccessible roads. In addition, the government is busy reintegrating thousands of refugees who fled into neighbouring countries as well as tending to the scores of amputees and orphans that crowd major cities.

Poll ‘must be done the right way’

Against this backdrop, Angola is looking ahead to its first general elections since 1992.

It was expected that the election would be held in 2006, but Angolan President Jose Eduardo dos Santos announced several months ago that it would not likely occur until 2007. He cited the poor state of the roads and other infrastructure as the key reason for the delay.

The scheduling hiccup has prompted fears that the MPLA, which was modelled on the Communist parties that once ruled the former Soviet Union and other Warsaw Bloc nations, is reluctant to relinquish power — and the oil revenues that go with it.

International observers, however, are willing to give the government the benefit of the doubt for the time being, although they are keeping a watchful eye on Luanda’s preparations ahead of the poll.

”Whether the election is in May or October next year is not important. The key thing is that it must be done the right way,” said Arild Oyen, Norway’s ambassador to Angola. – Reuters

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Paul Simao
Guest Author

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