/ 31 August 2008

It’s party time for Luanda’s elite as Angola grows rich

A dark grey limousine pulls up at the Miami Beach bar. From the back door, a woman’s slender leg emerges. But its owner has her entrance ruined when she plunges her white sandal-clad foot into a puddle. A male friend rushes to lend a hand. ”What is to be done about all the potholes in Angola?” she asks. ”Buy a 4×4,” comes the answer. ”Everyone else has.”

With a heavy helping of rich man’s logic, Angola is this week heading into its first elections for 16 years. The last elections, in 1992, led to a return to war.

The parliamentary poll is a crucial test for this south-west African country — hitherto associated with conflict and land mines — which is the world’s fastest-growing economy. Luanda, remarkably, has overtaken Tokyo as the most expensive capital on the planet. In three years, the former Portuguese colony’s oil output will match Kuwait’s. Angola is China’s single biggest oil supplier. And the supplies are not about to run out.

But for ordinary Angolans — who between 1961 and 2002 endured successive wars — the boom remains elusive, although economic growth last year was estimated at 24%. The population of 12-million languishes in the lower development indicators of life expectancy, education and wealth. The gap between rich and poor is a chasm: while the middle classes pay $20 000 a month rent for an unimpressive one-bedroom flat in central Luanda, millions live in shanty towns around the capital. Aid statistics show two thirds of the population are surviving on less than $2 per day.

Unemployment is high — between 40% and 60% — and infant mortality rates are among the worst in the world, with about a quarter of children dying before the age of five.

Be patient, says the government, which has rolled out a propaganda machine aimed at securing a high turnout on Friday and as many votes as possible for the ruling party, the formerly Marxist, now born-again-capitalist Movimento Popular de Libertacao de Angola (MPLA).

Many are convinced by the party’s calls for patience — especially among those who have got rich quick. They can be found drinking whiskies with ice made from mineral water in the nightspots of the capital’s Ilha peninsula — Tamariz, Eden Club, Café del Mar — and, of course, the Miami Beach. It is co-owned by millionaire businesswoman Isabel Dos Santos. She is the eldest daughter of 66-year-old President José Eduardo Dos Santos, who has been in power since 1979. At the Marinha Casino, a local businessman sips a Coke as he waits his turn at the blackjack table.

”Angola is going its own way,” he says. ”With its oil and diamonds, it does not need to listen to the development advice of the International Monetary Fund or the World Bank. The government has taken out oil-backed loans from the Chinese and Brazilians and is paying them back through construction contracts.

On the evening television news, the president is seen inaugurating successive infrastructure projects: sanitation works that will bring drinking water to 80% of the population by 2012, a fleet of 150 new fishing vessels. Estate agent Diogo Rodrigues said property prices had risen by 100% a year during the past three years.

He said: ”Studio mezzanines that we pre-sold in March for $350 000 are now reselling at $550 000. Our clients are government people, members of the military, bankers and oil companies. There is no way the builders can keep up with demand.”

The state oil company, Sonangol, is looking at moving into Formula One sponsorship. Angola, which has its own reserves of uranium, is also considering investing in nuclear power.

After initial disdain, prompted by China’s aggressive entry into Angola three years ago, European diplomats realised there was plenty of business for everyone. In interviews with journalists, some now heap praise on the MPLA’s stated plan to achieve economic support for the poor through a trickle-down effect.

Another was more sceptical: ”The idea of building roads, hospitals and schools is great. But you also need nurses and teachers and it is not clear where they are going to come from.”

British businessman Tom Gowans, who has been in Angola for 15 years, argues that President dos Santos is presiding over an ”African solution to an African problem”. Gowans, who works for Aggreko, a Dumbarton company that leases electricity generators, said: ”Encourage investment and you end conflict. We have taken electricity to Cabinda — a region where there have been calls for independence. Now that the area has electricity, the investors are coming, there are jobs and there is cool beer in the fridge.”

While European diplomats and foreign and local business leaders glow with enthusiasm at Angola’s oil boom, academics, human rights activists and opposition politicians are more cautious. An economist, who asked not to named, said the government had ”sold Angola’s soul to the Chinese who are building low-grade roads and structures that will disintegrate in five years”.

He added that 80% of Angola’s earnings stem from oil: ”Far more needs to be done, urgently, to diversify income generation. The biggest worry is that the government has simply been doing all this building so as to win the elections.”

Opposition politician Carlos Leitao said Friday’s parliamentary elections — which are due to be followed by presidential elections next year — are likely to be marred by ”massive fraud”.

”The MPLA wants to be the single party in charge,” he said. ”It has bought up much of the former opposition and divided the rest. It uses beatings, intimidation and assassination as part of its tactics. There’s nothing democratic about it.”

Amid Western diplomatic complacency and business enthusiasm for the opportunities in Angola, only a few international observers — including 80 from the EU — have been sent to monitor Friday’s historic vote.

The MPLA — which has 3,5-million members, largely because membership helps you get employment — has painted the country in its red, yellow and black colours. The traditional Unita opposition is divided and short of money. The government should win decisively. But to make a good impression internationally, it needs a good turnout.’

As night draws in around the Miami Beach, the 4x4s become more numerous, their cargoes ever more glamorous. Among the puddles and potholes in the car park, ordinary Angolans ply their trade of nuts and phone scratch cards.

Life is no better or worse here than in an African country without oil. No one has any enthusiasm for politics. On Friday, their only political weapon will be to vote with their feet and stay away. – guardian.co.uk