Ambitious Angola takes to world stage

Balancing act: Angola has chosen a difficult time to enter global politics. (Reuters)

Balancing act: Angola has chosen a difficult time to enter global politics. (Reuters)

Is Angola about to become a global player? Luanda’s recent diplomatic charm offensive means the country is running unopposed for one of three African nonpermanent seats on the United Nations Security Council for 2015 and 2016.

Angola is no stranger to projecting power and influence. It has expanded its financial interests well beyond the African continent into Asia, Latin America and Europe.

It is intent on developing regional and international influence and is poised to become a key interlocutor on a range of African issues. But this will bring with it potentially heavy responsibilities.

Much of the council’s work is focused on Africa. Despite many positive trends on the continent, it faces threats to peace and security: civil wars in the Central African Republic (CAR), Libya, Sudan and South Sudan; insurgencies in Somalia, Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Mali; the growing threat of Muslim and Christian extremism in several countries; terrorism; piracy; and the spread of Ebola in West Africa.

Responses to these crises must be anchored as much in improved governance and political inclusion as in military action.

These crises will test Luanda’s limits and experience in post-conflict transformation. Over the past decade, the continent has demonstrated a commitment to tackling its problems, and Angola is intent on stepping up to the plate.

But it must provide leadership and financial, logistical and diplomatic responsibility.

Angola’s engagement with the world had long been rooted in “statist” imperatives – prioritising national over human security – and characterised by opaque bi-lateral deals where the asymmetries of influence always tilted towards Luanda. This has shifted.

Ascension to the Security Council and working with, and commenting on, key international issues will result in greater scrutiny of how well Angola supports international norms and standards.

These are largely uncharted waters for the government of President José Eduardo dos Santos.

Angola is placing itself at the centre of the peacekeeping and interventionist debate in Africa. It is calling for bolder and more decisive action in managing crises.

It will assume its seat at a time when the crises in the CAR and Mali have exposed the challenges faced by regional powers and organisations, and when the division of labour between the UN and African Union, and between regional bodies, is being widely debated. Angola’s ability to bridge the divide could help to define its claim to African leadership.

Its shift in foreign policy began in 2010 with a security sector reform mission to Guinea Bissau.

It was the first time since the late 1990s that Luanda had deployed troops in a foreign country. It wasn’t to help change the political landscape of neighbouring countries, as was the case in Congo Brazzaville and the DRC, but to assist in building wider reforms to stabilise Guinea Bissau.

In 2013, Angola’s Foreign Minister Georges Chicoti supported the call at the AU for strengthening Africa’s rapid response capacity, in terms of both the African Standby Force and the proposed interim structure, the African Capacity for Immediate Response to Crises.

Equipping Africa with a rapid intervention force remains a critical challenge.

Luanda has one of the better-trained and equipped armed forces on the continent. After Algeria, it has the largest military budget in Africa, estimated at $6.1-billion in 2013. Angola also has the capacity to airlift troops and materials quickly, which would radically change the readiness of regional initiatives to intervene.

As chair of the International Conference on the Great Lakes region, Angola is already involved in decisive action in the eastern DRC. More recently, it deployed 1 800 troops as part of the UN mission in the CAR.

But Angola’s battle-hardened troops, trained and equipped by Russia, Cuba and Israel, will need to understand how to operate in a multilateral framework and respond within the limits of an internationally recognised security mandate. This will be a steep learning curve.

A seat on the Security Council will give Angola an opportunity to learn how best to work strategically with the five permanent members. A key battleground in the Cold War, Angola knows well the workings of international realpolitik. It will assume its seat at a difficult time for the council, which remains divided on major crises, particularly the Ukraine and Syria. Navigating the divisions will test Luanda’s ability to balance contradictory interests and positions.

Its closest ally historically is Russia, and Moscow is a trusted adviser to Luanda. So it will probably side with Russia on key international issues. Beijing is a key economic partner, as seen in its collaboration with the China International Fund.

One can also expect Angola to co-ordinate efforts alongside American support to African states in their attempts to combat extremism and terrorism on the continent. It can work with the United States, the United Kingdom and France on a range of fronts that will help to improve its relations with the West. This, in turn, will increase its influence in the international community to promote its own interests.

Angola’s recent efforts to lobby on a global scale have shown that Luanda performs best and benefits most when it is committed to securing agreement in diverse regions and bridging contradictory interests and policy agendas. For the next two years Angola will have the international stage on which to project the capacity and power it has consolidated in the last decade.

But having the platform and resources is not enough. Angola will have to use its term on the Security Council to help to deliver commitments to peace and security at a time when “African solutions to African problems” are no less problem-free.

Paula Roque is a senior analyst for Southern Africa at the International Crisis Group

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