In the second decade of the 20th Century, Angola’s capital city, Luanda, appeared out of nowhere to claim the crown of the most expensive city in the world for expatriates – beating the likes of Singapore, Hong Kong, Tokyo and London. A shock for many, no doubt, but it revealed just how spectacular this southern African country’s rise had been over the last few decades and just how astonishingly far apart the rich and poor now were.
For a country that was ravaged by civil war for nearly three decades, what came next has been dramatic. Fabulous riches are being pulled from beneath the seabed off the coast of Angola and the black gold has transformed parts of this country beyond anybody’s wildest dreams.
But this is not your easily digestible rags to riches tale. Progress seen in Angola may have been extraordinary, but it masks staggering inequality which means the nation is home to some of the very richest on the planet and some of the very poorest. A place where glittering high rises with sports cars parked below sit beside carpets of poverty that are the mammoth shanty towns stretching into the distance.
The story of modern Angola was forged in the fire of one of Africa’s longest and bloodiest civil wars that became a centre of Cold War proxy fighting as nations from around the world picked a side and watched as the carnage unfolded. In many ways, Angola is a wonderful success story, a nation that has rebuilt itself after decades of brutality, but the country is also the prime example of what happens when one family grips control of an oil-rich nation and refuses to let go.
Angola’s history stretches back for millennia but as with other parts of Africa, precious little written historical record has survived. When the Portuguese arrived in 1484, they found a patchwork of political entities spread throughout the region, including the independent Kingdoms of Kongo, Ndongo and Matamba.
The Portuguese initially set up trading posts on the coasts but it wasn’t long before local slave dealers began supplying captors that were then hauled across the Atlantic to Portuguese plantations in what is present-day Brazil.
Like many colonists of the age, what first began as friendly trading gradually evolved into territorial domination as the Portuguese flexed their muscles and took control over much of the coastal region of what is now Angola.
There was a brief period of Dutch rule while Spain and Portugal fought a 28-year war that formally ended the Iberian Union, after which the Portuguese reclaimed the area. The slave trade was formally abolished in Angola in 1836, with all slaves freed in 1854. However, the colonial government struggled to enforce the new law and an illegal slave trade continued for some time to come.
When the Berlin Conference began in 1884, to divide Africa up along strangely dead straight lines drawn by exclusively white men, the borders of Portugal’s colony had up until that point only been vaguely penned. By the end of the conference, Angola, like other colonies around the continent, had well-defined borders for the first time as Europeans chose to lump millions of Africans with vastly differing backgrounds under a single convenient banner.
An independence movement didn’t really take hold until after World War II and it wasn’t until 1961 that the first major confrontation occurred. The Baixa de Cassanje revolt, in which agricultural workers employed by a Portuguese-Belgian cotton plantation company began a protest demanding better working rights. This soon sparked a more general uprising in the area which was eventually met by a large-scale bombing raid by the Portuguese air force on twenty villages, killing several thousand in the process.
Two months later violence erupted once again, this time with white Angolans of Portuguese descent specifically targeted. Within a matter of days, around 1,000 had been killed, often in the most horrific of circumstances. As expected, revenge was swift and merciless and as many as 20,000 native Angolans died in the government’s reprisals.
Now, at this point, you’re probably expecting your typical independence movement vs colonial power struggle, but in Angola, things were far from straightforward. The native population saw not one, not two, but three independence movements emerge during the 1960s and this situation laid the foundation for the harrowing civil war that followed independence.
Let’s start with the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), a Marxist–Leninist group that was established in the east and Dembos hills north of Luanda in the late 1950s. Then we have the National Front for the Liberation of Angola (FNLA) recruited from Bakongo refugees who had fled Angola into neighbouring Zaire and finally the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) comprised largely of those of Ovimbundu origin located in the centre of the country.
If you’re wondering just how different these three groups could be considering they were all essentially fighting for Angolan independence, well, drastically different actually. Infighting between the three movements was so severe that any kind of collaboration to kick out their colonial masters became all but impossible.
But the Angolan independence movement experienced a stroke of luck in 1974 when Portugal’s Carnation Revolution led to the downfall of the country’s government with an immediate suspension of all overseas military activities, effectively handing independence to all of the nation’s overseas colonies.
Leaders of the three movements gathered in Luanda in January 1975 and signed an agreement that would see a ceasefire and the creation of an interim government before general elections could be held in November 1975. Things were looking good for the newly independent Angola, but behind the scenes, the wheels were already in motion that would tear the country apart.
Civil War – Part 1
It shows the level of mistrust and hatred that it took less than two months for the agreement to collapse as clashes between the MLPA and the FNLA began in Lunada. The UNITA managed to stay out of much of the fighting until around 200 of its members were massacred by the MLPA in June 1975, a move which helped to push the FNLA and UNITA into a shaky coalition.
With the number of sides now down to two, it was time for the ideological juggernauts of the age, namely the U.S and the Soviet Union to begin flooding the country with weapons and plenty of cash. As with other Cold War hotspots around the world, the Angolan Civil War became a battle between communist and democratic ideals.
But it wasn’t simply the two superpowers who got involved. The first foreign troops to fight for the MLPA came from Cuba, while South Africa pushed troops north in support of UNITA and eventually the FNLA. Initially, it was the UNITA that gained control of the capital, but with the arrival of between 40,000 and 50,000 Cuban troops, the MLPA was able to push them out of Luanda and form a new government with President Augustinho Neto as its head.
And that’s pretty much how things remained until the early 1990s. The FNLA gradually faded, while the UNITA took up the role of guerilla fighters attacking the government whenever possible. The Soviet Union gradually upped their logistical and financial support for the MLPA, while the United States, under Operation IA Feature, covertly began sending money to the UNITA – something which officially ended in 1976 after Congress discovered the murky back-channel deals but was apparently replaced by a deal that saw weapons first sent to Israel then on to Angola. But this proxy arms dealing wasn’t needed for long when in 1985 Congress repealed the amendment on sending weapons to Angola and transactions became much more direct once again.
When President Augustinho Neto died of pancreatic cancer in 1979, he was replaced by José Eduardo dos Santos – remember that name because he stuck around for a long, long time – and the MLPA instigated a broad communist-esque style of governance that saw widespread nationalization.
This led to some modest signs of progress but also widespread corruption, nepotism and incompetence that left the already divided country a shaky mess. One sector that hadn’t been completely nationalized was the oil industry that was already reaping huge rewards. While the MLPA was taking a large slice of the pie, the industry principally remained under foreign control, with Chevron and Heritage Oil and Gas two such companies. The irony of attempting to make the country a communist haven but conveniently forgetting the most profitable industries that remained under the control of American companies was apparently completely lost.
And this became a pattern during the Angolan Civil War as ideological stances were eventually replaced by battles for profit. Diamond mines in the north of the country quickly fell under UNITA control and the organization soon began to profit handsomely from the very poorest scrambling around in the mud looking for shiny rocks. This was done pretty shamefully thanks to De Beers, an international company with a far from squeaky clean history, and an Angolan state-owned company, Endiama, signing a contract to funnel diamonds out of the country and onto the foreign market.
It’s estimated that around $4 billion ($7.2 billion today) was made from diamond sales between 1992 and 1998 with around 93% of it going into UNITA military coffers or its leaders’ wallets. It is important to stress that this was done despite international sanctions with De Beers brazenly admitting to spending $500 million (nearly $1 billion today) on legal, and yet mostly illegal diamonds in Angola in 1992 alone.
A Short Peace
The 1980s saw some of the worst fighting of the entire war with increased numbers of Cubans and South Africans entering the fray. The Battle of Cuito Cuanavale, which lasted between August 1987 and March 1988 across several different locations, remains the second-largest battle ever in Africa – after the cataclysmic Battle of Alamein during World War II – with tens of thousands taking part. Essentially it ended in a stalemate, with both sides, and their foreign fighters, limping away from the conflict.
While no decisive action could be found on the battlefield, it did lead to peace talks and a ceasefire was signed on 22nd June 1989. Over the next several years, things swung wildly in Angola as the country lurched between war and peace. On the surface, there were plenty of positive signs but in reality, the two sides remained well apart from a long-term agreement.
If there was any doubt over the rather loosely held political beliefs fueling the Civil War, the collapse of the Soviet Union neatly coincided with the MPLA’s abonnement of its Marxist-Leninist ethos and instead declared itself a social democracy. Around the same time, UNITA leader Jonas Savimbi made his way to the United States where he met with U.S President George Bush and finalized a $5 million deal for Washington lobbyist group Black, Manafort, Stone, and Kelly to begin schmoozing members of Congress and also the U.S media on behalf of the UNITA. Oh, and by the way, that was Paul Manafort and Roger Stone, two men who later got into a spot of legal bother over their relationships with Donald Trump and foreign governments, but let’s not get into that. The lobbying certainly worked with the United States funnelling around $60 million ($127 million) each year to UNITA between 1985 and 1992.
General elections held in the country at the end of September 1992 resulted in a slim MPLA victory that was immediately called into question by the UNITA and at the end of October the following month, during what came to be known as the Halloween Massacre where MLPA soldiers attacked UNITA civilians, the country once again plunged headfirst into war.
War – Part 2
Over the following decade, the situation once again crashed back and forth in favour of first the UNITA and then the MLPA. An international agreement not to arm both sides was agreed in 1994 and was almost immediately disregarded by a wide selection of countries from around the world.
By this point, the French government had already been implicated in a scandal that had seen more than $633 million ($1.3 billion today) worth of weapons covertly smuggled to the MLPA via several central European countries but that was just the largest. The MLPA successfully bought weapons or military vehicles from Ukraine, Czech Republic, Slovakia, India, Russia and Kazakhstan, while the UNITA managed to do some under the table dealings with none other than North Korea, while Russia and Ukraine showed you didn’t necessarily need to choose a side to make a ton of money.
Another shady player appeared on the battlefield in the shape of the ominously named Executive Outcomes, a South African private military company – that’s mercenaries to you and me – who may or may not have been paid around $60 million ($110 million today) by a foreign oil company to not only defend its installations but to assist the MLPA and train its army – which led to the UNITA taking a battering and withdrawing to its traditional homeland in the centre of the country.
On 22 February 2002, Jonas Savimbi was killed in an MLPA attack in Moxico province and after his replacement lasted just 12 days before also dying, members of the UNITA finally called for peace and after 27 years of Civil War and eerie calm descended on Angola.
Rags to Riches (for some)
It’s fair to say that Angola at the start of the new millennium was a shattered mess. 4.28 million had been displaced by the fighting and by 2003, 80% of Angolans lacked access to basic medical care, 60% lacked access to water, and 30% of Angolan children would die before the age of five, with an overall national life expectancy of less than 40 years of age.
The nation still has a staggering number of landmines buried beneath its earth, thought to be around 15 million in total, responsible for scores of deaths and maimings. For much of the country, the situation remains desperate even to this day, but for a small section of the elite, the end of the war has brought a financial windfall of astonishing proportions. Let’s begin with President José Eduardo dos Santos and his family, who, according to the Luanda leaks in 2020, have been milking Angola for all its worth for decades. In 2017 he stepped down after 38 years in power but I’m going to stick my neck out and say he has plenty in the retirement fund.
Perhaps most notorious was the President’s daughter, Isobel dos Santos who managed to amass an extraordinary portfolio including telecom and energy sectors, a cement company, a supermarket chain, a brewery and much more that meant she is worth an estimated $2 billion – making her Africa’s wealthiest woman. According to the Lunada Leaks, in a single day, the 16th November 2017 to be exact, nearly $57 million disappeared from the bank account of Angola’s state-owned oil company, Sonangol, and made its way to a consulting company owned by a close friend of Dos Santos. And this apparently happened all of the time. She strongly denies any wrongdoing and that her father had anything to do with her making billions of dollars but she is currently under investigation in Angola. Though with her father’s ties to the current government still strong, it seems unlikely she will ever be fully prosecuted.
This has all left Angola in the strange situation of having one of the most expensive cities in the world for expats, where a two-bedroom apartment for expatriates averages $6,800 per month, but the average Angolan citizen makes only around $7,700 per year – with half the population living on just $2 a day or less. It’s now not uncommon to see luxurious high-rises surrounded by enormous shanty towns acting as a stark image of the haves and have nots.
Despite a booming economy after the end of the war, the country has been badly affected by the downturn in global oil prices and there are plenty of suggestions that this is a major reason why prices for foreigners, often working for oil companies, remain so high. And it’s not just housing prices, because the civil war effectively destroyed any kind of significant production, almost everything has to be imported into the country, before being sold on for eye-wateringly high prices.
Angola’s story now appears to be at a crossroads. A new president has huffed and puffed about anti-corruption and sweeping projects to improve the lives of the everyday Angolans, but as of yet, much remains pending. The nation with a painful, scarred history, but with fabulous riches at its disposal could well become Africa’s next great success story. However, with lingering anger over the Civil War and the current political and corruption situation, its path is far from clear.