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Where Oil Is King

Colin Murphy

Angola: The Weight of History, Patrick Chabal and Nuno Vidal (eds), C Hurst & Co, 256 pp, £17.99, ISBN: 978-1850658849

In early 2001, in a small meeting room in a rehabilitated building in the town of Kuito, in Bié province in Angola, the local security officer for the United Nations told us of a new government policy that was likely to impact on our work. It was called limpeza, meaning cleaning, or cleansing.

The army was “cleaning out” the mata – the bush, or forest – in order to isolate the UNITA guerrilla army. Though nobody knew for sure where the UNITA leadership, including its talismanic head, Jonas Savimbi, were, the government proclaimed itself confident that its war against the rebels was in its final phase. This was a last push to force them out into the open and rout them.

This war had been going on for years – long before any of us, mostly twenty- and thirtysomethings, had arrived in Angola – and remained, for most of us, an ugly if obscure distraction from our work. We were aid workers, and we were busy. The war, landmines and banditry largely confined us to the town and a restricted hinterland; but, within that, those things didn’t impact, and we tried to ameliorate the consequences of decades of neglect of the rural poor by running feeding, health and agricultural programmes.

The limpeza would change things. A hundred miles or so away, the army was pushing through the province, effectively sacking villages, burning fields and sending the people on the road towards a town called Camacupa, where they were told there would be aid. The guerrillas had survived off the land and labour of these people, stealing their food or forcing them to farm for them; the army determined to remove this source of sustenance and did so with brutal effectiveness. (John O’Shea of Goal would later describe this as a “razed earth” strategy.) These people walked to Camacupa, carrying what they could, and when they got there found nothing except other people. They waited. Some of them walked further, and some reached Kuito. And so the limpeza began to impact on our work.

The UN secured army clearance for an assessment mission to Camacupa, and we went on a day trip, in our convoy of 4x4s, staying clear of the verges of the road for fear of landmines. There were thousands of people there – 10,000, I think – and there was almost no food, little fresh water and no shelter bar what they could throw together from foraged wood. The condition of the people was as might be expected. That day, we brought some of the sickest children we found back to Kuito in the back of the 4x4, and a programme of trucking the worst cases into the town, where we had to radically expand our facilities for dealing with severe malnutrition, began. Some time later, security improved – the war moved further off – and we were able to open projects in Camacupa. The agency Médecins Sans Frontières took the lead. By then, there were 30,000 people in Camacupa, living in what we called “camps” on the barren plains around the town, named after the places they had come from.

I don’t know how many people died. The aid intervention was a good one; many lives were saved, people kept alive through at least that crisis to fend for themselves again if and when the next crisis would hit. The war moved on, and I moved on too. I read about the limpeza operations moving through neighbouring provinces. And then, in February 2002, I got an email, via satellite phone, from a friend still in Kuito. Jonas Savimbi had just been killed in an ambush by government soldiers. The UNITA leadership, emaciated and in rags, had been captured. It seemed that the war was over. The limpeza had worked.

There was nothing covert about the limpeza. In June 2000, the vice-minister for defence had presented the strategy to the Angolan parliament. It was “a strategy for the total destruction of the forces and means of Savimbi’s terrorist organisation”, he said. The Angolan Armed Forces aimed to “withdraw from [UNITA] the support of the people, confine them in inhospitable areas and, subsequently, deliver them the mercy blow”. “Of course,” he continued, the displaced people would be directed to appropriate centres, where they would be helped by “the organs and institutions of the government” and the non-governmental organisations.

One of the opposition deputies objected to the use of the term limpeza. It had been used in the colonial period, he said, and he worried that it implied “self-destruction”. A different term should be used, he said. Angola then had a fledgling (and courageous) independent media. A curt report in the Agora newspaper stated that the army was

forcing the populations of the central highlands to abandon their lands, destroying areas under cultivation and their houses, in order that the rebels no longer have sources of support. This practice is provoking thousands to displace themselves and resulting in their installation in urban areas, controlled by the Government, where they have to live off international charity.

International charity, in the view of both the government and the media, was there to assist the victims of the army’s counter-insurgency strategy. But how did international charity see it? The lead UN agency, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), put it this way in a 2002 report:

Guerrilla and counter-insurgency warfare had a serious impact on civilians living in militarily contested areas. Tens of thousands of civilians were systematically attacked by armed elements and relocated, sometimes forcibly, into municipal and provincial centres where international agencies provided life-saving assistance. Many populations who entered safe havens were in appalling condition, having suffered extended periods of hunger and been subjected to harassment, looting and physical assault. Catastrophic malnutrition rates of more than 45 percent were recorded among several of the newly arrived populations.

That recalls, for me, a line by Pedro Rosa Mendes, also describing the Angolan civil war:

They fought for their land, hard and a long time, until they made of it a land of guerrillas and no other crop.

(The line is from Bay of Tigers, Mendes’s Angolan war travelogue, published by Granta in 2003.)

Both are essentially abstractions, but where Mendes uses pithy metaphor and captures something of the essence of the Angolan war, the OCHA report uses curt, apparently factual sentences and obscures the political reality (the anonymous “armed elements” in question, for example, were the Armed Forces of Angola). This reality was that the Angolan government was pursuing a military strategy that violated the laws of war. According to Protocol II to the Geneva Conventions of 1949:

It is … prohibited to attack, destroy, remove or render useless for that purpose, objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population such as food-stuffs, agricultural areas for the production of food-stuffs, crops, livestock, drinking water installations and supplies and irrigation works.

And with regard to the forced displacement of the civilian population,

Should such displacements have to be carried out, all possible measures shall be taken in order that the civilian population may be received under satisfactory conditions of shelter, hygiene, health, safety and nutrition.

Not only were the agencies of “international charity” – the UN and various non-governmental organisations – providing aid to the victims of the government’s military strategy, in coordination with the government, but they were doing so, on the whole, without even acknowledging the political-military reality that underlay the crisis.

Pedro Rosa Mendes’s Bay of Tigers is one of the best journalistic accounts of Angola’s war; the classic is Ryszard Kapuscinski’s Another Day of Life, which avoids his later tendency to wallow in African generalisations and delivers a gripping narrative of the country’s descent into civil war upon the flight of the Portuguese in 1975. But the genre is a thin one, and the academic literature on Angola is similarly threadbare. So the publication of this slim volume of essays, The Weight of History, incorporating the work of some of the leading figures in the small interdisciplinary field of Angolan studies (or, more broadly, Lusophone studies) is welcome.

There is no account of the limpeza here, little on the war itself, and just one of six chapters that in any way explores the impact of the war, and of official negligence, on the rural poor. What there is is an extended inquiry into the nature of the state in Angola and how it has developed through what editor Patrick Chabal calls its various “transitions”: from early European exploration (the Portuguese first landed in 1483), through the colonial period, independence and civil war, the extension and retrenchment of the socialist state to the emergence of the “patrimonial” and “clientelistic” regime that still governs today.

These words should send warning signals: most of the authors are exponents of a brand of African political sociology that is overly fond of neologisms and obscure typologies. Patrick Chabal talks about “neo-patrimonialism”; Christine Messiant (who died shortly before the volume was published) writes about “the mutation of hegemonic domination”; co-editor Nuno Vidal describes the regime’s “patrimonial and clientelistic operation”. Whether there is a useful distinction to be drawn between “patrimonial” and “neo-patrimonial” I don’t know; the shorthand is that the Angolan regime is very, very corrupt. What this book does, rigorously, is explain both how and why that may be so, and what may become of it. In the course of this, it provides some kind of answers to the questions left unasked above: what kind of government could conduct so wanton a military strategy and why might an international community fail to be outraged by it?

The answers lie in Angola’s highly globalised economy and in the deep historic division between the coastal elite and the people of the highlands. Both trace their roots back five hundred years. Malyn Newitt’s superb contribution on historical context traces the rise of the Afro-Portuguese, a Creole community arising out of intermarriage between Portuguese settlers and locals, which Newitt identifies as a distinct African ethnic group, with effective independence from its titular sovereign in Portugal, rivalling with other ethnic groups for territory and control of trade. The latter consisted primarily of the slave trade: 400,000 people were exported to Brazil over ninety years across the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. (The population of Angola today is around twelve million.)

The decline of the slave trade weakened the position of the Afro-Portuguese, and the “Scramble for Africa” of the early twentieth century brought with it international pressure on Portugal to “pacify” its colony. Portugal responded by sending convicts and running resettlement schemes for its own poor; in the first decade of the twentieth century, a quarter of the white population of the capital, Luanda, were convicts or ex-convicts. Not surprisingly, these efforts at building a thriving colonial population were not successful, and the lack of qualified immigrants skewed the country’s economic development. The colonisation schemes also brought with them a change in the racial ideology; the Afro-Portuguese, once the vanguard of the Portuguese empire, were now denounced (in one paper) as having succumbed to the “silent, implicit threat of African women diluting Portuguese blood”. Ultimately, race relations were codified in the legal distinction between “indigenous” and “non-indigenous”, and the category of asimilado was created to admit qualified natives into colonial society (as in French colonies). As Newitt recounts, virtually all Afro-Portuguese became asimilados; from their numbers, later, came the leaders of the nationalist movements, and in particular those that won control of the state, the MPLA.

António Salazar came to power in Portugal in 1926, following the fall of the First Republic in a military coup. In 1933, he created the Estado Novo, the New State, a greater Portugal in which the mother country with its colonies would form a single entity that could contend on the world stage. Salazar exported his brand of rigid, centralised bureaucracy to the colonies; by 1952, observers counted twenty-seven separate government departments and complained of the level of corruption of the colonial bureaucrats. Despite this, Angola entered a period of rapid economic expansion. Five major hydro-electric dams were build in the last twenty years of the colonial period; there was heavy state investment in roads and ports; coffee production expanded to such a degree that Angola became the world’s fourth largest producer; and diamonds and oil came to acquire key roles in the country’s economy and politics. Meanwhile, the African population was subject to the oppression of compulsory labour and, later, oppressive taxes. In 1948, taxes paid by peasant farmers accounted for 68 per cent of government revenue. These helped produce a “demographic haemorrhage”, as the African population moved to the cities or neighbouring countries, and exacerbated inter-ethnic tensions.

In April 1974, a coup in Portugal overthrew the Estado Novo. The Third Republic was installed, and independence for the colonies (where low-key liberation wars had been under way since the 1960s) beckoned. There were then 335,000 Portuguese in Angola, and they started to leave. Ryszard Kapuscinski watched them pack their homes into improvised crates, which became a “wooden city” that grew up in the port, and eventually, suddenly, “sailed away on the ocean”.

I stood on the shore with some Angolan soldiers and a little crowd of ragtag freezing black children. “They’ve taken everything from us,” one of the soldiers said without malice, and turned to cut a pineapple because that fruit, so overripe that, when it was cut, the juice ran out like water from a cup, was then our only food. “They've taken everything from us,” he repeated and buried his face in the golden bowl of the fruit. The homeless harbour children gazed at him with greedy, fascinated eyes. The soldier lifted his juice-smeared face, smiled, and added, “But anyway, we’ve got a home now. They left us what’s ours.” He stood and, rejoicing in the thought that Angola was his, shot off a whole round from his automatic rifle into the air. Sirens sounded, seagulls darted and wheeled over the water, and the city stirred and began to sail away.

The country that the soldier inherited had just lost most of its administrative and business class. It was riven by a deep history of inter-ethnic tension and contested by three rival liberation movements. It was blighted by a dysfunctional bureaucracy. And it had immense natural resources that were largely in the control of the state.

That state chiefly comprised the socialist Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola (popular movement for the liberation of Angola, or MPLA), the liberation movement whose base was in the capital and its hinterland, and among the Kimbundu people of the north. Supported by the Soviet Union and Cuba, the MPLA held out against Jonas Savimbi’s UNITA (supported by the US) and Holden Roberto’s FNLA (which would eventually become an irrelevance), throughout the late 1970s and 1980s. Angola became a front in the Cold War; internally, state services collapsed. Despite the rhetoric of socialist equality of the poet president, Agostinho Neto, Neto himself gradually centralised power in the presidency, subordinated the state to the party and oversaw a horrific purge following a failed coup attempt in 1977. He died in 1979, and José Eduardo dos Santos took over. Twenty-three years of civil war, three peace processes and six years of peace and promised elections later, dos Santos is still in power.

In two contributions to this book, Nuno Vidal marshals an impressive range of data (difficult to obtain in Angola) to document how the dos Santos regime has managed to dominate Angolan politics for so long, and at the same time isolate itself from domestic political pressure. There were initial advances in the extension of state services, but these were rapidly abandoned. A state building programme managed to complete a few dozen low quality blocks of flats in the capital, then ceased. Of 2,000 university students enrolled in 1980, just 180 finished their courses. Enrolments in literacy training fell from 759,000 to 100,000. Primary school numbers quadrupled in the early years of the new state, to 2.4 million children by 1979, remained static for two years, and then dropped by ten per cent a year to 1985. Education and health services accounted for just two per cent of total foreign exchange expenditure.

The withdrawal of the state from social provision was not merely accidental. Vidal quotes from a report of the MPLA central committee to the 1985 party congress, on the social sectors:

Some measures have been taken and others are underway aimed at diminishing the dependence of these sectors on the State’s general budget, so that those who benefit from them can realise the true value of some of the services that the State provides for them.

The same year, 4,000 people died of a cholera epidemic in Luanda, where public sanitation systems had collapsed. In the provinces, 500,000 people had been displaced by the war and were judged “in critical need of assistance” by the UN. Doubtless, these people did realise the true value of the services provided by the state.

Why such a dramatic retrenchment of the state? One might assume it was necessitated by the cost of the war. But military spending remained constant during the late 1970s, while oil revenues increased sharply. Vidal suggests that there were three factors: the “ruling elites” were financially secure, due to an oil windfall that did not depend on the labour of the people; they were politically secure, due to the presidency’s rigid control of the party, and with the added buffer of being able to use the threat of the enemy, UNITA, to shore up support; and their failures in social provision were covered by international donors who were willing to stump up to save people from starving.

Key international aid organisations and donors, such as the UN agencies, Red Cross societies and Scandinavian countries had been present in Angola since 1977, and the government intensified its requests for support during the first five years of the 1980s. By 1985, the reliance on aid had become social policy: the same central committee report noted that “resorting to international cooperation to complement the resources available internally” was “an objective necessity”. The government requested $96 million in aid from international donors that year. The following year, 1986, oil revenues were $1 billion. They doubled in 1987, to $2 billion. That year, the government requested $116 million in aid.

Christine Messiant surmises:

The bulk of the population was simply discarded: first in the rural areas, which were affected by war and had become irrelevant ever since the oil rent made it possible to buy food abroad; then in the cities, where poverty grew over time and political support dwindled.

Messiant identifies a shift in the nature of governance in the mid-1980s, from a “classical” socialist model to what she calls “clientelism” or “savage socialism”. This combined the institutional structure of the one-party state with the self-aggrandising capacity of a somewhat liberalised economy.

In the early 1990s, a bitter saga of peace-war-peace-war reinforced the regime’s control over the state and external legitimacy. Elections in 1992 were won by the MPLA, and UNITA returned to war; the US abandoned its traditional support of UNITA, and the international community weighed in behind the government. A further, stillborn, peace accord in 1994 established a Government of National Unity and Reconciliation; this contained some members of UNITA, though not Savimbi, and power-sharing was effectively a pretence. The country remained geographically divided; meanwhile, the government succeeded in consolidating its international legitimacy. War resumed fully in 1998, and the international community now unofficially condoned the regime’s pursuit of a military victory over UNITA, which was finally achieved in 2002.

This time, there was no peace process. UNITA was defeated, and Savimbi’s bullet-scarred corpse was shown on national television to prove it. There was a further, massive international aid effort in 2002, as UNITA’s soldiers and supporters came out of “the bush” in far greater numbers than anticipated and the United Nations agencies led the scramble to get food and supplies to the disciplined but barren camps they established. There was talk of a donor conference to mobilise international support for the revitalisation of Angolan democracy and social services, and talk of elections. But the political reality was never far from farce; when I was last in Luanda, at the end of 2002, the wife of one of the leaders of UNITA had appeared on a home improvements programme on television, showing the camera around the new house they had just been given by the government.

There was, at that time, also much earnest talk of “civil society” and its potential as a force for change in Angola. International non-governmental organisations had been increasingly vocal in their criticisms of government, and this had encouraged some confident local voices. In the aftermath of the war, government expenditure on the social sector increased, and international organisations scaled back their involvement. But this, paradoxically, created new opportunities for “clientelism”. There were a wealth of indigenous non-governmental organisations active in Angola; some had been created to provide aid, others were more entrepreneurial creations intended to take advantage of the desire of international organisations to work with Angolan “partners”; but all were effectively dependent on international funding. As this reduced, these organisations were left vulnerable. Those that wished to survive had to take state funding, and so the burgeoning civil (and supposedly independent) society found itself co-opted to the agenda of the regime. Not satisfied with co-opting civil society, the president looked to build his own: both José Eduardo dos Santos and his wife established their own “non-governmental” organisations – funded by donations from the state and its client enterprises, and in the name of the president himself.

The president lives in a complex known as the Futunga de Belas, and thus the regime is commonly known in Luanda as the Futunga. The extraordinary aloofness of the Futunga from the plight of ordinary Angolans, and its remarkable security, are primarily due to one thing. As Patrick Chabal says,

Oil is king and those rulers who control it are mighty.

There are three key aspects to the oil economy that Chabal sets out. The first is that it is controlled directly by the Futunga, through a state company, Sonangol. Not only is Sonangol a partner in oil blocs, but oil revenues and taxes from international operators are channelled through it to the state, with almost total lack of transparency. This gives the regime almost unlimited patronage. (A leaked IMF report estimated that $1 billion of oil money was embezzled in 2001.)

The second is that the oil wealth insulates the regime from international pressure. Nuno Vidal gives an example of this in practice: in recent years, he says, “the World Bank, the IMF and the West gradually dropped their campaign for transparency, accountability and human rights in the face of the new international and economic importance of Angola”. (This is a strong argument, but it’s backed by just one example. More evidence should have been introduced.) Almost half of Angolan oil exports go to the United States; recently, China has entered the field, providing a $2 billion loan to the government in 2004, and receiving stakes in two oil blocs the following year. Competition for oil inhibits the international community from cooperating to introduce new standards of transparency.

Thirdly, as Tony Hodges observes in a detailed dissection of Angola’s political economy, oil has weak backward and forward linkages to the rest of the economy. The labour force is small, profits are repatriated, taxes are diverted or embezzled, and there is relatively little indigenous oil services business or post-extraction industry. The population at large, including “civil society”, knows little about the revenues and has no stake in them – other than the default one, that it is excluded from them.

As of 2005, Hodges notes, there were still some 700,000 Angolans dependent on international food aid. One such Angolan, during an earlier phase of the country’s “crisis”, was quoted in an article by A Quino in the independent newspaper Folha 8, in 2002. The man was a soba, or local elder, in Mavinga, one of the most remote towns in Angola, in the southeastern province of Cuando Cubango, colloquially known in Angola as “the end of the earth”.

The soba said:

The hunger is worse than a bullet. Its effect is slow and makes a person fall to the lowest level of human dignity. Looking at me, these rags that I wear, do you credit that I am a senhor?

The rainy season had started, worsening the plight of the displaced people. Quino commented:

With [the coming of] the rains, Mavinga finds itself even further from Angola and more distant from the world.

The vicious paradox of Angolan history is that those who have intervened to attempt to tackle hunger have facilitated the system that provoked it. This is how Mavinga finds itself remote both from Angola and the world. In 2005, the international community was feeding 700,000 people in Angola, and the government earned over $12 billion from oil exports. This would seem almost impossible to explain; but, having read this volume, it appears as merely the extreme, but logical, extension of trends deeply embedded in Angolan politics.

The people of Mavinga, and of the highlands and outer provinces, have been remote from “Angola” for many years: enslaved by the Afro-Portuguese, subject to forced labour by the Portuguese administration, terrorised by the brutal leadership of Jonas Savimbi and discarded by the state. The international community has historically been so willing to intervene to help that it facilitated the state’s retrenchment from the social sector, compounding the regime’s isolation from the people. And yet, at the same time, that “community” has prioritised its own strategic interests, first during the Cold War, then in energy supplies, allowing the regime to manipulate its aid and defuse its accusations. Angola is a lesson in geostrategic realpolitik. And, for all that some of these trends echo elsewhere on the continent, it is a lesson in the uniqueness of individual African states. The combination of colonial, ethnic, military and economic forces at play are unique to Angola.

The aid sector has devised a concept to accommodate this: it calls such situations “complex emergencies”; the acronym CPE, for “complex political emergency”, was briefly in vogue. But the concept is itself an abstraction too far: too often, “complexity” becomes an excuse for abdicating responsibility for judgement. Complex emergencies may occur (as the Ocha report, above, suggests) in “militarily contested areas”, where the actions of “armed elements” provoke humanitarian crisis. That crisis is the justification for intervention by the aid agencies; the complexity of its cause is a shroud used to cover uncomfortable realities. In Angola during the final stages of the conflict, the government violated the laws of war in its pursuit of a relentless and ruthless military strategy. Aid agencies worked closely with the government to bring aid to the people displaced and weakened by that strategy. This was the uncomfortable reality.

There are brief mentions of this in this volume: Christine Messiant writes of the international community “against all humanitarian principles, agreeing to the supply of vital aid only to that segment of the population aligned with the MPLA”. The implication here is, I believe, wrong: that aid agencies were complicit in the prevention of aid reaching the populations of UNITA-held (or “militarily contested”) areas. Messiant suggests a conspiracy; the reality, I believe, was a combination of systemic incoherence in the aid sector, lack of affinity with the historical and political context and short-termist pragmatism. Nuno Vidal’s chapter on “social neglect” exposes precisely the impact that two decades of short-termist humanitarian responses to crises can have on a political system. In every one of those crises there were lives to be saved; those who led the aid efforts were right in deciding to do so. There is no simple calculus that can be made, of lives saved now versus lives saved in the long run (eg by not intervening and provoking a domestic political response). But, at the very least, there is an imperative to acknowledge that the context in which aid agencies work is not simply “complex”, but is one where there are moral judgements being made, and where some of the implications of intervening are contradictory.

In Bay of Tigers, Pedro Rosa Mendes quoted a former soldier, Zeca, describing his time fighting in defence of the patria.

It was territorial integrity… But instead of defending, I was offended. Yesterday all I had to eat was a piece of bread.

The key elements of the Angola story are all there: the insidious rhetoric of “territorial integrity”, dispatched against a good portion of that territory’s own people and used to rebuff unwanted international attention; the pursuit of “defence” turned into an offence on the people and the body politic; and the hunger, slow, insidious, worse than a bullet perhaps. The hunger, of course, was what drew us there, to Angola, to Kuito, and out to Camacupa and its camps with names of further-away places. There was no obvious solution, then or now, to the dilemma that feeding the hungry might be facilitating the state in both provoking and ignoring that hunger.

But the international aid community was too quick to accommodate this dilemma within its concept of “complexity”. The limpeza was not complex: it was announced in parliament and reported in the media. (Whether any of the international staff of the aid agencies paid any attention to such domestic institutions is another matter.) What to do about it was not at all obvious; but acknowledging it, rather than obfuscating it, might have been something. At the very least, if more aid workers had access to the kind of insight and contextual understanding revealed in this volume, ignoring the uncomfortable realities might have been a little more difficult. Despite the big words and modish concepts, Patrick Chabal and his colleagues call it as it is. There is some dignity in that.


Colin Murphy is a journalist in Dublin. He conducted research in Angola in late 2002 for a Masters thesis at the University of the Witwatersrand, with the support of the university’s Oppenheimer Fellowship of Portuguese Studies.

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