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It is a chilling thought that all children – and most adults – in Angola have never known peace. But political events in Angola since February have been unravelling rapidly; not since independence from Portugal in 1975 have the prospects for peace been more real than now. It took the death of the most prominent rebel leader in Africa to bring about the current wind of change: UNITA’s Jonas Savimbi died in battle in February after more than a quarter-century of waging war against the MPLA Government.

The MPLA (Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola) was originally a hardline Marxist party backed by Cuba, which meant the UNITA guerrillas initially had support both from apartheid South Africa and, in fits and starts, from the US. But the lines of battle had long since ceased to be ideological: the peace process of the early 1990s resulted in multiparty elections but Savimbi proved incapable of accepting election defeat by the MPLA, preferring to be warlord over 40 per cent of the country to a share of national power. Savimbi lived for the all and nothing, with no respect for the people he felt deserved to be ruled by him. Peace was ever elusive, at times seeming only a heartbeat away. It now appears as if Savimbi’s heartbeat was always in peace’s way.

The political events since February certainly seem to substantiate this: UNITA, under new leadership, has chosen to seek reconciliation and end 27 years of civil war. Some 80,000 former soldiers have now been demobilized and around 5,000 former UNITA combatants are to be integrated into the army and the police.

Jeremy Horner / Panos Pictures /

The contrast between Angola’s development potential and its actual condition is truly tragic. The human-development indicators are dismal: Oxfam country representative Fred Kumah recently gave evidence to the UN Security Council, noting that: ‘Angola earns $3-5 billion a year from natural resources, and yet every three minutes an Angolan child dies from a preventable disease.’

As this implies, proceeds from oil and diamonds alone should be sufficient to keep the whole population in relative comfort. Yet both warring sides have abused their access to the resources (oil for the Government, diamonds for UNITA), fuelling their armies and the war, as well as boosting personal fortunes. Weeding out corruption in the key oil and diamond industries will be no easy task, as vested interests on both sides may continue to resist sharing the wealth, or may fear being held accountable for their misuse of power and corruption. Transparency and accountability do not have deep roots in Angola but external interests are also to blame: oil companies and banks have benefited from the absence of peace and democracy and have played a prominent role in plundering the country’s wealth.

The priority must be to re-establish something approaching normality and the chance of a viable livelihood – especially in rural areas. Displaced people must be allowed to return home and a major mine-clearance programme established if the rural economy is to have a chance of overcoming its deep dependence upon international relief.

Angola’s transition from war to human development may depend on a revived democratization process, which will in turn require plenty of good will, skill and commitment to reform from the very leaders who oversaw the war. Democratization – along with steady international support – could result in a promising restoration of social cohesion and steadily growing economic prosperity. Coming from zero that would be a giant leap forward.

Fact file

Leader President Jose Eduardo dos Santos.
Economy Gross national income (GNI) per capita $240 (Namibia $2,050, Portugal $11,060).
Monetary unit Kwanza (100 Lewi).
Main exports crude oil, gas and derivatives (92%); diamonds (8%, though illegal export of these has been huge). In 1975 Angola was self-sufficient in food crops, the world’s fourth-largest coffee grower, and had the richest fishing grounds in southern Africa. The civil war destroyed that – but the peaceful potential would be enormous.
People 13.1 million. Angola’s population is small because for centuries Portuguese colonialists exported slaves to Brazil.
Health Infant mortality 172 per 1,000 live births (Namibia 56, Portugal 6). HIV/AIDS is spreading rapidly: the official infection estimate is 3%-5% of adults but the reality is probably worse.
Environment There is concern that environmental damage from 30 years’ warfare could be compounded by a new period of unchecked exploitation of those natural resources still intact.
Culture Ovimbundu 37%, Kimbundu 25%, Bakongo 13%, mestiço (mixed European and Native African) 2%, other 23%.
Religion Indigenous beliefs 47%, Catholic 38%, Protestant 15%.
Language Portuguese (official). *Six local languages*: Kikongo, Kimbundo, Umbundu, Chokwe, Mbunda and Oxikuanyama.

Country ratings in detail

Income distribution Highly imbalanced. More than 60% of the population live in dire poverty while a tight-knit élite controls resources, largely for personal gain.
Literacy 50% male and 30% female. Net primary school enrolment/attendance 50%.
Life expectancy 45 years (Namibia 45, Portugal 76).
Freedom Some human-rights improvements recently. In areas under firm government control public affairs can be discussed more freely. But there is still little tolerance of organized political activities.
Position of women Gender-based violence (GBV) against women and girls is a serious problem. Great stigma is attached to victims and Angola has no laws specifically addressing GBV.
Self-reliance The potential is excellent but Angola will continue to need aid to overcome the legacy of war – not least the abundance of landmines in rural areas.
Previously reviewed 1987
New Internationalist assessment The MPLA Government can legitimately claim to be more sinned against than sinning: Savimbi’s addiction to war has ruined the chances of a generation. But the MPLA must now show that it too is not addicted to war or to its own authoritarian traditions: Angola urgently needs transparent democracy and a loosening of the tight rein on human rights, not to mention the harnessing of oil and diamond revenues to the basic needs of the poor.

mag cover This article is from the September 2002 issue of New Internationalist.
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