Country profile: Angola

Joana Ramiro summarizes the Southern African nation’s recent history of ‘European encroachment and African reinvention’.

A makeshift saloon in the southwestern Namibe province.
A makeshift saloon in the southwestern Namibe province.
ERIC LAFFORGUE/ALAMY

Angola’s earth, as in so much of Sub-Saharan Africa, is red. The dust that lifts in the wind during cacimbo (the dry season) is red. The mud that engulfs half of the capital of Luanda during the rainy season is red too. If you walk around all day, it’s likely to stain you – which is why the rich don’t.

But while its good earth hasn’t changed for time immemorial, Angola certainly has. It is now the third largest economy in southern Africa, with much of its new infrastructure built by the Chinese government in return for oil credit – of which Angola, in the top three of African oil producers, can offer plenty.

In this part of the world the interests of some of the largest emerging economies meet: China craves its petrol and timber; Brazil shares the same former colonizer, language and a centuries-old commercial relationship; and Russia has inherited close diplomatic relations which began when the USSR lent its support to the national liberation movement in the 1970s.

But though there is a burgeoning middle class, destitution is still rife. Slums continue to grow in Luanda alongside glitzy sky-scrapers and a ravishingly regenerated waterfront. Sanitation, electrical supply and water distribution are often supported by parallel markets. Where the state fails, Angola’s entrepreneurs – large and small – come to the rescue, providing both goods and jobs.

Many blamed former president José Eduardo dos Santos for fostering corruption. He ruled the country for 38 years, appointing his family, friends and allies to the top jobs. His daughter, Isabel dos Santos, was at one point the richest woman in Africa. That was until her dirty dealings in the state petrol company Sonangol and various financial institutions were exposed by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists in 2020. For all of his successor João Lourenço’s anti-corruption rhetoric, monopoly power continues to reign unhindered.

A market trader in Bairro Rangel, a working class district of Luanda.
A market trader in Bairro Rangel, a working class district of Luanda.
 MAURITIUS IMAGES/ALAMY

Angola’s history is a tapestry of European encroachment and African reinvention. The ports of Luanda and Lobito were of vital importance as points of departure for the slave trade in the 17th and 18th centuries. Portuguese and Dutch colonizers fought over the nation for nearly 70 years in the hopes of controlling profitable commercial routes. Later, the Portuguese – who, with some British support, ultimately triumphed in this struggle – refocused the economy around the coffee trade, with former slaves re-classified as forced labourers. Systemic racial discrimination and laws remained until Angola’s independence in 1975.

Sanitation, electrical supply and water distribution are often supported by parallel markets. Where the state fails, Angola’s entrepreneurs come to the rescue

Since then, the once Soviet-backed People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) has reigned supreme – albeit challenged in a civil war which raged, with interruptions, for three decades after independence. UNITA, the opposing force in the civil war, forms the main opposition and at the time of writing was set to win the 24 August elections as part of a new coalition threatening to break the MPLA’s stranglehold on power. But the two parties are perhaps more similar than they care to admit.

New social movements, meanwhile, have faced brutal repression, and self-censorship is extensive. A friend who returned to Angola following two decades living in Europe complained to colleagues about inconveniences at work, thinking nothing of it, until an uncle pulled her aside some weeks later, saying: ‘The walls have ears: be careful.’

My friend’s uncle had no connections to her employer or work-colleagues. Someone in the office must have told someone at home, who in turn knew someone else who must have known her uncle. In any case, his message was clear: Angola is a tight-knit society, where your complaints are likely to reach powerful people who could take offence. And offence is not taken lightly in Angola.

A Luanda shanty town amid the city’s skyscrapers. 
A Luanda shanty town amid the city’s skyscrapers. 
FABIAN PLOCK/SHUTTERSTOCK

LEADER: President João Lourenço (opinion polls predict he will be toppled by UNITA’s Adalberto Costa Júnior in the 24 August election).

ECONOMY: GNI per capita $2,140 (in 2020) (Namibia $4,500, UK $39,830).

Monetary unit: Kwanza (1 AOA = $0.0023).

Main exports: Oil makes up around 95% of Angola’s exports and is one-third of the country’s GDP. Also diamonds and oil derivatives.

POPULATION: 33 million. Annual population growth: 3.2%. People per square kilometre 26 (Namibia 3, UK 278).

HEALTH: Under-5 mortality rate: 72 per 1,000 live births (Namibia 40, UK 4). Maternal mortality per 100,000 live births: 241 (Namibia 195, UK 7). HIV prevalence: 1.8%. While public healthcare provision is scant, the private health sector is growing in urban centres. Covid-19 vaccination is via the COVAX initiative.

ENVIRONMENT: Climate split between rainy and dry seasons, with rains lasting longer in the north. Temperatures are typically higher in the coastal areas and lowlands. Deforestation and desertification have had an impact on both temperatures and length of seasons.

CULTURE: Around 95% of Angolans belong to Bantu ethnic groups, with the Ovimbundu (37%) and Ambundu (23%) making up the majority of Angola’s population. Other significant ethnic groups include mestiços (mixed African and European, 2%), Chinese (1.6%), and European (1%). Modern Angolan culture fuses local heritage with a decisive influence from European, Latin American and South American trends.

RELIGION: Roman Catholic 56.4%, Protestant Christian: 13%; Pentecostal: 10.4%; other Christian: 13.6%; African traditional religions: 4.4%; no religion: 1%. There is also a small migrant Sunni Muslim community.

LANGUAGE: Portuguese (official), plus Kimbundu, Umbundo, Kikongo and Chokwe (national languages).

HUMAN DEVELOPMENT INDEX: 0.581 (Namibia: 0.646; DRC: 0.480), rank 148 out of 189 countries.

The black rocks of Pungo Andongo in the north.
The black rocks of Pungo Andongo in the north.
MIGUEL ALMEIDA/SHUTTERSTOCK

Star ratings

Income Distribution ★✩✩✩✩

Inequality in Angola is still high (51.3 GINI index) with nearly half the population living on under $2 a day. A staggering 49% of the urban population live in musseques (informal settlements).

Literacy ★★★✩✩

Angola’s literacy rate is low at 66% and shows a stark gender disparity (males 80%, females 53%). But youth literacy stands at 77% (young males 85%, young females 71%), suggesting progress is being made.

Life Expectancy ★★★✩✩

62 years in 2022 according to UN projections which do not account for the impact of Covid-19 (Namibia: 64), climbing from 48 in 2002.

Position of Women ★★★✩✩

Women make up 30% of the Angolan parliament and many prominent positions in the political, industrial and cultural life of the country are held by women. But violence is still high, with 25% of Angolan women aged 15-49 reporting abuse by a former or current partner. The percentage of women married before 18 is also high at 30%.

Freedom ★✩✩✩✩

Freedom House’s latest report sets Angola as ‘Not Free’, with the country scoring 10/40 in political rights and 20/60 in civil liberties. Protests often face violent crackdowns from police and security forces. Angola takes 99th place out of 180 in Reporters Without Borders’ annual press freedom ranking.

Sexual Minorities ★★✩✩✩

Homosexuality was decriminalized in 2019. But Angolan LGBTQI+ groups say the communities they represent still face prejudice, discrimination and barriers to accessing education, healthcare, justice and jobs.

Politics ★★✩✩✩

Angola ranks 122nd in the Economist Intelligence Unit’s global democracy index. Former President José Eduardo dos Santos reigned for 38 years until 2017. His successor, João Lourenço, belongs to the same party, MPLA. The next presidential elections were due on 24 August.