ANGOLA: One of the fastest-growing economies in the world
Thomas Cromwell

For decades Angola was an African country that seemed to typify the continent’s worst troubles. During the 14-year fight for independence from colonial parent Portugal, the Soviet bloc supported the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), one of three groups fighting the Portuguese, and the first Angolan government after independence in November 1975 was an MPLA government that created one of Africa’s communist states, closely aligned with Moscow and supported by troops from Cuba.

Another anti-Portugal force, the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) was supported by South Africa, which at that time still occupied Namibia. Almost immediately after independence, a civil war erupted between the MPLA and UNITA (the third force, the National Liberation Front of Angola, was quickly beaten by the MPLA), as Angola became the theater for one of the many hot wars fueled by the Cold War. The MPLA was backed by the Soviets, UNITA by the West, with its leader, Jonas Savimbi, invited to the White House by President Ronald Reagan.

The civil war was to last for 27 years, with only brief interludes achieved through agreements that eventually broke down. Only in 2002, when Savimbi was shot dead, did the fighting finally end.

The war left Angola in poverty and ruins. In a country of some 12 million people on territory almost twice the size of Texas, it is estimated that 1.5 million lost their lives in the fighting, four million were displaced internally and 170,000 were left maimed, many by some five million landmines scattered, unmapped, around the country. Another 300,000 fled the country. For those that survived, life expectancy is just 39 years. Eighty-five percent live off the land, and 70 percent exist below the poverty line.

But the death of Savimbi and the re-orientation of the ruling MPLA away from communism towards creating a democratic state with a market economy, are changing the face of Angola and setting it on a path of recovery and renewal.

“The death of Jonas Savimbi opened a big door for peace,” said Angola’s ambassador to Washington, Josefina Perpetua Pitra Diakite, in a recent interview with The government, led by long-time MPLA leader Jose Eduardo dos Santos, offered UNITA a ceasefire and truce, and through a Memorandum of Understanding both parties agreed to end hostilities and begin a process of reconciliation.

“The country progressed to peace very fast,” the ambassador said, “beyond our expectations.” For one, the demobilization of UNITA forces went much better than hoped. The government had expected some 40,000 UNITA troops and family members to turn in arms and seek re-integration into Angolan society as part of its program. However, very quickly 80,000 came forward, with that figure eventually rising to 120,000.

The ambassador noted that the United States “was the first country to offer support to the Angolan government in reintegrating the UNITA forces and rebuilding the country.” But the need for assistance continues to be enormous, she said.

Nevertheless, with significant oil revenues, and endowed with natural resources that include diamonds, gold, timber, fish and fertile land, Angola is making real headway in internal reform and development of institutions and infrastructure.

Some 100,000 UNITA people have been integrated, 300,000 refugees from neighboring countries have returned, and Luanda, a city built for 300,000 that grew to 4 million during the war, has seen its population drop to a more manageable 2 million. About 1.5 million mines have been removed.

Largely due to the booming oil sector, which accounts for half of the GDP and 90 percent of export earnings (and seven percent of US imports of oil), Angola’s economy grew 12 percent in 2004 and 19 percent in 2005. The ambassador said it is expected to grow as much as 27 percent this year, making it one of the fastest-growing economies in the world. At the same time, inflation has been brought down from 325 percent in 2000 to 18 percent last year, and an estimated single digit level for this year.

China has offered Angola a credit line of $2 billion, which it is using to rebuild roads and railroads, including links to neighboring countries, and to build new roads and other much-needed infrastructure.

A recently established Executive Commission for De-Mining, one of several organizations tackling this gruesome legacy of the fighting, is focused on making sure that all polling stations for September’s parliamentary elections will be safe. (Ironically, de-mining now offers government job opportunities for a good number of Angolans in rural areas, the ambassador said.)

It is hoped that the upcoming elections will firmly establish Angola on the path of democracy. President since 1979, Jose Dos Santos has said that he will not run again (in presidential elections planned for next year) but his party, and apparently many in the country, want him to stay in power for another five-year term, to manage the transition now under way.

“We are confident that we are moving in the right direction,” said Ambassador Diakite. She noted that the MPLA began to change its communist ways before perestroika took root in the Soviet Union, and that it has progressed down a pro-market economic path since then.

However, Angola has suffered from a reputation as one of the most corrupt countries on earth, with reportedly billions of dollars gone missing. The ambassador noted that during the civil war the state oil giant Sonangol often functioned as a parallel government, paying for ministers to get medical treatment abroad, and the like. At the same time, much of the spending was simply not recorded properly. “That could never happen now,” the ambassador said.

She said that a recent IMF audit had succeeded in tracking down a lot of the spending, and that now new rules put in place for government employees and the heads of public corporations forced greater transparency and limited corruption. This is being backed up by constant campaigning by the president and others to instill the need for accountability in government.

In Angola, this is still a critical issue, as the bulk of the economy, from oil to agriculture and transport, remains in government hands, creating all too many opportunities for misuse of public funds.

The ambassador noted that the parliament recently passed, unanimously, a new press law that grants broad freedoms to the media, and that a revision of the country’s constitution has already been prepared but will most likely be enacted by the new parliament later this year.

At the same time, the ambassador said, “We have made a lot of changes in our legal system to support free and fair elections, and to accommodate market economy reforms, including new commercial and investment laws.” She said: “We are looking how to have a strong society and government based on the rule of law, where nobody is above the law.”

She noted that “there are no prisoners of conscience in Angola” and that the government has established several institutions to tackle corruption. One is the office of an ombudsman so that any Angolan citizen can submit a complaint about the conduct of government officials. Another is the High Authority Against Corruption, which pursues cases of corruption and can see that those found guilty face punishment through the newly-formed National Courts of Accounts. 

The bad rap Angola has received internationally is due in large measure to defamation and disinformation, she said. The ambassador believes that the primary cause of poverty in Angola is not corruption, but years of war.”

A top priority for the government is affordable housing, and it is currently building 2-3,000 new homes in each of 17 provinces. These numbers will go up next year.

Rebuilding the health and educational systems is also a major task. Some 1,300 schools and 16 technical institutes were destroyed in the war, with another 1,500 badly damaged. At the same time, 70 percent of the country’s healthcare facilities were destroyed by the fighting. As a first step, the government is now building healthcare centers in 10 provinces.

To reduce widespread poverty, the government is focused on keeping overall economic growth high but also on developing the agriculture and fisheries potential of Angola, which currently imports half its food. The Strategic Poverty Reduction Plan seeks to cut those living in poverty in half by 2050. It includes help for farmers to develop their land, through modernization of methods and technology, and the government wants to attract more assistance from multilateral organizations like the World Bank and IMF, as well and bilateral aid from several countries.

The ambassador said there are a number of promising areas for US investors beyond the oil sector where they are already dominant, including agriculture and fisheries, housing, infrastructure and mining. And since Angola is having to build much of the country from scratch, there are opportunities in a wide range of industries. Three Angolan cities have partnered with US cities, starting with Luanda and Houston, to facilitate closer ties, and a purchase of seven Boeing 777 jetliners by the national airline TAG has opened the door to a wider role for Boeing in helping Angola’s civil aviation sector modernize airports and make other improvements.

Biography of Josefina Pitra Diakite

Mrs. Josefina Pitra Diakite began her term as Ambassador to the United States in 2001.  Prior to coming to Washington, DC, she served as Ambassador to Scandinavian states residing in the Kingdom of Sweden from 1993-2001.  She holds a Law degree from the Agostinho Neto University in Luanda, Angola. 

Ambassador Diakite’s career in the Foreign Service began at the Secretariat for Cooperation from 1978-1990.  Other senior level positions she held include working as Head of Contract Coordinating Unit of State Secretariat Cooperation from 1985-1987; National Director of Technical Assistance of the State Secretariat for Cooperation from 1987-1989; Director of Western Europe and North America Office at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs from 1989-1992; and Director of the Office of America Office from 1992-1993.

Born in Lobito, Ambassador Diakite is fluent in Portuguese, French, and English, with good speaking and reading abilities in Spanish.  She is a forthright advocate of children and women’s welfare issues.  She was 2003 recipient of the Dag Hammarskjold Security and Peace Award from Jackson State University of Mississippi. 

Ambassador Diakite is married and has three sons.