Posted on Tuesday, 02 December 2014 17:16

Angola's diplomatic dancing

By Zoe Eisenstein and Patrick Smith

Presidents Dos Santos and Zuma are not always in step. Photo©ELMOND JIYANE/ANGOLA GOVERNMENT/AFPPresident Santos left the diplomatic footwork at the UN General Assembly in September to deputy Manuel Vicente. Leader of his country's delegation, vice-president Vicente made the case for Angola's election to the Security Council by setting out an increasingly ambitious foreign policy.

The four horsemen of the apocalypse seemed to be galloping towards delegates in New York in September for the UN General Assembly.

Top of the agenda was climate change and the devastation it could cause to Africa and other developing regions, then the growth of terrorism and religious intolerance and finally the most serious public heath emergency for half a century – the spread of the Ebola virus in West and Central Africa.

At the special summit on climate change on 23 September, Angola's vice-president Manuel Vicente spelt out the stakes: "We are at a unique moment of opportunity to safeguard the global climate system on which sustainable development and sustained economic growth depend."

Angola has its own vulnerabilities to climate change. The government has set up an emergency programme to re-house some 48,000 families displaced by a combination of desertification and torrential rains.

At the same time, Vicente insisted the government is committed to protecting the tropical Mayombe Forest.

A few days later, at a meeting organised by the Angolan embassy in New York, Vicente called on US companies to broaden their investment in Angola.

Until now, the bulk of foreign investment has been in oil and gas, but higher production levels in North America means the US has cut back sharply on its oil imports.

Now Angola sells less than 15% of its oil to the US and 40% to China.

As Angola seeks to widen its commercial networks, it is also extending its diplomatic reach.

Vicente's speech to the General Assembly on 29 September carefully set out Luanda's position on pressing security matters: "Religious fundamentalism in some African countries is taking violent proportions such that it poses a threat to regional security, with serious consequences for peace, stability and development."

Beyond the rhetoric, Angola is contributing troops and logistics to the UN's peacekeeping mission in Central African Republic (CAR), a country torn apart by fighting between the separatist Muslim militia Seleka and hardliners in the predominantly Christian national army.

Angola's engagement in CAR is all the more significant in the wake of the col- lapse of a military bid last year by its southern and more powerful neighbour, South Africa, to prop up the failing government of François Bozizé.

At odds with pretoria

CAR is not the only country where Angola and South Africa – which are both members of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) – have pursued different, if not openly adversarial, policies.

Angola, which has issues with the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) over migration, maritime borders and oil fields, has been far less indulgent towards President Joseph Kabila's government in Kinshasa than has South Africa.

Of course, Angola and South Africa still share many policy aims, for example,
fraternal links to Raúl Castro's government in Cuba: "Angola reiterates the need to end the economic and financial embargo imposed on Cuba," Vicente told theGeneralAssembly,"which limits the right of the Cuban people to development and is a clear violation of the principles and rules of international law."

As if to reinforce his point, that week a team of Cuban doctors and nurses arrived in West Africa ready to work alongside US and European medics to fight Ebola.

Angola's eyes are also turning northwards. As Africa's second-largest oil producer and its fifth-largest economy, it has weight militarily and politically.

Its experience in the oil and gas sectors has paved the way for more influence in the Gulf of Guinea.

It has one of the fastest-growing economies in Africa but remains well behind South Africa and Nigeria.

Relations between Angola and Nigeria are particularly strong.

This dates back to the anti-colonial struggle and Nigeria's support for the Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola (MPLA), now the ruling party, when it was caught in Cold War rivalries.

"I think Angola is really putting a foot forward to be a major player in Africa. I think that's commendable," says Nigeria's ambassador to Angola, Folorunso Olukayode Otukoya.

Regional policing

Aside from its new operations in CAR, Angola is one of the eight member states in the Luanda-based Gulf of Guinea Commission (GCC) and currently chairs the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region.

Both organisations focus on regional security. "People here know how to fight a war with their eyes closed. We have experience with conflict resolution," says an Angolan executive who requests anonymity.

Speaking in September after meeting Said Djinnit, the special envoy of the UN secretary general for the Great Lakes, Angola's foreign minister Georges Chikoti said the GCC hoped to combat rebels and establish peace.

Chikoti says the failure of the Forces Démocratiques de Libération du Rwanda rebel group in DRC to disarm has caused an impasse.

This would, he explains, "oblige countries to improve coordination to assert order, with recourse to force if necessary".

A well-connected Angolan executive, who asks not to be named, describes the complexities: "If you support one of the [warring] parties, you will be exposed to the others. I think Angola is playing quite an intelligent role – there is a lot of action on the diplomatic and military side. It isn't really public."

Angola's willingness to help in peace-keeping has won international plaudits. In April, France rolled out the red carpet for President José Eduardo dos Santos on a state visit.

The following month US secretary of state John Kerry was in Luanda commending the "significant leadership" of President Dos Santos and foreign minister Chikoti.

Although these meetings played up Angola's diplomatic role, both countries were eager to bolster commercial ties. The US offered Angola $600m to buy Boeing planes.

Angola is more diplomatically active in the Gulf of Guinea group than in SADC, where it has hit some problems of political culture.

"Angola struggles in English-speaking southern countries," says a Luanda-based businessman. "I don't think it has the same power as when it goes north, where its army has been."

Angola's military, which was jockeying for influence in Guinea-Bissau, paved the way for business there.

Bauxite Angola chairman Bernardo Campos announced in September that the company planned to resume mining there after a series of political crises and coups.

In addition, two Angolan companies, Mombaka and Grupo António Mosquito, have an 89.99% share in Banco Equador in São Tomé e Príncipe.

Angola has been politically and commercially influential in São Tomé's oil and gas sectors.

Although Angola has proved to be a more assertive partner than many of China's African allies, the infrastructure-for-resources deals developed in Angola have been repeated across the continent.

It helps that China is the biggest single customer for Angola's oil. "This model of infrastructure for resources in Africa was pioneered in Angola. You take that model and use it in other countries in West Africa that are desperate for infrastructure," says another Luanda-based businessman.

At the same time, Angola has found ways to use its membership of SADC to boost its bargaining strength with Brazil and Portugal, although Angolan officials can find it tricky or even irksome to ad- apt to the more structured and regulated business culture in Southern Africa.

A hard nut to crack

Angola's complicated relations with South Africa partly go back to the latter's support for the União Nacional para a Independência Total de Angola rebels during the Angolan civil war and old tensions between the MPLA and South Africa's governing African National Congress (ANC) party, which had bases in Angola during the anti-apartheid struggle.

"Angola doesn't really gel with South Africa. Here you have a post-war, post- socialist military elite alliance that runs the country, that controls everything," says a long-standing Angola resident and businessman.

"Where the military has gone makes it easier to go and do business," he adds. Those strategies may work in Central and West Africa, but Angola has to find different ways to work in Southern Africa.

"You can't go into Mozambique, as it depends on South Africa," argues one Angolan bank board member.

"Namibia is a wonderful partner for us, but we have done all we can do. We don't really have anywhere else to go except for the Gulf of Guinea where there is oil and a high potential for returns," he explains.

For Angolans with money, South Africa is a place to send their children to school or a location for medical services, holidays and shopping.

But for entrepreneurs there is much less interest in South Africa as a business destination. South Africa has big competitive advantages over Angola: a developed though sometimes creaking infrastructure, a substantive manufacturing sector and comparatively cheap labour. It is English-speaking and a member of the Commonwealth, which eases business relationships.

A shift in governance

No matter how fast Angola's economy grows, it is many years away from rivalling South Africa. Many of its economic planning officials are now looking at different development models, in which the state plays a stronger role.

Although South Africa's ANC talks about the need for a 'developmental state strategy', Angola may be closer in putting that into practice.

There is admiration, expressed through gritted teeth in Luanda, for the 'authoritarian developmentalism' of Rwanda's President Paul Kagame. But many in the country's capital say that such a shift in Angola's style of governance will require a thoroughgoing political reappraisal and reordering to focus the country's resources and administrative elite on a more determinedly developmental path.

This means making the oil and gas industry more efficient and tying in its operations to produce more local manufacturing and industrial developments and less business for the international trading companies.

It would also require a wholesale revival of the agricultural and processing businesses that had proved so profitable under Portuguese colonialism.

How far and how fast such plans are implemented will depend on capital and the somewhat paranoiac approach to political risk of the ruling class. Yet as Angola's leadership sees on its constant forays to Asia, the biggest risk lies in failing to restructure the economy from a narrow dependence on hydrocarbon exports.

Beyond the lofty economic targets, there is a critical political imperative: to address the simmering resentment of the youth facing unemployment and public service failures. Failures on that front could have severe consequences, as shown in several crises breaking out both to the south and north of Angola. ●

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