Fahamu (Oxford)

21 February 2013

Angola: Is this the Country Agostinho Neto Dreamt of?

analysis

The southern African nation is now peaceful and petro-dollars are pouring in. Yet the greatest beneficiaries are the United States, Great Britain and Portugal, the evil triad that laboured in vain to abort the Angolan dream

It will be 34 years, come September, since the death of Dr. Agostinho Neto, Angola's first president. Dr. Neto was the man who changed the face of Angola's armed struggle against Portuguese occupation after joining the People's Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA).

He had slipped through the claws of PIDE, the Portuguese secret police, in Lisbon from where he fled to join the liberation movement in Morocco. The Marxist-oriented Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola, popularly known by its Portuguese acronym, MPLA, was one of the three visible liberation movements in Angola. The other two are the Union of Total Independence of Angola, UNITA and the front for the National Liberation of Angola, FNLA, led respectively by Jonas Savimbi and Roberto Holden.

For very obvious reasons, the mantle of leadership fell on Dr. Neto when the Portuguese unceremoniously fled Angola and their other holdings in Africa in 1975. Death aborted the great dream which Dr. Neto had for his country, clearly spelt out in his collection of poems, Sacred Hope, and which, indeed, he staked his life to actualize.

He led Angola till he succumbed to cancer in a Moscow hospital one week to his 52nd birthday in 1979. His successor as president of Angola and the MPLA, the reticent and manipulative Eduardo dos Santos, has been in power ever since. Eduardo dos Santos is a joint title holder, alongside another reticent and manipulative African leader, President Mbasogo Nguema of Equatorial Guinea, as Africa's longest rulers.

The history of Lusophone Africa is full of ironies. It is one history where the concept of sit tightism is considered the norm. The Portuguese first opened shop in Africa in 1492, at about the same Christopher Columbus 'discovered' the Americas and they continued to rule with an iron fist for the next five hundred years.

On the eve of the armed struggle and at a time former British Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, made his Wind of Change speech to signal the end to European imperialistic designs in Africa, the Portuguese were still sounding defiant, insisting that their brand of imperialism was integrationist enough to insulate them from anti-colonial struggles elsewhere.

How terribly mistaken the Portuguese were became clear after what appeared as an isolated event in northern Angola in February, 1961 when hundreds of Angolan demonstrators were killed, but soon snowballed into a full-scale war. Fourteen years on, Portugal Africa had turned into a hot potato for the Portuguese.

It is an ironic twist of fate that, thirty eight years down the road, Africans in former Portugal Africa have watched with disbelief the replacement of fair-faced, boisterous oppressors with reticent, black-skinned despots. Bluntly put, today's former Portugal Africa is where oppression and corruption jostle for space.

For obvious reasons, Angola elicits much pity in Lusophone Africa narratives. We may clearly excuse Dr. Neto who came at a very difficult time. He inherited a war-ravaged country; a country treated as a pariah because of the unquantifiable support his party, the MPLA, got from Cuba and the former Soviet Union.

This was a period when the West was caught up in the frenzy of containing the spread of communism and to effectively do this, the West had an outpost in former apartheid South Africa from where Savimbi's UNITA, now in the warm embrace of the West, operated.

Angola was probably the first visible place in Africa where the West and the former Soviet Union fought a real proxy war. It is unlikely Dr. Neto's MPLA could have successfully resisted the Western-backed UNITA without the critical support of the Cubans and the Soviets and, of course, the frontline states.

To a large extent, Nigeria became the game-changer in Angola when, in 1975, late General Murtala Ramat Muhammad defied the West to rally continental and global support for the new MPLA government in Luanda. It was this state of confusion that Eduardo dos Santos inherited 1979.

Angola has witnessed some stability under President Eduardo dos Santos. The threat posed by UNITA is no longer present as the former liberation movement has been forced to join the political process especially with the killing of its leader, Jonas Savimbi in an ambush in 2002.

The politicians in Luanda no longer steal glances across their shoulders in fear of UNITA rebels. What is more, petro-dollars are pouring into the country in torrents and the country is enjoying a period of economic bliss. The Cubans and Russians no longer call the shots as they have now taken the back seat. Ditto for Nigeria and the vulnerable frontline states which endured consistent bombings from apartheid South Africa for lending critical support to the MPLA government.

Today, the lords of the manor are the United States, Great Britain and Portugal, the evil triangle that laboured in vain to abort the Angolan dream. After more than three decades under the wise guidance of dos Santos, Angola has turned full circle; the country is on the roll. Today's Angola lends credence to an African saying that all manner of knives are on display the day an elephant is hunted down.

Indeed, an elephant has been hunted down in Angola and a great party, unheard of in the southern tip of the continent, is on. Pity is that a party that should have enough for majority of Angolans to take home, considering the size of an elephant, is being attended by a select few. On the high table, surrounded by members of his immediate family and a few cronies made up of generals and sundry leeches, is His Excellency, President Eduardo dos Santos.

His eldest daughter, the 40-year old Isabel, who was a toddler at independence in 1975, is the cynosure of all eyes: she wields the sharpest and longest knife. At the age of 24, Isabel opened a restaurant in 1997 in Luanda, the capital of Angola and chose, of all names, Miami Beach, as its name in preference over the beach in Luanda or the eye-catching one in Havana. In sixteen short years since Isabel launched Miami Beach, she has made history as Africa's first female billionaire.

Forbes, the American magazine that tracks the world's super-rich estimated Isabel's billions in US Dollars, not the Kwacha, Angola's local currency.

Like the caring and protective father-patron he has been, President Eduardo dos Santos should feel proud and turn his chest into one big drum for successfully steering his daughter to become the continent's first female billionaire and ensuring his other children too are at the top of the ladder.

The president needs not lose sleep that by turning his country into one huge private estate for family members and cronies to plunder, he has turned Angola into another Nigeria: a plundering ground; a rich country of poor, struggling people.

Of course, many Angolans will be sneering at the ignoble honour bestowed on their country's first daughter courtesy of a benevolent father, an ideological turn-coat who, despite his reticence, is happy robbing his country blind. Better still, the struggling people of Angola, left in the lurch by a corrupt and clueless ruling class should be wondering, like their friends further north, how and at what point they missed the bus.

- Abdulrazaq Magaji lives in Abuja, Nigeria

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