Angola President José Eduardo dos Santos's two-day state visit to France begins today, marking a significant improvement of bilateral relations but also signalling that Angola is wishing to re-invest in its relationship with Western partners.
France and Angola established diplomatic relations in 1977 and in the 1990s President dos Santos regularly spent his summer holidays in France and French business enjoying privileged access in Angola.
But bilateral relations soured due to 'Angolagate', a French judicial investigation over arms sales to Angola worth $790m in 1993-2000, in which numerous French and Angolan officials allegedly received pay-offs and gifts worth $56m. After a seven-year investigation, the French judiciary decided to prosecute 42 people including Jean-Christophe Mitterrand, Pierre Falcone and Arcady Gaydamak (the last two had Angolan passports and were closely linked to the Angolan presidency). The investigation hugely embarrassed the Angolan government with numerous allegations of bribe-taking and shady dealings by Angolan officials during the investigation.
Sentences for the 'Angolagate' affair were handed down on 27 October 2009, with former French interior minister Charles Pasqua and Jean-Charles Marchiani (a French prefect and politician) found guilty of taking money from Gaydamak and Falcone while knowing it was proceeds of crime. Jean-Christophe Mitterrand was found guilty of receiving $2 million from Falcone and Gaydamak to promote their interests. In total, 36 individuals were convicted of various levels of involvement in the scandal and 21 of them appealed the decision.
The Paris Court of Appeal's decision in April 2011 overturned the conviction of Charles Pasqua as well as Jean-Charles Marchiani's. The charges against Pierre Falcone and Arcadi Gaydamak were also dropped.
French business was impacted by 'Angolagate': Air France lost lucrative air slots to Luanda and serving contracts for TAAG Airlines, the Angolan state flag carrier, in 2004 the Angolan government refused to renew Total's licence for shallow-water oil Block 3/80, and in 2005 it forced the company to relinquish unexplored acreages in ultra-deepwater oil Block 17.
French officials and businesses have worked tirelessly over the last decade to rebuild bilateral relations. The initial breakthrough came in October 2007 during the UN General Assembly when President dos Santos and then-French president Nicholas Sarkozy met privately for the first time. This was followed by a presidential visit by Sarkozy to Angola in May 2008, during which time dos Santos was invited to officially visit France.
It has taken almost six years for him to take up this invitation, with planned visits postponed several times. A flurry of bilateral visits paved the way over the last 12 months helped this normalization: a French parliamentary group visited Luanda in September 2013, French Minister of Foreign Affairs Laurent Fabius visited Angola in November with a trade delegation and presented a fresh invitation for President dos Santos, and finally Angolan Foreign Minister George Chikoti signed a memorandum of understanding for abolishing visas for diplomats in December.
Today France is the sixth-largest source of imports for Angola after Portugal, the US, China, Brazil and South Africa and was the third-largest source of FDI in Angola in 2012. In addition to meeting President François Hollande and hundreds of French business people at the Elysee during this state visit, President dos Santos will also address the French senate.
Following a visit to the Vatican on 2 May, President dos Santos hoped to visit the United Kingdom as an official guest of the British government. This would have been his first trip to Britain since 1992, although over the years several invitations had been made. Late confirmation that Prime Minister David Cameroon would receive him resulted in a postponement of this visit to at least the autumn. Unlike in Paris, the British civil service was slow to respond to Angola's sudden interest in a presidential visit to the UK, despite declaring Angola as one of its high-level prosperity partners for trade in late 2013.
Britain could learn from the French experience and should send Foreign Secretary William Hague to Luanda (thereby accepting an outstanding invitation he received when Angolan Foreign Minister Chikoti visited London officially in 2012). Indeed Hague's American counterpart John Kerry is visiting Luanda shortly and is scheduled to meet President dos Santos to commend him on his engagement in the peace process in Africa's Great Lakes region. President dos Santos holds the acting presidency of the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region, and is rightly achieving international recognition for his efforts.
The timing of this Angolan State visit to Paris is not coincidental: over the last 18 months Angola's presidency has become more ambitious internationally possibly signalling that President dos Santos is looking for legacies after 34 years in power. France and Angola also have a common strategic interest in central Africa, which has been designated as a key strategic priority for Angolan foreign policy. The importance Paris has placed on improved Franco-Angolan relations is not just about growing bilateral trade but recognition that when it comes to central Africa, Angola is increasingly a regional anchor state for peace and security.
Alex Vines is Research Director, Area Studies and International Law; and Head of the Africa Programme of Chatham House.