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Angola’s often violent and bloody history has left a country endowed with a vast expanse of natural resources and development possibilities perennially trying to stave off starvation. A terrain rich in oil, diamonds, iron ore and copper, plus a measurable hydroelectric capacity, has the potential to be one of Africa’s richest states. Instead, the more common reality is of a nation of shattered infrastructure and devastated towns struggling to feed a desperately poor and eternally uprooted population.

Another lost empire

In 1483 Vasco da Gama first dropped anchor in Luanda Bay and unwittingly pre-empted the start of a conflict that, save for a few intermittent lulls in the fighting, went on for over half a millennium. The land now known as Angola was, at the time, inhabited by a number of small tribes living in loosely defined kingdoms that lacked the organisation and administrative cohesiveness of 15th-c­entury Europe. But despite a natural curiosity borne out of years of seafaring exploration, the Portuguese had no real desire to settle on this malaria-ridden African shoreline. Post 1500 the more fertile and less threatening lands of Brazil held a far greater attraction for colonial farmers and businessmen. For the next 300 years Portugal’s African colonies had only two real functions: a strategic base on the route around the Cape of Good Hope, and a collecting centre for one of the largest forced human migrations in history.

Not surprisingly, slavery did little to endear the colonials to the Angolan people. Clashes first began after WWII and were inflamed in 1961 when the colonial authorities began to crush increasingly zealous uprisings from dissidents.

The initial independence movement split into three main groups in line with the various tribal affiliations (and international interests) they claimed to represent. The National Front for the Liberation of Angola (FNLA) was supported by northern tribes, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and anti-communist Western countries; the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) began with Marxist sensibilities and was supported by southern tribes, the USSR, Cuba and other Soviet allies; and the National Union for Total Independence of Angola (Unita) originally had the support of the Ovimbundu, but later formed alliances with the Portuguese right wing, the USA and apartheid South Africa.

In 1975 the Portuguese finally granted independence to Angola following the overthrow of the fascist Salazar government at home. But the colonial withdrawal – a mad scramble that involved one of the biggest airlifts in history – was legendary in its ineptitude, converting central Luanda into a ghost town and robbing the country of its qualified human resources and administrative structure.

Not surprisingly, Angola in 1975 possessed all the essential ingredients for an impending civil war. An uneven and weak infrastructure, low levels of health and education, two feuding sets of tribally based elites and the inviting prospect of a large slice of unused government-oil revenue up for grabs. As the Moscow-backed MPLA party stepped into a dangerous power vacuum, a combination of new outside factors were dutifully thrown into an already crowded arena: US communist paranoia, Cuba’s ambiguous aim to promote ‘world revolution’, South African security obsessions and the woefully inadequate process of decolonisation. The stage was set.

Angola’s second major war was a long, protracted affair dominated by foreign intervention. Indeed, for the next 15 years the wishes and desires of the Angolan people were consistently undermined as foreign meddlers and Western business interests continued to fight greedily among themselves over a damaged and increasingly beleaguered country.

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War & peace

In 1991, prompted by the end of the Cold War, a ceasefire agreement was set in place by Cuba, the USA and Angola. But the accord broke down the following year after Unita, having lost a general election (seen by the UN as largely free and fair), returned to war with a newfound ferocity, claiming the poll was rigged. Almost 200, 000 people died between May and October 1993 as Unita took war to the provincial cities, destroying most of the road, rail and communications network.

A revamped ‘Lusaka Accord’ signed in 1994 was consistently violated by both the governing MPLA and Unita, and the discovery of new diamond areas and oilfields allowed both sides to re-arm. UN sanctions (from 1998) against Unita diamonds caused Unita’s cash supply to shrivel, and its control of the countryside gradually crumbled. Increasing military defeats drove a desperate Unita deeper into the hinterland and – hunted and on the run – its leader Jonas Savimbi was finally killed in a well-planned government operation on 22 February 2002.

A new peace accord was signed on 4 April 2002.

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Angola today

Since 2002 Angola has entered a period of peace and regeneration unprecedented in its history. With the 85, 000-strong Unita army, reintegrated into the national forces and old animosities ceremoniously brushed underneath the carpet, the biggest obstacles to war and instability have been temporarily neutralised.

But the country still faces massive challenges before it can right four decades of economic and political ineptitude. Corruption is the most pressing problem. In 2004 Human Rights Watch, an independent lobby group, estimated that US$4 billion of Angola’s undeclared oil revenue had gone missing since the late 1990s. Voices inside the IMF were raised and supervisors were sent to investigate. The conclusion: either the ever-elusive President Eduardo dos Santos was employing a very creative team of accountants or something, somewhere, was clearly not adding up.

It is these financial anomalies that have prevented the lion’s share of Angola’s new peacetime economy from trickling down to the majority of the poorest classes. While skyscrapers reach new heights in Luanda and oil-obsessed government ministries forge investment deals with China and India, poverty in the countryside remains rampant and widespread. One can only hope that the second post-independence elections (which will take place sometime before December 31, 2007, according to Angolan president, Eduardo Dos Santos) will address some of these issues.

Economically speaking, Angola’s future is brighter than it has been for decades. In 2007 the country – which currently churns out 1.4 billion barrels of oil per day – is due to join the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and this empowering move towards the hub of the world economy will give Dos Santos and his government a good deal more clout on the international stage.

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