Since the end of its debilitating 40-year-long civil war in 2002, Angola has enjoyed an unprecedented period of peace and stability, at least on the political front. Economically, the ride has been a little bumpier. While the Angolan economy has grown – at an average rate of 17% annually in the first six years after 2002 – niggling problems continue to grate, most pressingly, corruption, huge income disparity and a worrying lack of economic diversification.
The country’s heavy reliance on oil – which contributes to nearly half of Angola’s GDP – came home to roost in 2015 when global oil prices fell from US$100 to US$30 per barrel in little over a year. Reeling from the shock, the value of the Angola kwanza dropped 25% as local prices soared. Suddenly, Angola was facing its biggest economic and humanitarian crisis since the war.
As always, the poor were hit the hardest. Despite a protracted oil boom in the 2000s and 2010s, an estimated one-third of Angolans still live below the poverty line. By early 2016, conditions among the poorest sections of society were said to be as bad as the war years. The situation was exacerbated by a serious yellow-fever outbreak in Luanda coupled with a deadly drought in the south that triggered a crop failure and precipitated the worst food crisis in Angola for a quarter of a century.
Despite the economic turmoil, Angola has logged several small achievements. Landmine clearance continues, aided by humanitarian organisations such as the Halo Trust, while Unita, the one-time belligerent opposition party, appears to have permanently swapped its guns for the ballot box. In 2016 the country’s ageing president, Eduardo do Santos (Africa’s second-longest serving leader), announced that he would finally step down in 2017, ushering in the opportunity for change under the tutelage of a younger leader.
António Agostinho Neto
Immortalised in street names and bespectacled busts across the country, you'd be forgiven for wondering: who is António Agostinho Neto? A much-loved figure in Angolan history, Neto was a founding member of the MPLA and the country's first president, leading Angola towards independence in 1975. Despite the ensuing civil war, Neto is fondly remembered by most, and his birthday is marked with a national holiday, labelled National Heroes' Day (17 September).
Born in 1922, Neto moved to Portugal to practise medicine, but spent much of his time avoiding (or sometimes succumbing to) arrest for revolutionary acts. During his 15-year exile he forged lasting ties with Che Guevara and Fidel Castro and gained huge support from an array of high-profile intellectuals.
Although largely remembered for his politics, Neto was also an accomplished poet and many statues depict him as an academic, holding a pen and paper in one hand while gripping his Kalashnikov in the other.
Neto never saw his country at peace; he died in 1979 in the USSR while still serving as president.
Angola's cornucopia of ethnic groups is dominated by the Ovimbundu, Ambundu and Bakongo. Local tribal traditions remain strong, though Portuguese has evolved as the national language of choice, particularly among the young. Due to slavery and emigration, much of Angola's cultural legacy has been exported abroad, especially to Brazil. Angolan influence is still evident in samba music, carnival processions, Afro-American religious practices and the combative martial art of capoeira.
At home, Angola is coloured by complex ethnic loyalties and an estimated 42 different indigenous languages. Some of these divisions have stoked wars and shifting alliances over the years, and today ethnic groups are more widely spread than in the past due to internal displacement brought about by conflict.
The Ovimbundu are Angola's largest 'tribe' making up approximately 40% of the population. Historically this mainly Christian Bantu group with a strong poetic tradition were agriculturalists and traders based in the country's central southern highlands and along the southern coast. The main Ovimbundu cities today are Benguela and Huambo and this was where Unita drew much of their support during the civil war.
Angola's Kimbundu-speaking Ambundu people make up the country's second-largest tribal group and hail from the lands north of the Kwanza River around Malange and Bengo. For centuries they lived under the yoke of the Bakongo to whom they paid tribute. The Ambundu have generously donated many of their traditions to Angolan culture. Their skilful martial-art style is thought to have acted as a precursor to capoeira, while the title for an Ambundu king – ngola – is the word from which the name Angola is derived.
The Bakongo's roots lie in the lands of northern Angola and southwest Congo where they once ruled a vast, well-structured kingdom that converted to a syncretic form of Catholicism soon after the Portuguese arrived. Mixing both animist and Christian beliefs, the Bakongo are known for their carved wooden figurines called nkisi, which they believe are inhabited by spirits.
The Catholic kings of the Kongo ruled from their capital of M'banza Kongo until 1914.
Angola is Africa’s seventh-largest country – about twice the size of France – and is set on Africa’s southwest coast between the equator and the Tropic of Capricorn. Extending over such a huge area, the ecology, terrain and climate is extremely diverse, ranging from the rainforests of the Congo River basin in the north to the arid expanses of the Namibe Desert in the south. In between lie savannah grasslands, arid stretches of coastline lapped by the cold Benguela current, and high cool mountain plateaus, where crops such as rice, coffee, sisal, sugar cane and peanuts have traditionally prospered.
Among its varied landscapes, Angola has some unusual and spectacular natural features. Topping the list is the Kalandula Falls on the Lucala River near Malange, one of Africa’s largest waterfalls by volume. Nearby are the peculiar monolithic black rocks of Pungo Andongo. Equally bizarre is the Miradouro da Lua, a vast multicoloured canyon shaped by millions of years of wind and rain erosion. It is Angola’s most visited tourist site.
The country has a potentially dazzling array of fauna, but animal numbers were severely depleted during the civil war (1975–2002). The Big Five are all found here, though each species is listed as vulnerable or endangered. Angola’s most iconic animal is the giant sable, a member of the antelope family that has been adopted as a national symbol. It is currently listed as critically endangered and was only ‘rediscovered’ in 2004. Total numbers hover at around 100.