A Country Made of Oil and Goodwill – Ricardo Soares de Oliveira Launches Magnificent and Beggar Land
The launch of Magnificent and Beggar Land: Angola since the Civil War by Ricardo Soares de Oliveira was a magnificent event. The author’s profoundly interesting discussion kept guests enthralled for the better part of an hour as he spoke about Angola, the extensive research he undertook to write the book, how he sees the country now and what he envisions for its future.
Angolan anthropologist Antonio Tomas, who is currently at Stellenbosch University, joined De Oliveira in conversation. Tomas invited the author to give those present an idea of the whole project.
De Oliveira reflected on his first-hand experience of Angola in the late war years, and immediately after it had ended. He said, “Angola went through a war that lasted, in one shape or another, for about 41 years: the anti-colonial war, the cold war proximum that South Africa was intimately involved with and, finally, the last years of the 20th Century. This period destroyed much of the country and left a legacy. We don’t know how many people died, but up to a million Angolans are said to have died during this period. The country was entirely destroyed.”
He said the reconstruction mode didn’t start immediately after the war, partly because of the low oil price. “Oil had been the lifeline for the Angolan regime which had been the second largest oil producer in Africa, and this had enabled the regime to win the war.” Because of the enormous resources expended to win the war, he says, “the regime was cash strapped at the beginning of the peace period. For a few years the situation was unsettled”. However, he says, by 2007 the political project of reconstruction was afoot, and it was surprisingly full.
De Oliveira cited three conditions that allowed Angola to pursue an autonomous and somewhat eccentric path to national reconstruction:
“The first one is that this wasn’t a woolly peace process, unlike many others in post-Cold War Africa that ended with power sharing and UN-brokered peace accords. Angola was an old-fashioned destruction of the rebels by the government which allowed it to define the terms of the peace in its own uncompromising terms. It allowed it to think about peace as a rebuilding of the country in its own image. This was an important prerequisite for the project that ensued,” he said.
The second aspect relates to the country’s oil production. De Oliveira says, “In 2002 Angola was already a major oil producer, producing just less than a million barrels a day. By 2008, Angola was producing about two million barrels a day. In 2002, the oil price was at $22/barrel. By 2008, it was $147/barrel. The Angolan GDP went from $12 billion in 2002 to somewhere near $130 billion last year. The growth and development that this allows for is obvious. During the decade that the book explores, the Angolan economy has become the third largest in sub-Saharan Africa, three times larger than the Kenyan economy and larger than the whole of east Africa together.
“We’re thinking of a very different scale to the usual post-war reconstruction trajectory in Africa or elsewhere. Yet another number that gives you an inkling of what was made available by these numbers. From 2006 until 2014, every year the Angolan budget was larger than the OECD Aid to Africa as a whole. With the amounts that were conjured out of the ground during this period, if you add the war victory to the autonomy, you can start to see why Angola, especially after 2005, was able to define the peace in its own way.
The third factor contributing to Angola’s national reconstruction was the coming of China. “Until 2004 Angola was trying to negotiate with the traditional western governments for some sort of aid. Western donors were not forthcoming. They argued that corruption was rife in Angola and that the oil institutions had to be reformed before any meaningful donor money could be brought into the country. By 2004 China entered the picture, providing Angola with an estimated $20 billion in credit loans, building another wall of autonomy enabling the regime to further its national project of reconstruction.
The book tries to understand the project of national reconstruction. It tries to understand the victor’s vision, what they tried to bring about, and what has actually happened in the last decade.
Tomas and De Oliveira engaged in the topic further, leading to a fascinating and in-depth question and answer session. Those who attended were well rewarded with an insightful presentation on this incompletely understood country. The author signed copies of his book bought by interested members of the audience, and accepted their well wishes and congratulations.
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