The Story of Angola

In 1975, the central African country of Angola cast-off the colonial regime of Portugal and declared independence. The country promptly descended into civil war. Because of the larger context of the Soviet-American struggle this civil war was rapidly transformed into a proxy war. As James Traub reports in a terrific piece from this past weekend’s New York Times Magazine, by the end of 2002 more than a million people had died and about a third of Angola’s population of 12 million had fled from their homes. Angola was a quintessentially broken country.

Angola is still a broken country. But Angola has oil, immense deposits of which lie under the South Atlantic Ocean in Angola’s territorial waters. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the ruling regime’s longtime patron, the past decade found a war-torn nation adrift. America was not so keen to provide aid to an obnoxiously corrupt and brutal regime. In March 2002, the IMF reported that the nation’s finances remained hopelessly opaque despite efforts to reform Angola’s bookkeeping. Things were at an impasse.

Enter China. Though a long source of infrastructure development throughout Africa, the Chinese have for the past number of years been proactively on the prowl for oil and influence partners throughout the third world. And, perhaps most importantly, China extends its hands with no strings attached. Suppress the role of a free press? No problem, we do it too. Brazenly rob billion in oil revenues from the public coffers? No problem. Angola has replaced Saudi Arabia as China’s oil source.

China comes to Africa offering aid without conditions. As Traub notes, China’s official Africa policy seeks “a new type of strategic partnership [which] respects African countries’ independent choice of the road of development.” (Read: We do not care about human rights. We do not care about good governance. We abhor transparency.) This is how, as my thought-partner noted, China is positioning itself to become the 21st century’s illiberal superpower. The story of Angola overlaps with the stories of Sudan, Zimbabwe, Eritrea, and elsewhere.

And with $5-billion in Chinese oil-backed loans the Angolan economy is booming. Construction is everywhere. Conference centers are being constructed in close proximity to international airports that are being built. And yet, in Angola one in three children dies before the age of 5, and the life expectancy is 38. Development, Chinese style. – a process, as Traub describes it, “imposed from above and answerable to no one.”

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