Magazine article Geographical

Rich Land, Poor Land: Experts Are Predicting That Angola May Soon Overtake Saudi Arabia as the World's Principal Oil Producer. So Why, Asks Andrew Brackenbury, Are Its People Dying of Hunger? (Angola)

Magazine article Geographical

Rich Land, Poor Land: Experts Are Predicting That Angola May Soon Overtake Saudi Arabia as the World's Principal Oil Producer. So Why, Asks Andrew Brackenbury, Are Its People Dying of Hunger? (Angola)

Article excerpt

THE FOLLOWING PICTURES MAY BE distressing," warns the newsreader. In squalid camps, skeletal figures lie dying beside those perversely swollen from the effects of malnutrition. Pencil-limbed children stare from the TV screen, their eyes desperately hunting for hope. Angola is starving. Exhausted aid-workers recount the daily death toll and implore the outside world to help.

The images are indeed distressing. But decades of Africa's televised woe have desensitised us to such suffering. Corrupt governments, violent conflicts and a cruel climate repeatedly crush hopes of redemption.

Yet the developed world is in many ways responsible for Angola's agony. The Portuguese used it as a slave pool and, following independence in 1975, it became a sideshow in the Cold War, with the USA backing the Maoist UNITA and the USSR backing the future government, the Marxist MPLA. Foreign aid breathed new life into this brutal civil war, a war that claimed at least 500,000 lives, saw about four million people (a third of the population) driven from their homes and left the countryside plagued by landmines and famine.

Angola's natural resources--principally oil and diamonds--underwrote these years of misery, providing both sides with funds well beyond what ought to have been possible. Only the death of UNITA's leader Jonas Savimbi in February 2002 brought peace to Angola, but even now, the needs of the West are continuing to exacerbate Angola's suffering.

In terms of oil, Angola is one of the world's richest countries. All the big oil companies have a presence there, and once deep-sea digging technology is sufficiently advanced, Angola may surpass Saudi Arabia as the world's foremost oil producer. Yet today, hundreds of thousands are starving; UNICEF estimates that a child dies every three minutes and three quarters of Angola's population lives on less than a dollar a day. But by rights, these people should be prospering: under the Angolan constitution, they own the valuable reserves that are making the multinationals ever richer.

Vast sums of money have been, and continue to be, misappropriated. Global Witness, a London-based NGO nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for its work on the `conflict diamonds' issue, has accused the Angolan government of hiding some US$1billion (631million [pounds sterling]) each year for the past five years, claims backed up by a leaked International Monetary Fund report obtained by the BBC last October. With about 90 per cent of Angola's gross national product coming from oil, it is clear that much of this `lost' money came from oil company payments. Yet the oil giants refuse to publicly disclose details of their financial transactions with the Angolan government, citing `corporate confidentiality', despite the fact that similar information is routinely published in the West.

To understand the links between the oil industry and corruption in Angola, it is necessary to look to France's most infamous political scandal of recent times, `Angolagate'. This complex affair involved the elite of France and Angola diverting oil revenues to buy arms for the Angolan government and led to the arrest of, among others, Jean Christophe Mitterand, son of the then French president.

At the centre of this intricate web of alliances was Pierre Falcone, a prominent French businessman who was at the helm of the Brenco International group of companies. Falcone coordinated links between the French and Angolan governments and Russian arms dealers. He also brokered a series of oil-backed loans from international banks, effectively mortgaging future oil production and providing the Angolan government with another vast and as yet undisclosed source of revenue. Where this money went, and where it's going today, remains a mystery. What is clear is that in this shadowy world of kickbacks and oil-greased palms, the Angolan people were robbed of their inheritance.

Corruption became entrenched at the highest levels. …

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