The Scramble for Angola


The Portuguese generally take a lot of pride in the fact that Brazil, a country they discovered, has become one of the most vibrant and varied countries on earth and a true cultural superpower. That diversity, of course, came into being largely because of the slave trade. But slavery is a word seldom mentioned in discussions of Portugal’s glorious age of expansion and empire.

A current exhibition in the museum in Lagos makes a laudable attempt to promote Portugal’s own multicultural heritage, talking at length about how successive migrations of humanity have culturally enriched European societies and made them much more ethnically diverse, but fails to mention how forced migrations of people created economic riches, or even the remarkable fact that Lagos itself would give its name to the capital of Africa’s most populous nation, as many of the slaves traded in the Algarve originated in that part of Africa.

Portugal first arrived in what would become its largest African colony, Angola, in 1483, and they would stay there for almost 500 years. Like any colonial relationship it was one of brutality and forced obedience:

Until the late 1900’s Portugal used the area as a “slave pool” for its far more lucrative colony in Brazil and to benefit from the occasional discovery of precious gemstones and metals. Angola suffered from one of the most backward forms of colonialist rule. (from www.africanet.com)

According to an article by Helena Matos in Público, it always held a special significance for the Portuguese:

(There is a) word which, in Portugal, throughout the entire twentieth century was murmured in times of crisis and in the inevitable periods of euphoria that followed. That word is Angola.

Generations and generations of Portuguese people were born, grew up and died hearing stories of Angola’s riches. Of the progress of Angola. Of the potential of Angola. Of German and English geologists disguised as priests and tourists running around the country secretly excavating its wealth. About the negotiations in which Britain and France tried to placate Hitler offering him Angola. Of the sale of Angola. Of the Russians and Americans that craved Angola’s riches. Of the new nation that was going to be born in Africa.

It remained one of the jewels in the crown of empire until, shortly after the 1974 revolution, the Portuguese grudgingly packed their bags and went home.

Now the Portuguese state is sending further missions to Angola. At the start of April the newspapers and TV news bulletins were packed with stories about the Prime Minister’s impending visit to the former colony, accompanied by 300 of the country’s leading business people and with two billion euros of credit on offer. The weekly news magazine Visão highlighted stories of those of those who have returned and those few who never left. It boasted of Portugal’s extensive knowledge of the terrain, its linguistic and cultural links and shared history. It did however omit to mention that that long relationship was a massively unequal one based on forced occupation and the most brutal exploitation of the lives of countless millions of people, and ended in a fifteen-year war for independence. That war sowed the seeds of the civil war that followed, which may have recently ended – for the moment at least – but which has left the country with a life expectancy index of 37 and ranked 160th in the 2005 Human Development Report.

Several hundred years ago Portugal was competing for control of large parts of the world’s extent and population with other (equally brutal) colonial powers. Now it is returning to the scenes of its colonial crimes, it faces a new, powerful and determined adversary.

China is partly after Angola’s oil reserves – it already buys 30%, and derives most of its crude oil from the same source. It is also looking to create Lebensraum, due to the pressing need to keep creating jobs at home and overseas in order to maintain and raise its own furious economic momentum. As the LA Times reports:

A main driver in the relationship is China’s insatiable need for energy. Its oil imports are surging, and African oil now accounts for nearly 30% of the total. The China National Petroleum Corp. has invested billions of dollars to take control of Sudan’s oil production, estimated at 150,000 barrels per day and growing. Another Chinese oil company agreed in January 2006 to pay $2.3 billion for a major stake in a Nigerian oil field.

Africa is certainly benefiting. China’s demand for resources has driven up prices, propelling significant GDP gains in many countries. China has educated thousands of African university students, and it sends Africa hundreds of doctors and advisors each year. Chinese firms are building roads, rehabilitating infrastructure and bringing cellphone service to places that land lines never reached.

It is a formidable opponent – compared to Portugal’s 2 billion in credit, Chinese state banks are looking to provide double that amount. And according to Visão:

A year ago China occupied fourth place in the Angolan imports, a position that will, in 2006, threaten Portugal’s leadership. It is possible that the number of Chinese people will soon exceed the number of Portuguese. (The Chinese businessman) Li Yun’s new shop will compete with a Portuguese-owned business next door. Faced with the unbeatable prices of the Asian giant (between three and five times cheaper), the Portuguese firm has already started to import materials from the East.

The cost of Portugal’s past involvement in Angola’s development has been very clear. What does China’s concern for the country’s future have in store?

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has criticized the funding given by China, saying that Beijing does not care how the money is used. The IMF had offered subsidized loans to Luanda on condition that it allowed effective monitoring of how the money was used and that it reformed its corrupt power system, which benefits a restricted elite and leaves 13 million people in poverty. (from www.asianews.com)

Visão backs up this point:

The conditions that the IMF impose in terms of Macroeconomic policies and the the demands of Western powers in terms of Human Rights are not an ssue for the Chinese. They do business and don’t ask questions. A number of UN Security Coucil resolutions in relation to African countries, particularly to Sudan, “have been blocked by the Chinese”. And Visão has discovered that a European country has recently made a proposal to the Angolan government along the lines of that proposed by the Chinese banks.

Which might well lead us straight back to Portugal.

As I said, China’s motivations are many – including both petrol and global as well as local political influence – and they are the same motivations that have led to deepening relationships not just with other African countries but also with Venezuela, for example.

According to the International Institute of Strategic Studies, Chinese interests are not merely limited to petrol, but also involve the supply of food, acquiring fertile territory in Africa.The principal objective, says Santos Neves of the IISS, “is internal social stability”.

So part of the motivation is, as I say, to provide jobs and stave off potential disquiet from unemployed workers back home:

Chinese engineers work in Africa for around 100 euros a month, as opposed to six hundred paid by French companies to African foremen. This signifies that contracts with China close down job opportunities to Africans and limit their chances to be directly involved in the reconstruction of their countries” (from an Angolan university study quoted by Visão).

This cornering of the labour market comes about because of the scale of China’s investment, and the willingness of exported Chinese peasants to work for less money than the locals. All over Africa concern is being expressed about the commercial dominance and the political influence of the Chinese Goverment – a recent case from Zimbabwe shows what can happen when a little political influence is brought into play:

Robert Mugabe’s authoritarian regime has chosen to consolidate its recent election victory by bulldozing homes and demolishing markets, leaving vast swathes of the capital and other cities in ruins and creating hundreds of thousands of refugees with neither shelter nor livelihood. Locals are calling it the Zimbabwean tsunami.

“This is Pol Pot style depopulation of cities,” said David Coltart, legal affairs spokesman for the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). “It’s a sinister pre-emptive strike designed to remove the maximum possible number of people from urban areas to rural areas where they are easier to control.”

Another suggestion was that the vendors had been cleared out to make way for Chinese traders. China has become Mugabe’s new best friend, supplying commercial and military planes and sending in advisers.

12% of China’s oil comes, astonishingly, from Sudan:

It’s Sudan that’s got the closest links. 60% of its oil exports are now bound for the People’s Republic.

In Darfur, government sponsored militias have driven up to two million people from their homes. Women have been raped, men murdered. But China certainly wasn’t going to support oil sanctions or harsh UN Security Council Resolutions – the resolutions were watered down, so China abstained and didn’t veto.

“We don’t feel any interference in our Sudanese local business, or any of our traditions or politics or beliefs or behaviours. They just devote their time and their energies to their business as we planned for and agreed to.” – Awad Al Jaz, Sudanese energy minister.

The roads the Chinese built to bring in supplies should help the area develop and some people have benefited from electricity extended to their homes. But government attacks forced many more thousands out, as land was cleared of people to make way for oilfields.

The refugees now live in poverty in Khartoum. They have their own perspective on the Chinese.

“Investment is good. It will develop our land, but the most important thing is how we are treated. In the end, the Chinese must go home. This is not their country. Then this will all be ours.” – James Lei (from channel4news.com)

The week following Visão’s report about Portugal’s ‘Return to Angola’, the same magazine published an extensive article about the ‘Chinese Invasion’. It mentioned the growing disquiet among the local population about what is going on:

Despite the good relations between the two countries, in Africa rumours are often taken to be true. It is rumoured that all the Chinese in Luanda have criminal records, that they are to multiply by millions and take jobs from the local population. A recent front-page of the weekly news magazine Folha 8 read ‘Against Development and Employment – the Dangerous Invasion of the Chinese’. (from Visão).

The article ended with a comment from a Portuguese economist, who remarked:

China’s presence in Africa is a long term project.

So, of course, was Portugal’s.

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