06 Jul 2010

Working with Angola could greatly boost regional development

Written by  Elizabeth Otitodun

No. 142: Working with Angola could greatly boost regional development / Elizabeth Otitodun / Cape Times

The first state visit of South African President Jacob Zuma last August was to oil-rich Angola: South Africa's second largest trading partner in Africa. Often, when peace breaks out, the headlines disappear. No news is good news. By this measure of a stable and prosperous country, Angola would appear to be flourishing.

Latest reports from Angola rarely make the front pages, which generally seems to indicate that the everyday — even slightly boring — business of nation-building is making progress: crude oil exports in August are up; political parties appear to agree that the registration of new voters is going smoothly; state newspapers are being called to account by the national media watchdog; a new operating theatre for surgeons is being added at a children's hospital in Luanda.

And the good news is not isolated to Angola, where civil war ended in 2002. The past decade has also seen major wars coming to an end in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (2003), Liberia (2003), Sierra Leone (2000) and Burundi (2000). Although low-intensity conflicts and political instability still persist in many African countries, the sharp decline in bloody conflicts across the region has coincided with the continent experiencing, for the first time in 30 years, economic growth that has kept pace with that in the rest of the world. In 2007, African economies grew on average by an impressive 6.7 percent. The year also saw Angola and Sudan — previously the sites of Africa's longest running civil wars — featured among the continent's 10 largest economies.

However, behind the headlines lurk some enormous post-conflict challenges. Few quick-fix solutions exist to the complex realities confronting Africa, particularly in the many African countries that are implementing peace agreements signed during the past decade.

Post-war reconstruction efforts at present under way have generally produced mixed results. In the case of Angola, the government's successes have tended to come on the infrastructural and economic fronts. De-mining has been made a priority (crucial in a country where 85 percent of the population live by subsistence farming, toiling on the land). Much of the nation's physical infrastructure, damaged by over 40 years of civil war, is also being rehabilitated. Furthermore, the country has recently experienced something of an economic miracle — largely due to the massive revenues generated by Angola overtaking Nigeria to become Africa's largest oil producer. Now the continent's fastest growing economy, Angola has recorded an annual growth rate of 19 percent since 2000, though from a low war-affected base. Chinese investment — generated by sales to the Middle Kingdom of much of Angola's oil — has played a significant role. As Angola's largest investor, China has been involved in the construction and financing of more than 100 projects in the areas of water, energy, health, education, telecommunications, fisheries and public works.

Important successes have also been scored in the area of education, where primary school enrolment has risen significantly, and in the hard work of redressing some of the monumental human costs of protracted civil war — during its first three-and-a-half years of peace, the Angolan government managed to resettle an estimated four million displaced persons, and to reintegrate almost half a million refugees and about 100 000 ex-combatants into Angolan society. However, notwithstanding the great strides that have been made, credible improvements in the areas of "good governance", basic service delivery, and a more even distribution of the benefits of the country's oil wealth are vital in order to deliver the significant peace dividends that the majority of the Angolan population seek. China's huge involvement in the economy, in particular, needs to be interrogated to assess its true benefits and drawbacks. In addition, priority should be given to political efforts to find a sustainable answer to the discontent of movements such as the Front for the Liberation of the Enclave of Cabinda, which made headlines of the worst kind with their attack on the Togolese soccer team in oil-rich Cabinda just before the African Cup of Nations tournament in January.

While every post-conflict country is different, they share common challenges, particularly a tendency to relapse into violence. Some research has shown that up to 50 percent of post-conflict countries return to civil war within five to 10 years of signing a peace deal. The United Nations Development Programme highlighted the risks in a 2008 report. Common characteristics of post-war nations recorded by the report included: general insecurity and violence; armed groups contesting the legitimacy of the new government; widespread inter-group attacks; massive destruction of infrastructure and institutions; war (or warlord) economies; de-skilling of the population; collapsed labour markets; and militarised international intervention.

Given these challenges, it is noteworthy that in the early post-war period after the end of the conflict in 2002, after the death of rebel leader, Jonas Savimbi, the Angolan government managed, despite a lack of international funding and overseas development assistance, to finance most of t the country's reconstruction and re-launching of the national economy. Other African countries in post-conflict situations could learn much from Angola's homegrown post-conflict reconstruction strategies.

However, if African leaders — in Angola and other post-conflict countries — really wish to avoid the big headlines that war brings and remain comfortably on the inside pages of the world's leading financial journals, they need to make it a political priority to drive the movement towards peace and development on the continent, delivering the peace dividends that their populations at large expect and deserve. If South Africa is able to establish a strategic partnership with a mineral-rich and peaceful Angola, this could greatly accelerate regional integration and development in Southern Africa.

Otitodun is a researcher at the Centre for Conflict Resolution, Cape Town.

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