Angola: Recovering from State Failure

Campaign Sign for Angola's Jose Eduardo Dos Santos

President Jose Eduardo Dos Santos’ MPLA won another election in 2012, despite protests from the opposition about the conduct of the poll. Photo credit: Oscar Megia (via Flickr, Creative Commons license).

Forbes announced last week that the eldest daughter of Angolan President Jose Eduardo Dos Santos is Africa’s first female billionaire. Though much is unknown about  Isabel Dos Santos’ climb to this elite club, her status is indicative of the opportunities and challenges facing Angola.

For much of its history since independence in 1975, this African state has been wracked by armed conflict, grinding poverty, and bad governance. In short, Angola was a failed state for much of the not-too-distant past.

In the case of this lightly settled, oil-rich country, external factors were exceedingly important in Angola’s decay. The country suffered as the site of a proxy war between the Soviet Union and the United States, and involved other states like Cuba and South Africa. Prior to the Cold War meddling, the Portuguese – like the Belgians elsewhere in Africa – did a poor job preparing the colony for independence.

When the Portuguese left in relative haste, the Angolans initiated a 27-year civil war that also had significant connections with the global geopolitical struggle between Moscow and Washington. These dark decades can be summed up by a long list of depressing words and phrases: refugees, landmines, official thievery, food insecurity, bombed-out bridges, and empty schoolhouses.

After the death of rebel leader Jonas Savimbi in 2002, Angola’s fortunes have begun to improve. First and foremost, Angola has recorded a decade of peace. Economic growth has been impressive, even if concentrated in the export-oriented energy sector. Transportation has improved within the country, helping the country’s many small-scale farmers get their goods to markets. Many refugees have returned from neighboring countries.

Now, back to Africa’s first female billionaire. Here I provide an excerpt from the Forbes story, which includes a pertinent quote from the political scientist Peter Lewis:

How did a 40-year-old woman who started out with just one restaurant come into such a vast fortune? . . . “It’s clear through documented work that the ruling party and the President’s inner circle have a lot of business interests. The source of funds and corporate governance are very murky,” Lewis explained. “The central problem in Angola is the complete lack of transparency. We can’t trace the provenance of these funds.”

Lewis is careful to state that he cannot authoritatively comment on the particulars of Isabel Dos Santos’ wealth. The people who can comment on her wealth, likely do not intend to do so.

Even so, there are indicators that Angola’s ruling party has been somewhat less corrupt in recent years. New investments have flowed into the country. And, Angola has even remade itself as an immigration destination for financial crisis-weary Portuguese.

Yet, there are limits to the gains in governance. According to Freedom House, Angola remains an authoritarian state, despite holding elections. President Dos Santos has led the country since 1979, and looks set to do so for many more. The political opposition remains weak. And given the country’s continued reliance on oil exports (with the heavy involvement of the Chinese state), this is not a good mix for broad-based development. Angola is no longer a failed state, but its foundation for the future is uncertain at best.

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France and State Failure in Mali

On January 11th, France began air strikes in Mali, in an effort to defeat an Islamist insurgency. Cynics can be forgiven for seeing this latest military intervention in Africa as just one more chapter in a long narrative of post-colonial meddling by France in its former colonies. There are indeed some key parallels between the current operation and previous French engagements in places like Chad, Togo, and Central African Republic. This intervention, though, is different in key ways. And, critically, the multi-lateral intervention in Mali could provide some pointers about longer-term efforts to deal with failed states.

During the Cold War, the United States and other Western states largely allowed France to intervene in Africa at will, even in areas outside its former colonial domain. Publicly, France usually justified its efforts as supporting anti-Communist ends. In practice, French commercial and geo-political interests often drove decisions to utilize troops in African countries. Remember, France has long maintained military bases in places like Dakar, N’Djamena, Libreville, and Djibouti, though that military footprint has shrunk in size in the post-Cold War era.

So, has France simply replaced Cold War aims with global counter-terrorism, in its justification of African interventions? There is some truth to this assertion, but France no longer has the interest or the resources to sustain unilateral adventures in Africa.

In the current operation in Mali, it is quite telling that France seems content to let neighboring West African states supply ground forces to support the beleaguered Malian government. The ECOWAS ground forces do not yet seem to be ready, but the regional organization does have a history marked with some successes in security affairs.

In addition, France’s air strikes are supported – at least in broad terms – by a December 2012 United Nations Security Council resolution. Russia, China, and the entire Security Council do not want to see gains by the Malian Islamists. So, even if not all states agree on the timing of France’s move, there would appear to be broad consensus in support of a coalition to defeat the Islamists.

In terms of the longer-term effort to address state failure, neither the French public nor others should believe that a few weeks of air strikes will be enough to deal with the root causes of ineffective governance in critically weak states. Indeed, Mali’s current turmoil is partly the result of imported fighters and weapons from Algeria and Libya. The international community will need to do a much better job of addressing “regional conflict formations,” an issue that I address in my recently released book.