Nick Branson praises Ricardo Soares de Oliveira’s Magnificent and Beggar Land: Angola since the Civil War as “perhaps the finest account of contemporary Angola available in English”.
This is the second monograph by Oxford lecturer in African politics, Ricardo Soares de Oliveira, but his first dedicated exclusively to Angola. Published forty years after the start of the civil war, and drawing on a decade of fieldwork, Magnificent and Beggar Land paints a vivid account of the victors in the conflict, the MPLA, and “the political and economic order they have sought to build”.
Soares de Oliveira traces the origins of Angola’s ruling elite back to the colonial era. Urban, mixed-race and culturally distinct ‘Creoles’ were granted assimilado status by the Portuguese; placing them in a position to seize power upon the departure of their colonial masters. The author does not dwell on the complexities of the civil war which followed, but rather illustrates how President José Eduardo dos Santos (JES) established a system of parallel structures to govern territory under MPLA control. The legacy of this system endures with both the defence forces and the national oil company (NOC), Sonangol, still reporting directly to the president.
The conclusion of the war provided MPLA elites with the means and opportunity to “diversify foreign relations, maximize the external resources at the service of its reconstruction agenda, and distance itself from foreign pressures over the sort of Angola it should seek to rebuild.” China played a crucial role in extending credit lines to finance infrastructure projects in return for oil; but Soares de Oliveira dedicates equal attention to the global professional service firms supporting “islands of excellence” in Angola’s economy. The involvement of such outsiders is, however, “premised on non-negotiable financial rewards to members of the elite who are unavoidable partners in expatriate entrepreneurial activities.”
Soares de Oliveira stresses the “visceral belief” of the victors in their legitimacy to transform Angola, but notes that their vision of “modernity is intrinsically coastal and urban”, with elites seeking to emulate Dubai and Brazil. This has led to the demolition of Luanda’s musseques, or slums, “often without warning” and the construction of new housing settlements in Panguila and Kilamba. Such signature projects are symptomatic of the ruling party’s rush to erect symbols of development, but reveal a failure to consider the needs of Angolans. Again historical context is revealing; the MPLA has a “long mimetic tradition of absorbing anything that claims to be modern and rhetorically converging with prevalent ideas of progress”.
Aside from such lucid prose, what sets this book apart is the level of access which the author has enjoyed within the upper echelons of the MPLA. These provide insights into elite accumulation strategies which Soares de Oliveira terms “capitalism with Angolan characteristics”. JES and his acolytes have cultivated “a system of privileged access to spoils, with the identity of the beneficiaries defined through an exclusionary micro-logic, whether political, familial, or identity-based.” Yet, this is not merely crude clientelism at play; the MPLA views its control over the distribution of oil rents as a means to foster the emergence of “a loyal and dependent state class”. The Creole elites’ lack of interest in poverty alleviation is traced back to the war years when the MPLA passed on responsibility for welfare to churches, NGOs and the UN system.
Magnificent and Beggar Land is perhaps the finest account of contemporary Angola available in English. Academic jargon has been largely eschewed to attract a wider audience; yet, curious postgraduates will find impeccably referenced footnotes and a sprawling bibliography. Rather than leaf to the back, however, readers are more likely to remain enthralled by the author’s astute observations and transfixed by his flawless turn of phrase.
It is difficult to find fault with the text, but this reviewer would have appreciated a greater focus on what Sonangol could do to diversify the Angolan economy, were the NOC not used primarily for “regime consolidation and the advancement of elite interests”. This is of critical import given the threat which current Brent crude prices pose to the exchequer. If JES and his “medieval court” at the Futungo are not considering this issue, then like the Potemkin housing projects, Angola’s meteoric recovery risks being a mirage.
Nick Branson is Senior Researcher at Africa Research Institute
The views expressed in this post are those of the authors and in no way reflect those of the Africa at LSE blog or the London School of Economics and Political Science.