Why you should care

Angola’s got oil and heaps of other natural resources. And while it’s no model democracy, it’s signaling that it’s willing to play ball with the United States and Europe on some key shared interests.

When John Kerry touches down in Angola this coming week, the U.S. secretary of state had better make sure he has more than just spare change in his pocket.

A few 20- or even 50-spots would help if he wants to grab a bite to eat in Luanda, Angola’s capital along the Atlantic Ocean, which once again outranked Tokyo, London and even Moscow as the world’s most expensive city in 2013.

It’s just one of many ways that Angola’s immense oil wealth has transformed this vast Central African country of 20 million, rocketing it from war-torn backwater to one of Africa’s foremost economies in less than a decade — and sparking a rush of energy executives to the capital city, driving up costs, creating snarls of traffic and generally putting a strain on the crumbling infrastructure. Hence, the $10 cup of coffee and $400-plus standard hotel room.

  • Angola averaged 1.8 million barrels of oil per day in 2012, the second-highest in sub-Saharan Africa.
  • Oil accounted for 80% of government revenue, 90% of exports and 47% of GDP.
  • In 2013, Angola ranked 148 out of 187 countries in the U.N.’s Human Development Index.

Now longtime President José Eduardo dos Santos — in power since 1979 — is moving to translate that economic heft into broader influence. He and his government have increasingly been weighing in on regional and international disputes. And they are starting to shake off their legacy as a Cold War battlefront, forging tentative new ties with the West.

Man counting many bills with calculator in background

A worker counts 500-denomination kwanza currency banknotes in an office in Luanda, Angola, on Nov. 8, 2013.

Source Simon Dawson/Bloomberg/Getty

That ambition is evident in Angola’s growing military budget, which has leapt 175 percent since 2004, surpassing South Africa last year to become the largest spender in sub-Saharan Africa, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). What are they buying? The government won’t tell you, but Portugese news outlets last October reported a $1 billion Russian arms deal that included Sukhoi jets and transport helicopters, notes SIPRI’s Military Expenditure Programme Director Sam Perlo-Freeman.

Ambition is evident as well in dos Santos’ recent swing through Paris and Rome to woo investors –— dubbed “a diplomatic charm offensive” in the European press — after giving France the cold shoulder for years following an arms sales corruption scandal in the late 1990s. Dos Santos is expected in the U.K. soon.

Also catching the West’s eye: Angola’s influence in South, Central and West Africa, where it’s had a hand in recent events in the Ivory Coast and Guinea-Bissau. It’s reached a détente with longtime nemesis South Africa, whose apartheid-era government took sides in the civil war. And it’s now helping to mediate — with unexpected success — the long-running conflict in the neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), thanks to some arm-twisting from dos Santos himself.

The U.S. State Department, referring to the Congo conflict, singled out ”Angola’s leadership of the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region,” and said the secretary of state plans to encourage dos Santos’ ”continued personal engagement in the Great Lakes peace process.” Kerry’s visit to Luanda is the last stop on a trip that includes an appearance at the U.S.-African Union dialogue in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and a visit to the DRC capital of Kinshasa.

Angola’s ties with America’s rivals Russia and China run deep.

Don’t expect the Kerry-dos Santos tête-à-tête to turn into a lovefest, however.

Angola’s ties with America’s rivals Russia and China run deep. Twelve years after Angola’s 27-year civil war ended, leaders of the ruling MPLA party haven’t forgotten that the U.S. backed their enemies in the war, the UNITA faction that is now the country’s main opposition party. Luanda largely spurned post-conflict assistance from the West in favor of no-strings-attached aid and investment from China. In recent days, MPLA politicians and government-affiliated media defended their old allies in Moscow over Ukraine.

3 people blurry in foreground with buildings in background under construction

Construction cranes operate among new skyscrapers being built in the business district of Luanda, Angola, on Nov. 9, 2013

Source Simon Dawson/Bloomberg/Getty

Angola’s abysmal record on human rights and corruption also doesn’t help.

The connection between Washington and Luanda ”is very tenuous; it is really … limited to whatever economic relation is there,” says Domingos Jardo Muekalia, a former spokesperson for UNITA who now lives in the Washington, D.C., area. ”The U.S. is basically the U.S. oil companies in there. At the political level, it’s been stop-and-go.”

Angola has a robust, well-funded military, a legacy in part from the civil war and the effort since then to keep former fighters on the payroll and out of trouble. The U.S. and Europe would love to use that military by having Angola send peacekeeping forces to current crisis zones like the Central African Republic (CAR) and South Sudan, which remain woefully undermanned.

Angola has the capability, agrees Muekalia, and it would fit with the ”desire to be the regional, the global, the continental power.” But he says dos Santos is uneasy about putting Angolan troops under foreign direction.

Angola has more than 100 million acres of arable land up for development, after clearing thousands of civil-war-era land mines.

Indeed, Foreign Minister Georges Chikoti told the French press that Angola is aiding CAR financially, but has no plans to send troops.

Angola has a wish list for the West, too — mainly for the economy.

The MPLA and its cronies have benefited mightily from the oil-fueled economic boom, with GDP growth topping out at 23 percent before the financial crisis in 2007. And they’ve taken some IMF-sanctioned steps to improve economic management and reinvest in infrastructure and education projects. But the impact of plunging oil prices during the downturn seems to have driven home the virtues of economic diversification.

So in Paris, dos Santos was hawking his country as a prime destination for trade and investment in agriculture, infrastructure and energy. Angola has more than 100 million acres of arable land up for development, after clearing thousands of civil-war-era land mines. And even with the oil production, blackouts are frequent and the government subsidizes electricity costs, encouraging overuse.

Will he come to Washington and make the same pitch in August, when President Obama is hosting his much-hyped U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit?

That would be the clearest sign yet that Angola is ready to play nice with the West.

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