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What In The World
What in the World? RTÉ One, Thursday, 11.05pm

Programme 4


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It may be counter-intuitive to suggest that countries with the most natural resources are among the poorest in the planet. But that is and has been Angola's experience since oil was found off its coast over 30 years ago. And in that respect Angola is not alone. In 1970, just before the oil boom in Nigeria 19 million Nigerians lived below the poverty line. Now nearly $400 billion later 90 million or more Nigerians live below the poverty line.

Oil is currently being pumped out of the waters off the Atlantic coast at a rate of 1.3m barrels a day generating a whopping $10 billion income for the country. Despite that enormous reservoir of wealth, Angola is ranked as the 15th poorest country in the world where few people live beyond the age of 40 and where nearly half the children under five years suffer from malnutrition. Its capital city Luanda originally built for a quarter of a million now holds four million people, most of whom live in desperate squalor.

But poverty and misery are never random. For centuries Angola's wealth has been plundered by outside forces.  First Portugal took what it could before it fled in 1975 and then Angola became the Cold War's hottest battle site in all of Africa. The Soviet Union, Cuba, the United States and South Africa were all scrambling for their piece of the action in Angola. And when the Cold War warriors came, they did not come empty-handed.  Cuba arrived with 50,000 soldiers; the US and the Soviet sent weapons of war. Nobody knows for sure how many South Africans were operating in Angola. Their arrival marked the unraveling of a nation in what the United Nations described at the time as the world's worst war. The war threw up one of the greatest of all war-time ironies. Communist Cuba defended US oil facilities, the revenue from which allowed Angola purchase Soviet weapons to fight a US-backed militia.

Once the Cold War ended in 1990, Russia, the United States, Cuba and South Africa lost interest in Angola and drifted away. The civil war continued for another decade when eventually the spoils of victory went to the MPLA.  The old Soviet inspired Marxist Leninists clung on to power and quickly re-invented themselves as the friend of capitalism. A tiny elite from the MPLA led by current president Eduardo dos Santos made a successful grab for power and the country's wealth. A former Soviet educated engineer, dos Santos took office in 1979 and has remained in place since then. He and an estimated 100 families are now regarded as the sole beneficiaries of the country's enormous wealth.  They and the predatory foreigners that have come to leech off Angola. While Angola retains the trappings of democracy in reality those trappings are little more than a facade.

Between 1997 and 2002, the oil industry generated almost $18 billion. According to a Human Rights Watch report an estimated $4.2 billion went unaccounted for - an average $700 million a year or 10% of gross domestic product. A state secrecy act passed in 2002 classified all financial, monetary, economic and commercial interests of the state as secret. When the International Monetary Fund queried the missing money, the government replied that they couldn't provide any information because of confidentiality agreements with the oil companies. That secrecy has been reinforced with the arrival of the Chinese.

This documentary tells of the shocking and distressing reality of oil-rich Angola, a 21st century Dickensian world of ramshackle corrugated iron houses and open sewers. Those who believe that oil can rescue Africa from grinding poverty can find no solace in Angola's experience. Far from it. It has proved itself to be poisonous not only of the physical environment but of the politics and morality of a continent as well.


Isabel Zuieca with Peadar King
Isabel Zuieca with Peadar King
Antonio Raul
Antonio Raul