Last week I was in Luanda, Angola, under the auspicious invitation of the Africa Innovation Foundation (AIF).
The Angolan government, through their Sovereign Fund, had requested them to help develop some social impact projects around Information and Communications Technology (ICT). It was my first visit to Angola, and it turned out to be eventful.
Accompanied by economist Miriam Omolo of the Institute of Economic Affairs, we were to share Kenya’s successful experiences on the role of ICT in economic development with a group of young people.
We travelled on Sunday to start our workshop on Monday morning, and our Kenya Airways flight arrived in Luanda at about 1pm.
At just about the same time, an Ethiopian Airlines plane arrived. At the arrival lounge, I would say, were some 200 passengers from the two planes, with three-quarters being of Chinese descent.
We were two Kenyans, with a handful of other African nationalities. The others were Europeans.
At the immigration desk, the officers looked keenly at the Kenyan passports and decided to pull us aside. We were now three, having been joined by a Kenyan businessman, Charles Gitau.
A few hours later and without any explanation, we were moved into some very cold room and later told we are being taken to a hotel.
Little did we know we were being detained for the next 28 hours at an immigration refugee centre. The reason? Our visa details from the Angolan Embassy in Nairobi had not yet reached Luanda. Mind you, this was the fifth day since we received the visas.
At the sight of many other refugees gasping for air from windows with solid steel bars in this humid coastal city, we realised we were in trouble and refused to get into any room until the Kenyan Ambassador to Angola, Kaunda Maikara, was informed.
As I protested, Miriam was talking to those in the cells. The detainees were a motley of different nationalities, including some Kenyan Somalis who had been detained for two weeks.
We met Carlos, our host, for the first time. He, too, was frantically trying to free us but was told nothing could be done since it was Sunday. The interventions by the Kenyan ambassador fell on deaf ears.
It was getting late and the policemen wanted to change their shift but could not do so until they locked us in.
Our refusal to be incarcerated infuriated them so much that they called in armed policemen to intimidate us into submission.
With their AK-47s at the ready, they had decided to forcefully move us into the detention rooms and the problem was how to deal with a foreign ambassador. Eventually we caved in and accepted.
We decided to boycott their food until they told us why we had been detained. By mid-morning, a team from the Kenyan Embassy had come to visit us.
They were welcomed with a protest from the immigration officials regarding our hunger strike, something that bothered the officials.
By this time they had changed the reason for arresting us. Now they said we used a wrong-colour pen when we applied for the visas.
“Go back and use black pen, not blue,” said the officer. I said, “Great, take us back to the airport and we’ll go back to Kenya and reapply for the visa exactly as you need it”. Then he said, “No, no, nobody leave here.”
They chased away the embassy officials. Once again, we refused to eat lunch. This worked wonders. “Eat food, eat food,” the officers ordered. They were now visibly in panic mode.
Charles, who’d been looking strong and telling us stories weakened, and said, "A time like this, you do nothing but pray". He became quite religious, and after a few moments of prayer decided to have his food.
Miriam and I were still holding on but after a few bites, Charles was not eager about breaking our promise. This after he’d drunk all the water.
Late into the evening, and just as they detained us, they opened the doors, drove us back into the arrival lounge and released us. No explanation and no apologies.
After a quick dinner we started to sample Luanda, the capital city of Angola, with seven million inhabitants. The city exemplifies the dichotomy of development in a country rich in resources yet with so many poor people.
You will not understand the two worlds of Angola until you read Professor Ricardo Soares de Oliveira’s work, Magnificent and Beggar Land: Angola Since the Civil Warthat takes you through difficult periods of war in Angola, through to a post-war period, when the country became the epitome of the “Africa Rising” narrative, with a double-digit growth rate.
DISLIKE OF FOREIGNERS
As noted in this review, Soares de Oliveira noted that the ruling Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola (MPLA) party and President José Eduardo dos Santos forged a stable and peaceful Angola by consolidating the country’s vast oil wealth and redistributing it to a small subset of important party elders, generals, and business leaders.
The chief benefactor of this “parallel system” within the state was, and continues to be, dos Santos, in power since 1979, who has gained notoriety as the richest man in Angola and perhaps Africa.
The London Review of Books gives a snapshot of Soares de Oliveira’s thoughts in the book. The review noted that
“He acknowledges the country’s right to lead the field in the media-chic ‘Africa rising’ narrative – plentiful resources, prodigal inward investment, dynamic barter with the Chinese – but its social disarray and its vast inequality trouble him deeply. He thinks that the best Angolans can hope for, living in the shadow of Ozymandian public-private projects and a glittering oligarchy, is to position themselves in the path of government handouts.
Angola replicates “the distributional clientelism of petro-states” – Saudi Arabia, Venezuela or Iran – “which provide large, but not overly large, segments of their populations with some disbursements.”
He envisages ethnic and race anger, a growing dislike of foreigners, even the emergence of a Chávez lookalike to challenge the postwar order. … He is far too sane to wish another major upheaval on a country that has spent more than half its life since independence mired in conflict. Even so, he can’t imagine the Angolan poor, or for that matter educated dissidents, getting anywhere without a fight.’
Anyone who visits Angola and drives through the wealthy Talatona area then to Palanca and to the poorest of the poor in Cazenga, as we did, will concur with Soares de Oliveira.
Change is slowly coming from the young people. Our workshop on Tuesday revealed young people wanting to positively change their country.
FOREIGN CURRENCY RESTRICTIONS
Unlike the pervasive narrative that Angolans don’t like foreigners, they are friendly, bright and focused on a greater African dream of increased intra-Africa trade, better communication within Africa and prosperity of the continent.
In the face of systemic corruption and inefficiency that saw us detained, they brightened our visit so much that we can now positively talk about the country.
In Palanca, a young Nigerian, Kamal D’ Nigel, with the assistance of AIF, is setting up more than 5,000 square metres of a maker-space and incubation facility to help young people become entrepreneurs.
Many of the neighbourhood youth are learning fashion design, metal works, carpentry, software development and agricultural value addition.
Falling oil prices have hurt the economy to the extent that this country, which imports virtually everything, is imposing strict foreign currency restrictions.
As a result, Angolans are now thinking about how to diversify the economy. With a population of 25 million and per capita income approaching $6,000, about five times that of Kenya, the country could easily weather fluctuations in oil prices if it diversified into other sectors like tourism and agriculture.
COMFORT OF EXPATRIATES
In agriculture, Chinese immigrants have taken up the sparsely populated southern provinces of Cunene, Huila and Cuando Cubango to set up large-scale farming.
Tourism will probably take some time to take off. Angolans must first deal with their people’s mindset that the state will provide, and as such, may not need outsiders to visit their beautiful country.
Shifting their mindset from oil and focusing on increasing bed capacity for tourism will perhaps lower the current artificially high cost of staying in Angola. At the height of the oil boom corporates paid excessively for the comfort of expatriates.
Rent in a high-end home costs in excess of $20,000 per month, and rooms in luxury hotels cost in excess of $2,000 per night. All these must change to make tourism possible in Angola.
Angola is magnificent and her people, despite a few rotten apples, are well-meaning people. Global dynamics dictate that no one is an island. You need others to succeed, and so you need to treat everyone equally, without discrimination.
The same principle must be in place to guarantee Angola peace in days to come.
Dealing with income inequalities now, rather than later, will improve the future of the beautiful and vibrant people of Angola.
The writer is an associate professor at University of Nairobi’s School of Business. Twitter: @bantigito