- Rebels and Robbers: Violence in Post-colonial Angola, and: Angola: The Weight of History
Angola recently surpassed Nigeria as the largest African supplier of oil to the U.S. That is reason enough to take a closer look at what makes Angola tick.
Nigerian oil production has been seriously affected by political violence and unrest in oil-producing areas, the result both of the localized environmental costs of oil production and of poor governance on a national scale. Will Angola prove to be a more stable and reliable producer? Will it avoid the “resource curse” that plagues so many oil producers and stymies sustainable and broad-based development? Do the country’s first multiparty elections in sixteen years, held in September 2008, herald a move toward more accountable governance in the wake of nearly continuous internal strife over the last forty years?
Neither of these books set out to address these questions directly, but both provide a solid basis for understanding why the answer to the last two questions is likely to be “no” and the answer to the first may be a qualified “yes.” Assis Malaquias, the author of Rebels and Robbers: Violence in Post-colonial [End Page 189] Angola, and the contributors to the edited volume, Angola: The Weight of History, are agreed on the fundamentals, and they provide ample support for that shared vision. The argument boils down to this: decades of internecine conflict, fueled in part by the Cold War, have combined with vast natural resource wealth in Angola to produce a consolidated patrimonial state that is likely to last a very long time.
The volume by Chabal and Vidal traces the roots of the Angolan state to its precolonial and colonial history, although in his introduction Patrick Chabal sets out to convince readers that Angola is not a unique case, explained by its history, war, and wealth; instead it is another example of the patrimonial politics that pervade the region and persist across different regime types. The authors successfully make the case for Angola as a patrimonial state. But it is also clear that the interaction of war and oil make that label particularly relevant.
According to Malyn Newitt, “Modern Angola is a child of its own history. The political traditions of its leaders, their relation to the population and their attitude to wealth accumulation are all rooted in five hundred years of historical development” (19). Decolonization set the stage for a civil war that in the long run permitted the establishment of a seemingly unassailable patrimonial state. As depicted by the late Christine Messiant, the rulers of the Angolan state skillfully adapted clientelistic politics, even as the state ostensibly underwent regime change from a “socialist” partystate to a capitalist multiparty democracy beginning in 1991. By then, she notes, war and economic turmoil had so polarized politics that there was no chance that any sort of politically relevant civil society could emerge to check the excesses of the state. Besides, the state ably used its monopoly of economic resources to manipulate the opposition and resist external pressure for greater openness. Messiant’s chapter is characteristically compelling and sobering.
Nuno Vidal offers a complementary account of the state that focuses on the period 1992–2002—from the reignition of the war to its end with the death of UNITA leader Jonas Savimbi and the full integration of UNITA into political life. Like Messiant, Vidal is unmoved by the notion that Angola is an emerging democracy; instead he offers a detailed and penetrating account of clientelism and control by Angola’s rulers, including a nuanced discussion of the shifting role of the ruling party over time. Under Agostinho Neto, the MPLA was threatened by the coup attempt of Nito Alves in 1977, reconfigured itself for greater social control in the wake of that threat, and finally became a tool of a small handful of advisers...