The realignments of Angola foreign policy
1-Introduction. Angola’s geopolitical repositioning
At the moment, when we finish this report, the President of the Republic of Angola is in Paris with the President of the French Republic. This meeting represents one of the points in the ongoing realignment of Angola’s foreign policy. One has only to remember that in the last days of José Eduardo dos Santos, the French were “punished” due to their role in Angolagate.
Angola is not an indifferent country. It has played a geopolitically relevant role throughout its short but intense history after independence. First, it was one of the violent stages of the Cold War, where Americans and Soviets clashed with the virulence that they could not adopt in other geographic locations. Angola ended up being a Soviet bastion of great nomination, where they in reality won when in confrontation with the United States. After the Soviet phase, Angola was once again innovative and became the first African country to receive the new China that opened up to the world and sought in Africa a continent for its expansion and testing of its ideas. Angola has become a partner par excellence of China.
Obviously, this being a simplification, from the point of view of the major trends, the geopolitical position of Angola started to be aligned with the Soviet Union and after its fall, with China. Not being a country that is enraged anti-Western, very far from that, because Angola has a profound influence of European culture, the country has anchored itself in other places over time.
For several reasons, at this moment, Angola is rehearsing a different geopolitical approach that tends to devalue the role of both Russia and China, and to find new references and political dialogues. This text will focus on this devaluation, the new vectors that influence the Angolan repositioning, the countries that will now play a more relevant role in Angola’s external concerns, in addition to a short note on Portugal. Angola’s influence in southern Africa and its stabilizing role in Congos will not be addressed.
2-The decline of the Angolan relationship with Russia and China
The decline in the Soviet (now Russian) relationship with Angola is easy to describe. The Soviet Union’s commitment to Angola was part of a long-term strategy for the involvement of the North Atlantic through the countries of the South. The incursion into Africa that was accelerated by the “loss” of influence in the Middle East in the 1970s due to the cut promoted by Sadat from Egypt and by the Kissinger’s full exploitation. Suddenly, the Soviet Union found itself without one of the main supports it had in the Middle East and from where it hoped to condition the Americans. What is certain is that this situation led to a deepening of several alternatives, among which Angola later stood out. Naturally, the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the end of the Cold War, with the consequent disintegration of the Soviet Union, meant that Russian interest in Africa waned considerably. The Russia that emerged after Gorbachev’s collapse was no longer interested in any global competition with the United States, but in its survival and transformation. He quickly lost interest in Angola.
It is true that at the present time, Putin has recovered some of the imperial dynamics and is looking for some influence in Africa, but it is still of short reach and has resulted in the sending of mercenaries from the Wagner group, which have had little efficiency, namely in Mozambique. In Angola, there is no significant behaviour by Russia, especially as an essential and determining partner. There are obviously contacts and relationships. There is a lot of talk about the Russian influence on Isabel dos Santos, who might be a citizen of that country, but the fact is that there are no visible Russian investments or ties with Luanda with obvious relevance. In 2019, Russian investments in Angola of 9 billion euros were announced, but there is no known sequence of that. In addition, Angola’s external public debt to Russia is zero according to data from the National Bank of Angola (BNA), having been fully settled by 2019.
It is more difficult to wind up the declining relationship with China. In fact, Chinese investment in Angola has been growing, at least until 2020, and the Angolan external public debt vis-à-vis China in 2020 represented US $ 22 billion, equivalent to more than 40% of the total. The Chinese implantation in Angola is profound, suffice to mention in sociological terms the relevance of the City of China.
However, there is evidence that the Chinese preference is decreasing, or at least, being mitigated. The first indication refers to the negotiations for a new loan that took João Lourenço to China at the beginning of his term. The first information for the press reported large amounts to be made available by China, of around 11 billion dollars. The reality is that there were several procrastinations on that loan, which apparently ended up involving a reduced amount of US $ 2 billion that might have suited to make payments of Angolan debt to Chinese companies.
What is certain is that if we observe the evolution of the Angolan public external debt to China, we will see that there was a remarkable leap between 2015 and 2016, from about US $ 11.7 billion to US $ 21.6 billion, which the debt reached the peak in 2017, 23 billion dollars and that since then has been decreasing with a significant cadence. It seems that China does not want to be involved with Angola any more, preferring to go on managing the current involvement.
If on the part of China it is possible to glimpse some recalcitrance in the relationship with Angola, on the Angolan side there are also obstacles. The first of them is the nature of the Angolan debt to China. Many claim that a good part of this debt is what is called “odious debt”, that is, it served to benefit corrupt private interests and not the country’s development. There is the impression that the opacity with which doing business with China has allowed the creation of situations of corruption that are too evident and harmful to the country. Thus, China’s debt is partly seen as a debt of corruption. In addition, quality problems have arisen in some Chinese buildings in Angola financed by Chinese debt. It is not clear whether this lack of quality is due to any Chinese negligence or objectionable behaviour on the part of Angolan officials, but it is certain that the image persists.
This means that since China is still a key partner for Angola, it is currently in a kind of reassessment phase. It is necessary to resolve the problem of the debt of the past linked to corruption, of the way of contracting too opaque on the part of China and also issues related to quality. It is a demanding task, but required to reactivate the Chinese and Angolan common interest.
If the relationship with Russia does not have the relevance of the past and with China is in a phase of reevaluation and reconditioning, it is clear that Angola, above all, given the changes as it passes, will have to actively seek new partners.
3-The new vectors of Angolan action: goals and countries
The Angolan relationship with Russia and China concurred with the need to assert its own sovereignty, independent of external interference, and also to obtain funds for war and post-war reconstruction. João Lourenço’s current foreign policy is placed at a slightly different level, in which it is important to gather external support for the two major reforms that are being carried out internally: economic reform and the fight against corruption. Both reforms need external collaboration, without which they may not survive.
Economic reform is based on the so-called Washington consensus proposed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), although international intellectuals and bureaucrats have already abandoned this designation and refuse it. Even so, it implies the adoption of policies to raise taxes and restrict expenditure with the respective fiscal consolidation. Naturally, this type of policy is recessive, in the short term, it increases the economic crisis in Angola. The great way to overcome this effect is to obtain foreign investment and a lot. In fact, says the theory followed, that with these disciplinary reforms of the IMF, foreign investors start to trust the governments that follow them and feel safe to invest. In short, foreign investment is the necessary counterweight to the IMF reforms and the key to their success. Consequently, it is not surprising that one of the main vectors of Angolan foreign policy is the approach to countries with a remarkable reproductive investment capacity and with proven evidence.
In what concerns the fight against corruption, the panorama that is presented is that, in general, it is the countries with the potential to invest in Angola, those in which judicial collaboration is required to recover assets or trace illegal financial movements. The Angolan oligarchies that diverted public funds sent them to the most advanced countries or those with the greatest financial potential.
Therefore, there is a group of countries that currently are of great interest to Angola: they are those with an efficient investment capacity and with a financial system through which many of the illicit movements of Angolan funds have passed, as well as where assets bought, possibly with these funds. At the moment, neither China nor Russia are countries where more investment is expected, nor were the places chosen, apparently, to park illicit goods or assets. Or if they were, there is no knowledge of what is going on there and it is sheltered.
It is in this context that a number of countries have assumed relevance. A first group is the Western Europe countries that have stood out in visits and announcements of investments in Angola. At the beginning of April 2021, the Prime Minister of Spain, Pedro Sanchez, paid a visit to Angola. This visit was accompanied by a great Spanish commitment, affirming Angola as one of Spain’s preferred partners in Africa, and this as a great Spanish bet. It was announced that Angola was the “prow” of a project in Madrid that he called “Focus Africa 2023.” Last year, it was the turn of German Chancellor Angela Merkel to visit Angola within the framework of an Angola-Germany Economic Forum and more broadly of a German Marshall Plan for Africa. Also, President Macron announced a visit to Angola, which has been postponed due to Covid-19. In turn, the Italian President had already visited Angola in 2019. In relation to the United Kingdom, there have been no visits of such high level, but some interest in Angola is beginning to be noticed due to the impositions of Brexit, which they demand new markets for the UK, although there is a huge lack of knowledge.
Visits have followed several promises of investment from Western Europe. The Italian oil company (ENI) plans to invest seven billion dollars (5.9 billion euros) over the next four years in research, production, refining and solar energy, it announced in early April 2021. Before, British businessmen said they intend to invest around US $ 20 billion in Angola. Germany and France also have several projects underway.
This axis of Western Europe has become vital in Angolan foreign policy, as these countries need new markets and investments, to get out of excessive dependence on China, and in the British case, also to look for post-Brexit alternatives, and being mature markets, they have to find out where the youth and the future is, and that is in Africa.
With João Lourenço able to convey the image that governs a competent government and with stable macroeconomic rules and turned to the free market, Spanish, French, British, Italian or German investors will feel safe to invest. At the same time, many of the fortunes out of Angola lay there, so there will be an opportunity to create mechanisms for their recovery or redirection.
It should be noted that, contrary to what one might think, this Westernization of Lourenço’s foreign policy does not pass through Portugal, but indicates a direct approach between European countries and Angola and vice versa.
To this Western European axis it is necessary to add another one, the Gulf axis. The Gulf countries, in which the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia stand out. These countries, previously dependent on oil, have entered into a diversification policy. Dubai for some years now and with tremendous success. Saudi Arabia is still taking its first steps, with the so-called Vision 2030, but what is certain is that they want to invest outside their traditional scope and find new markets. In fact, Dubai already has several investments in Luanda and one of its companies has now taken over the Port of Luanda and in Saudi Arabia, Luanda has now opened an Embassy, which reveals its interest in the kingdom. On the other hand, we know, Dubai is a quite important international financial center and where several Angolan financial movements have gone through, as well as being used in tax evasion schemes in the diamond trade. Allegedly, contrary to what has been its practice, Dubai will be collaborating with requests for Angolan legal aid, representing a typical example of the new geopolitical axis that we are describing, countries with potential for investment and judicial collaboration in the fight against corruption.
In summary, we conclude that a new Angolan geopolitical approach focuses on the countries of Western Europe and the Persian Gulf. But it doesn’t stop there.
The amount of trade between Sub-Saharan Africa and India has grown steadily, and today India is a key trading partner for Africa. With regard to Angola, the country is today the third most important exporter in sub-Saharan Africa to India, when in 2005 it was irrelevant. In 2017, the Ambassador of India issued a statement in which he highlighted: “Trade between Angola and India increased 100% to US $ 4.5 billion in 2017, (…) At the end of July, outside the 10th BRICS summit , in Johannesburg, the President of Angola, João Lourenço, met with the Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, and the two reaffirmed the need to increase trade and cooperation in areas such as energy, agriculture, food and pharmaceutical processing. ” As India grows and becomes a very important player worldwide, it is normal for Angola to look at this country with a new vision. It is a millionaire market to which an immensity of Angolan exports can reach.
5- The United States of America. The ultimate prize
The relationship between Angola and the United States has been ambiguous. In fact, even in the days when the US administration supported Jonas Savimbi and UNITA, there was a relationship with Luanda linked to oil and the protection of American multinationals operating in territory dominated by the MPLA government.
Currently, the United States represents everything Angola wants, the country of the dollar with an enviable investment capacity and financial innovation, with a universalizing legal structure that allows it to use multiple legal instruments around the world to pursue the fortunes of corruption. It is also from the United States that Angola needs to raise the various “red flags” that were erected during the time of José Eduardo dos Santos and made Angolan financial life much more difficult. The United States is the key country for this new Angolan phase of foreign investment and fight against corruption, because from here the definitive stimulus for progress can come.
In a way, João Lourenço was unlucky to come across Trump when he needed the USA. It is known that Trump had no interest in Africa, that he only served for his wife to take a trip in colonial style attire. Worse would have been impossible. But American indifference does not have to be an obstacle to a greater Angolan commitment to relations with the superpower. In the early 1970s, Anwar Sadat from Egypt also decided that he wanted to get closer to the United States. These occupied with a thousand and one crises, among which Vietnam stood out, paid no attention to Sadat, who continued to follow his line, expelling Soviet advisers and starting a rapprochement with the Americans.
Historical comparisons and evolutions aside-Sadat ended up murdered for having signed a peace agreement with Israel on American auspices- what seems more logical for Angola at this stage is to accentuate a closer relationship with the United States, even if they are not attentive. And they won’t be, because between Covid-19, China and Russia, and multiple small internal crises have a lot to deal with. However, effective and real US support for the new Angolan policy is essential for the country to come out of the doldrums and no longer have external financial constraints, so a vigorous approach to the US administration would be advisable on the part of Angola, despite of the mutual distrust that exists.
6-Portugal is different
Regarding the visit of Pedro Sanchez, Spanish Prime Minister, Angola came up with some criticisms of the Portuguese government, accusing him of inaction and of being overtaken by Spain. This is nonsense. Not even Portugal can think of having a monopoly on relations with Angola, nor is there any danger in Portuguese-Angolan relations. Portugal is always a separate case, its influence comes less from the government and more from soft power, from the umbilical connection that remains between the peoples of both countries. Luanda continues to stop when Sporting wins the championship or Benfica have a very important game, the favorite destination of most Angolans is Portugal, easy personal relationships are established between Portuguese and Angolans. Portuguese businessmen always look to Angola as a possibility for expanding their business. The relations between Angola and Portugal have an underlying relationship between the peoples before the intervention of the governments.
At the official level, the Portuguese government is generally welcoming towards Angola. Around 2005, he welcomed the wishes of Angolan investment, currently he accepted the requests for judicial cooperation from Angola in relation to Isabel dos Santos, as it ended up sending Manuel Vicente’s case to Angola after great pressure from Luanda. Let’s say there is a manifest porosity of the Portuguese position, easily adapting to the positions and needs of Luanda. This position, combined with the interest of the Angolan elites in Portugal, has ended up consolidating a good relationship between the two countries, despite a bump or two. It is clear that after April 25, 1974, Portugal lost interest in Africa, making its accession to Europe and becoming a modern western country its number one priority. This project has been a little tangled since 2000, but it has not led Portugal to a revision of its European focus yet, it only forced it to take a longer look at Africa, after decades of disinterest. Perhaps there is a time when Portugal wants to focus its foreign policy on Portuguese-speaking countries, but this is not the time, as it is not for Angola, which wants to embrace other “voices”, such as the English-speaking and French-speaking countries, thus, the best that governments can to do is to make life as easy as possible for its population who wish to work in common and mutually support each other’s requests, but little else.
The summary of the new Angolan geopolitical position is that Angola is betting on vectors linked to foreign investment and fighting corruption, assuming relevance in foreign policy, partnerships with Western Europe, Spain, France, Italy, Germany, United Kingdom, with the Persian Gulf, Emirates and Dubai, and with India. At the same time, a strengthening of relations with the United States is anticipated. Portugal will always have a place apart.
-Banco Nacional de Angola-Statistics- www.bna.ao
-Douglas Wheeler and René Pélissier, História de Angola, 2011
-Ian Taylor, India’s rise in Africa, International Affairs, 2012
-José Milhazes, Angola – O Princípio do Fim da União Soviética, 2009
-Robert Cooper, The Ambassadors: Thinking about Diplomacy from Machiavelli to Modern Times, 2021
-Rui Verde, Angola at the Crossroads. Between Kleptocracy and Development, 2021
-Saudi Vision 2030- https://www.vision2030.gov.sa/en
-Tom Burgis, The Looting Machine. Warlords, Tycoons, Smugglers and the Systematic Theft of Africa’s Wealth, 2015.
-Public and informational facts taken from Lusa, DW, Jornal de Negócios, Jornal de Angola, Angonotícia and Novo Jornal.