Sunday, 5 November 2017

Quick and Dirty: Luanda, Angola (Night's Black Agents)

In previous iterations of Quick & Dirty I've covered Kabul and Macao, and this time I thought I'd try something new. There's nothing people love more than lists, and every year someone puts together a list of the most expensive cities to live in. This time I'm going to tackle the #1 for 2017, Luanda in Angola, West Africa. Next time I'll tackle the least luxurious, so watch this space.

Luanda's a new entry at the #1 spot. Hong Kong has held that dubious honor last year, but this year it slipped to #2. Wonder why? Wonder no more.


This Angolan port city on the West coast of southern Africa, formerly named São Paulo da Assunção de Loanda, is the most populous Portuguese-speaking capital city in the world, way ahead of Lisbon - the capital of Portugal - and the fifth most populous Portuguese-speaking city overall. Which just goes to show that Portugal, which also founded Macau, had an indelible mark on colonial history, despite being a minor player in the game.

                              Image sourced from Wikipedia and used under Creative Commons.

Luanda is a city in flux. It is undergoing major renovation, almost a sea change, thanks to its meteoric rise. Angola only achieved peace after decades of conflict in 2002, and since then Luanda has struggled to reestablish its position as a major export port. The struggle, it would seem, is nearly over, and its reward is an exponential increase in cost of living, among other things. It can cost upwards of $6,000 per month to rent a two bedroom unfurnished apartment in Luanda. A price tag around the $12,000 per month range is not uncommon. The president's daughter, Isabel dos Santos, is Africa's richest woman, having earned her cash thanks to her father's generosity; he gave her the state energy firm to manage. Meanwhile most Angolans get by on wages of $2 per day, scratching out an existence side by side with oil millionaires.

Luanda was founded in 1576 by Portuguese colonists as a slave trade center, and became one of Portugal's most important assets, supplying Brazil with countless slaves for its brazil-wood plantations, sugar plantations, and gold and diamond mines. At the outset Portugal didn't care much for expansion, preferring instead to build large forts to protect its assets. It saw Luanda as a bridgehead, a link in a supply chain that kept its far more valuable Brazilian colony fed, a human factory sending slave labor across the ocean.

This all came to an end in 1822, when Brazil gained independence. This massive disruption in Luanda's trade forced the colony to change its course. By 1836 slavery was abolished, and soon Luanda became a center for foreign shipping, sending palm and peanut oil, copal, timber, ivory, cotton, coffee, cocoa and many other products across the sea.

With this trade came wealth, and peaceful prosperity, interrupted briefly by overseas scuffles. During World War One, tensions between Portugal and Germany rose, particularly since Germany's African colony bordered Angola, but though there was fighting, and many Portuguese ships sunk by rampaging U-Boats, Luanda was never directly threatened. Portugal remained neutral during the Second World War, and inadvertently became a hub for fleeing refugees and espionage, but in so doing it ensured Luanda wouldn't be directly threatened during this conflict either. Even the Portuguese Colonial Wars in the 1960s and 70s between the military and emerging nationalist movements never harmed Luanda, and during the War for Independence, most of the guerrilla fighting took place in the countryside and wilderness of the Northern provinces.

There is one notable exception. In February 1961, at the start of the conflict, militants armed with machetes stormed police strongholds, apparently intending to free political prisoners. At least fifty and possibly several hundred militants were involved in these strikes, of whom somewhere between twenty to forty died. Several police constables were also killed, and during their funeral on the 5th of February tensions ran so high that riots broke out. Reports are unclear as to what happened next; some claim enraged white mobs slaughtered blacks in their hundreds, while others that only a handful were killed. One more attack on a police post took place on the 10th, but that was rebuffed by a strong police presence, and twenty two of the attackers were killed. 

Like many other conflicts of its time this civil war was, at least in part, a show of force between the US and the USSR, using an African battleground to play out international conflicts, but Rhodesia and South Africa also saw opportunities and crises in the Angolan conflict. Both those countries were ruled by white governments, and saw nothing but bad times brewing in a white colonial government overthrown by black nationalists.

                                            Portuguese paratroopers on patrol. (Wikipedia)

With the signing of the Alvor agreement in November 1975 came independence, and a very brief peace that was shattered almost immediately by rivalry between the nationalist factions. Over three hundred thousand people emigrated, fearful of what was to come.

The Marxist MPLA, backed by the USSR, had a bitter fight on its hands and, though it has won every election held so far, accusations of political corruption and vote rigging taint those victories. Again, South Africa intervened with support for the other two factions, FNLA and UNITA, and though President Reagan longed to send in the troops, Congress blocked his plans, fearing another Vietnam quagmire. The civil war finally came to an end in 2002, with the death of UNITA's Jonas Savimbi, a former MPLA guerilla fighter who became the darling of Washington D.C., met with Reagan and, at one time, surrounded Luanda with his troops.

Despite internal disputes and constant violence, the MPLA remains in control of the country. Its human rights and political record is less than pristine.  UNITA is still its strongest opponent.

Though conflict shook the country, Luanda rose above it all. The sudden departure of so many Portuguese in 1975 caused many problems, as skills and knowledge drained out of Angola's capital, and for a time Luanda knew difficulty. However Cuba sent support to its Marxist brethren, and before long the brain drain had been stemmed by Cuban technicians. However Luanda was still a colonial city, with colonial infrastructure, and an exponential increase in prosperity meant increasing immigration, with consequent pressure on its ageing infrastructure. 

It consists of seven districts: Ingombota, Kilamba Kiaxi, Maianga, Ngola Kiluanj, Rangel, Samba e Sambizanga. Growth has been so rampant that a satellite city has also been developed, Luanda Sul, with ever more high-rises and developments breaking ground all the time. The climate is hot and dry, with frequent fog, and a rainy March-April. 

Generally speaking Luanda can be divided into two parts: Baixa de Luanda (lower Luanda, the old city) and the Cidade Alta (upper city or the new part). The old city is still colonial, despite rampant development, with narrow streets and an old-world European atmosphere. The upper city is a mixture of poverty-stricken slums and fast-paced urban sprawl. Luanda is like a river swollen with flood water, overflowing its banks and drowning anything nearby. It grows with irresistible force, and anything next to it is either swept along for the ride or lost forever.

About a third of Angola lives in Luanda, mostly in desperate poverty. Safe drinking water and electricity is in short supply, and the roads are foul. However if you have money Luanda is a paradise - albeit an extremely expensive one. One of the odder consequences of this is a Portuguese resurgence; Portuguese nationals see Angola as a kind of El Dorado, and are flooding back to Luanda. 

This is thanks in large part to Angola's booming economy. Oil, gas, diamonds, bountiful agricultural resources, are all now able to be tapped thanks to the end of the civil war, and this has led to a skyrocketing growth in GDP. Oil in particular is a huge resource, accounting for 50% of GDP and 80% of government revenue, and earning Angola a place in OPEC. Much of this black gold goes to the US, but in recent years Angola has forged significant trade links with China.

                                  Image from the Guardian, photographer Matteo de Mayda


Over six million, and growing all the time, which makes it two times as populous as Los Angeles and only slightly smaller than New York City.

There is a sizeable Portuguese emigrant population, and about three hundred thousand Europeans altogether. Brazilians and other Latin Americans are well represented, thanks to long historic links. A significant Chinese and Vietnamese presence has developed in recent years. 

The official and most widely used language is Portuguese, though there's also many Bantu language speakers.

Roughly half the population lives in abject poverty.

Roman Catholicism is by far the most prevalent religion, Protestantism a distant second, and every other religion a practical non-starter. 

About 48% of Angola is under the age of 14. About 46% are between 15 to 54. Very few live to see their 60s. Child mortality is very high.

About 70% of the population is literate.


Despite the end of open conflict, tensions between the ruling MPLA and UNITA remain high. Ironically this meant, among other things, tension between MPLA and China, at least initially, because the MPLA was Soviet-backed, and China broke with the Soviet Union. As a consequence China supported UNITA against the MPLA. Those days are long gone, but it did contribute to some ill feeling initially between the two nations.

Instances of actual terrorism are rare, in Luanda. Those who venture out into the provinces are more at risk, particularly in the northern province of Cabinda. Cabinda city is considered relatively safe, but the countryside around it is not. Even without the risk of terrorist attack, land mines left over from the war are scattered everywhere. Similarly, the government discourages travel to and from any diamond-producing area; anyone who does so, and does not have the proper documentation, is subject to arrest and detention.

There have been many instances of past CIA involvement in Angolan affairs, and where the CIA goes the KGB - or these days the FIS - is sure to follow, if it wasn't already there lying in wait. Given the significant investment China has made in recent years, China's Ministry of State Security must have a presence in Luanda. Even if the old Cold War tensions have died down, Angola's prolific natural resources - and its oil supply in particular - make it a strategic ally, or target, of the highest importance.

The MPLA officially abandoned Marxist-Leninism in 1990, reverting to social democracy. Allegations of corruption, cronyism and bribery are commonplace. Arbitrary arrest, detention and torture are frequent, despite the MPLA hiring a public relations firm to clean up its image.

UNITA meanwhile took about 26% of the seats in the 2017 election, and remain a strong opposition. It began as a Maoist group, but has since evolved into a social conservative faction. It has significant support from the US Republican party; before that, thanks to its socialist dogma, it had a good working relationship with the People's Republic of China, which sold it guns and military supplies.

As a seaport, Luanda is a natural narcotics hub, and some of the cocaine that finds its way to Europe flows through this port. South Africa is also a beneficiary of Luanda's cocaine largesse.

Angola has an ongoing dispute with the Democratic Republic of Congo over borders. As an unintended consequence, a small number of refugees from Congo have ended up in Angola.

Angolans have long since learned to equate foreigners with wealth, particularly if they wear business attire. That makes them targets. This may range from on-the-spot fines from local police, to a swarm of beggars, to much, much worse. Wandering into the slums is a very bad idea, unless you are African, and preferably Bantu. Those on the streets without a notarized copy of their passport are likely to be harassed by the police.

Armed violence is likely, particularly against new arrivals. The Chinese, for example, are often targeted; robbery, rapes and assaults are common. The Roque Santiero market, the Rocha Pinto slum area, and any street connecting or near nightclubs and bars in the Isla do Cabo are particularly dangerous, especially at night. It is inadvisable to pull over on the roadway no matter what, as bandits often attack good Samaritans and the incautious alike. The airports are also a hot spot, as customs and immigration officials are corrupt and likely to slip narcotics or similar into baggage so they can make an 'arrest' - or more likely collect a bribe.

Companies that hire foreign workers ensure those workers are housed in properties that have 24 hour guard facilities, and post strict guidelines that those workers should adhere to if they wish to remain safe. This can result in a kind of hothouse environment, in which foreign workers live like rarified plants, completely disconnected from the city around them. Foreign workers rarely use local taxies; they are ferried to and from their jobs by company car. As a result, it is very unusual for anyone other than a local to use the local taxi service.


                          Panorama Hotel, now a squat occupied by homeless children. Photo by Matteo de Mayda

The former luxury modernist Panorama Hotel, with excellent views of the harbor, now a forgotten relic of times past. These days it's a squat lived in by the homeless, a place where rape, murder and crime are common. Only the truly gullible tourist would try to book a room here, perhaps lured by the hotel's former reputation.

The Iron Palace, or Palácio de Ferro, believed to have been built by Gustave Eiffel and intended to be shipped from Paris to Madagascar, but which ended up in Luanda instead when the ship carrying it ran aground close to the colony. The Portuguese claimed the building, and everything else aboard the ship, as salvage. In recent years it was neglected, but a renovation effort has turned it into a diamond museum.

Ship Graveyard, where half-stripped hulls of abandoned cargo vessels linger, thrashed by waves. Tourists going here should be wary, as assaults and daylight armed robbery are common, but if there's anywhere in Luanda where a past tragedy's secrets await discovery, this is it.

Three Hooks

With so much money flowing through Luanda, the rich and eager-to-be-rich are constantly coming and going, meeting with bigwigs in the government or petrochemical industries. One of these wants to hire the agents as bodyguards for her latest trip - but why is she so eager to go out into the countryside, where it's far more dangerous?

A Conspiracy bagman's schedule takes him to Luanda on a very regular basis, at least once every three months. Once he gets there, he drops off the radar; nobody's sure whether he's meeting with government officials, UNITA, terrorists, or someone not on the list of usual suspects. It's the agents' job to find out who the bagman's meeting, and why.

A prominent US politician and Republican bigwig visits Luanda on an 'information gathering' trip, and returns a changed man. His spectacular self-destruction when he returns is the talk of D.C., but the question is, what did he encounter out there that affected him so?

Thrilling Elements

The following elements are unique to Luanda:

  • A convoy of armored luxury cars sweeps through the streets, its occupants hidden behind tinted glass. Everyone else on the street scatters to make way.
  • Armed police saunter through, looking for gullible foreigners to harass. If the agents don't have notarized photostats of their passports, complete with a list of inoculations, they'll get on-the-spot fines. If they actually have their passports on them, those documents will likely be confiscated.
  • Political posters peel in the blazing sunshine, their bland-faced subjects staring empty-eyed out over the passing crowds.
  • Yet another abandoned high-rise project rusts, waiting for work to resume. Next to that, ground is being broken on a new project. Next to that, ramshackle buildings are being cleared to make way for a third development.
  • Music drifts out from a string of high-end bars and nightclubs, as the ultra-rich dance the night away.
  • A rooftop hotel bar overlooking the harbor, where the beautiful sit watching the sunset. A group of recently arrived Portuguese plan out their latest business conquest a few tables away.
  • The dazzling beachfront of the Cabo draws tourists and criminals alike - only a few hundred yards away, a couple is being robbed at gunpoint.
  • A thoroughly modern shopping center stuffed to the rafters with thoroughly modern wares, and air conditioned within an inch of its life. Were it not for the many Africans and Portuguese speakers, this could be London, or Paris.

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