According to Angolan Ambassador Josefina Pitra Diakite, Washington’s first-ever Angola Day on May 9 was a joint celebration that not only marked Angolan independence, but also another important milestone: the 14th anniversary of restored diplomatic relations between Angola and the United States.
In those 14 years, Angola has overcome a civil war, established democracy, and enjoyed unprecedented economic growth.
At the daylong celebration held at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars—titled “Five Years of Peace: Progress and Prospects – A Conference on Development and Reconstruction in Angola”—Ambassador Diakite talked about the many improvements her country has made, as well as the need to further diversify Angola’s economy, in particular recognizing Chevron Corp. for its assistance over the years.
Before entertainment by Angolan musicians Yuri da Cunha and the group Kituxi got under way, a series of panels discussed how to bolster Angola’s resurgence, with high-level speakers from the World Bank as well as the Angolan and U.S. governments giving upbeat assessments of Angola’s economic future.
Ambassador Diakite noted the significant increase in trade with the United States in the last five years, which includes the recent purchase of five new aircraft from Boeing, as well as greater investment in health care, education and transportation.
The theme of economic and political advancement was echoed by Joaquim David, the Angolan industry minister, who said that Angola Day came at a “unique moment in our history” as the country looks to a democratic and prosperous future.
David was keen to offer solid examples of Angola’s progress, citing a voter registration drive that is taking place to prepare for the second legislative elections in Angola’s history. The elections, expected to take place in 2008, will be followed by a presidential race in 2009.
The polls, he said, would “legitimize the institutions of state power” and strengthen national reconciliation. “Angolans can feel proud to give Africa and the world an example of tolerance and patriotism on a continent where pockets of political instability still exist,” he added.
David also came with some impressive figures: Angola’s gross domestic product has doubled in the last five years, with the growth occurring in diverse areas, including fishing, agriculture, energy, water and infrastructure development. Just as important, “chronic instability” of the currency is no longer an issue, and Angola’s currency even appreciated against the dollar last year.
When asked about his country’s decision to join the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), David said the increase in Angola’s oil production past 1.5 barrels a day has brought it into the league of countries that can affect global oil prices, and thus it was time for Angola to take its place in OPEC.
At a different panel discussion, Cynthia Efird, the U.S. ambassador to Angola, took a penetrating look at how the media and academic world no longer see Angola as newsworthy now that the country’s civil war is over. She said this information “time warp” was the single greatest factor in holding back the U.S. business community and the general public from understanding Angola.
“The journalists leave, cameras are switched off, academics find new grounds,” she said of the war ending, noting that now there are no permanent international correspondents in Angola to monitor the country’s changes.
Princeton Lyman, adjunct senior fellow for Africa policy studies at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), is one of the people hoping to fill that information gap. He told attendees about a new CFR report on Angola, prepared by 20 experts, which explores the best economic pathways for the country. He stressed Angola’s strategic importance for the United States and highlighted the main areas needed for successful transformation, including physical infrastructure, democracy, transparency (including the diamond industry), reduced unemployment and promoting national reconciliation.
“That’s quite an agenda” he admitted, but added that he has already seen significant movement in these areas and is looking forward to the day when there could be a free trade agreement between the United States and Angola.
Jeffrey Krilla, U.S. deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, said he visited Angola’s capital of Luanda last September and was immediately struck by the city’s impressive growth—something that was unimaginable just a few years ago. He added that a democratic Angola with a strong human rights record would be of vital strategic interest for the United States.
Energy security will undoubtedly be a key component of that strategic interest. Francisco Carneiro, the World Bank’s senior Angola economist, said that as a major energy producer, Angola does not suffer from “petro-pessimism,” as do many countries in the rest of the world who must worry about high oil prices. He cautioned, however, that the billions of dollars coming in from oil revenues will have to be carefully managed, especially because oil production is expected to peak in 2010, and an important challenge will be to avoid a “paradox of plenty,” experienced by Venezuela and other countries when increased oil revenues encourage a centralized bureaucracy.
Irene Neto, Angola’s vice minister of foreign affairs, emphasized the importance of economic diversity and said that Angola did understand the natural time limit for some of its resources, such as minerals. On this historic day for Angolan-U.S. relations, she summed up the mood by declaring that Angola “has started building its destiny.”
About the Author
Sean O’Driscoll is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.