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Spat between Portugal and Angola

Johannes Beck / mcOctober 17, 2013

Angola has broken off its "strategic partnership" with Portugal. This has rattled Lisbon, which is now trying to salvage a promising export market that had gained in significance during the eurozone crisis.

Luanda, ANGOLA: TO GO WITH AFP STORY IN FRENCH :"Les prix du petrole se stabilisent apres le consensus atteint a l'Opep" - (FILES) General view of an oil offshore platform owned by Total Fina Elf in the surroundings waters of the Angolan coast 15 October 2003. The 11 members of the OPEC oil cartel have agreed to slash output by a million barrels a day, the OPEC president said 11 October 2006, in a move aimed at shoring up sliding world crude prices. AFP PHOTO MARTIN BUREAU (Photo credit should read MARTIN BUREAU/AFP/Getty Images)
Angola is Africa's number two oil producer after NigeriaImage: MARTIN BUREAU/AFP/Getty Images

In recent years relations between Portugal and Angola had become close and intense. The former colony was exuding new-found economic strength and the former colonial master, battered by the financial crisis, was looking for new markets for its ailing businesses.

A "strategic partnership" between the two seemed an ideal solution and the idea was initially vigorously pursued by the governments of the two Portuguese speaking nations. But on Tuesday (15.10.13) Angolan President Jose Eduardo dos Santos dashed any hopes Portugal might have had about the future of that partnership. In his annual state of the nation address to parliament in the capital Luanda, he declared that it was all over.

epa03864286 Portuguese Foreign Minister Rui Machete looks on during a press conference with Spanish Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Garcia Margallo (not seen) following their meeting at the Viana Alace in Madrid, Spain, 12 September 2013. The Portuguese Foreign Minister is on official business in Madrid. EPA/ZIPI
The Portuguese foreign minister's volte-face over judicial inquiries annoyed AngolaImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Angola now had stable relations with almost every country in the world and these partners' confidence in Angola was growing, dos Santos said. "But with Portugal, unfortunately things are not going well. There have been misunderstandings at the highest level of state and the current political climate does not advise the implementation of the strategic partnership."

Angolans were investing billions of dollars in Europe, but were accused by the continent of being corrupt, dos Santos complained. The president used his 45 minute speech to settle old scores with Angola's critics. "In the battle against corruption, the anti-corruption organizations in the West are deliberately creating misunderstandings in order to intimidate Africans who are generating wealth and who want to get access to it. They are creating the general impression that a rich African is invariably a corrupt one," dos Santos thundered.

Picture of a construction site in Central Business District in Luanda on December 21, 2009. The OPEC oil producers' cartel will hold output quotas unchanged at its impending meeting due to be held on December 22, 2009, Saudi Minister Ali al-Naimi, its most influential member, said the day before, citing "excellent" crude price levels. Other members said they would seek to curb high crude stock levels at their meeting on December 22, 2009, their first hosted by new oil power Angola, and played down the prospect of a surge from Iraq's recovering oilfields. AFP PHOTO STEPHANE DE SAKUTIN. (Photo credit should read STEPHANE DE SAKUTIN/AFP/Getty Images)
The Portuguese construction industry has landed numerous building contracts in LuandaImage: Getty Images

Angola offended by Portuguese judicial inquiries

The president was particularly annoyed by the investigations that Portugal's chief public prosecutor Joana Vidal had launched into the activities of several unnamed members of the Angolan business and political elite.

In September, the Portuguese foreign minister Rui Machete apologized for those investigations on Angolan radio. This prompted the Portuguese opposition to call for his resignation; they said he had violated the independence of Portugal's judiciary. Machete withdrew his apology. "I am sorry and have no trouble admitting that I was not happy about it (the apology)," he said.

This volte-face by the Portuguese foreign minister had evidently annoyed dos Santos and in parliament he broke into a tirade about Western economic interests. "Elementary research in the oil sector would reveal that American, English and French firms, as well as companies and commercial banks from Portugal are extracting annually from Angola two digit billion (dollar) sums. Why should they be allowed to own such huge corporate firms that are denied to us Angolans," he said.

Former Marxists

Dissenting voices raised against this outburst were not heard or expected. The MPLA, the ruling party and former liberation movement, won 175 of the 220 seats in parliament at the elections last year. The MPLA dominates economic and political life in Angola, where GDP has risen more than tenfold, from $11 billion (8 billion euros) to $114 billion, since the end of the civil war in 2002.

Ort: Praia, Cabo Verde Fotograf: Nélio dos Santos Datum: 19.10.2012 Beschreibung: Isabel dos Santos, eine der reichsten Frauen Afrikas und Tochter des Präsidenten von Angola José Eduardo dos Santos, in der Hauptstadt der Kapverden. Die Unternehmerin, zu deren Firmen das angolanische Mobilfunkunternehmen Unitel Angola gehört, hat über Unitel Internacional die kapverdische Mobiltelefon-Firma T+ übernommen.
Isabel dos Santos, daughter of the president, is one of the biggest foreign investors in PortugalImage: Nélio dos Santos

Although the MPLA was originally a Marxist organization battling colonial masters, a few families from the nomenklatura and a number of influential generals have amassed vast fortunes. Meanwhile, two thirds of the country's population of 20 million live on less than $2.

According to Forbes magazine, the president's daughter, Isabel dos Santos, is the world's richest female African and the continent's first woman billionaire. She has invested a large part of her fortune in Portugal and owns stakes in the ZON Multimedia holding company, as well as in the BES bank and the Portuguese Investment Bank.

The need for friendly ties

In 2012, Angola was Portugal's fourth largest export market after Spain, Germany and France. Last year goods worth 3 billion euros – that's 7 percent of Portuguese exports – were sold to Angola. "It is a very important trading relationship," said Jose Cantiga Esteves, professor of economics at the Lisbon economics institute ISEG. "That applies to both countries, but specially to Portugal in view of the economic crisis it is going through at the moment," he said.

epa03006896 Portuguese Prime Minister, Pedro Passos Coelho (L), chats with Angolan President, Jose Eduardo dos Santos, during a meeting held at the presidential palace during his official visit to Angola, Luanda, 17 November 2011. EPA/BRUNO FONSECA
Angolan President Jose Eduardo dos Santos und Portugese Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho at a meeting in 2011Image: picture alliance/dpa

Portugal has therefore done all it can in recent years to cultivate friendly ties with its former colony, irrespective of whichever party in Portugal was in power.

Nuno Magalhaes, head of the parliamentary group of the Democratic and Social Center – People's Party (CDS-PP), the junior partners in government, said that his party had avoided doing anything which might harm the interests of the 150,000 Portuguese who live or work in Angola or of the 10,000 firms that do business with Angola.

Magalhaes said recent developments made him uneasy and he hoped that Portugal and Angola would soon return to the cordial relations they previously enjoyed.

"We know that if Portugal doesn't occupy privileged space in Angola, then somebody else will," he said.

The Social Democrat PSD, the senior partners in government with the CDS-PP, are equally concerned. Parliamentary group leader Luis Montenegro also hopes that the economic and cultural ties that have been forged with Angola and the Angolan people will once again regain their old momentum.