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A world of extremes – the paradox that is Luanda

23 May 2014

MRG’s Head of Law, Lucy Claridge, takes in the sights, sounds and perplexing contrasts of the capital of Angola

“Is anyone here for the African Union event?” calls out a smartly-dressed, official-looking woman.  I breathe a sigh of relief.  I’ve just landed at Luanda airport, and am stuck at the end of a long immigration queue, despite having jumped through many hoops to obtain my visa in advance, and the hour-long wait isn’t really appealing after little sleep on an overnight flight.  “Come with me,” she says, and ushers me straight to the front of the line, where my passport is promptly stamped, and I’m in!  Perhaps VIP treatment is sometimes available for us mere charity workers, I think.

But the illusion ends abruptly, as I’m faced with nearly an hour wait for my suitcase, and I start to wonder if in fact it may still be in Addis.  And there starts the recurring theme of my trip.  Angola is a paradox.  It has oil, and so (some of) its inhabitants have money: Luanda has been voted the most expensive city in the world for several years now and the government seems really keen to impress foreign visitors.  But, unsurprisingly, that wealth is concentrated in an elite few – and so it lacks the basic infrastructure (transport, decent roads, basic customer service) which most cities of this size require – and which you’d expect of a city where a simple dinner of chicken and rice costs 20 US dollars.

My suitcase arrives and I bargain hard for my lift into town.  Driving into the hot, dirty, heavily-congested city, I’m instantly struck by the visible signs of extreme poverty (shanty towns, open sewers) juxtaposed with signs of extreme wealth.  In contrast to many other African cities I’ve visited, most of the cars are new, and I’ve never seen so many SUVs!  ‘Is this what Texas is like?’ I wonder.

I am in Angola for the 55th session of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights.  Based in Banjul, African Commission sessions usually take place in The Gambia, but are occasionally hosted (and therefore funded) by other African states.  At the same time, this provides host states with a chance to impress upon all attendees their commitment to human rights.  However, the expense of Luanda, coupled with the difficulties of obtaining visas (usually, a mention of human rights work on an Angolan visa application would result in instant denial; in this case, the Government has made special dispensation for those who wish to attend the Commission session, but the process still wasn’t easy), has discouraged many people from attending.

The following morning, a minibus arrives to transport us to the conference centre where the Commission session is taking place.  The VIP treatment continues, and we’re even treated to a police escort.  As the sirens on the police mopeds sound in front of us, I’m both relieved (the Angolan paradox means that taxis are unreliable, expensive and incredibly difficult to come by in Luanda) and embarrassed.  And sorry Angola, I know you won’t like this, VIP treatment doesn’t mean I won’t be questioning your human rights record.

During the course of the Commission session, for example, it becomes apparent that an Angolan NGO that has been granted observer status, and therefore has the right to take the floor and deliver a statement, has been prevented from doing so.  And a few days later, I learn from an Angolan human rights activist that at the very same time that the Angolan government is spending considerable funds on hosting this high profile session to monitor the human rights situation in Africa, state authorities have detained, intimidated and assaulted a small group of journalist activists who were peacefully celebrating Press Freedom Day.  So how does that fit with your commitment to human rights, Angola?

On my last day, a friend and I meet with Rafael Marques de Marais, an Angolan journalist and human rights activist who has received several international awards for his reporting on conflict diamonds and government corruption.  Unsurprisingly, in the past Rafael has also been detained without charge and subjected to inhuman treatment by his Government for this work, continues to be regularly intimidated by state authorities, and has successfully challenged such treatment before the UN Human Rights Committee.  Rafael shows us around town.

We see the huge Mausoleum of Angola’s first President, erected by the Soviets (as you can see from the photo it looks like a space shuttle), the vast expanse of the Presidential palace, and the impressive and recently built (at huge expense, naturally) National Assembly buildings, which apparently aren’t used regularly because of issues with the air conditioning.  And yet again, literally metres away from these signs of extreme wealth and power, are open sewers and shanty towns, some of which are in the midst of being destroyed (apparently, they were spoiling the President’s view from his palace).  I’m also told the inhabitants were evicted in the middle of the night and had nowhere to go, and as a result, the few possessions they owned were destroyed.  But that’s ok, because if they head to the local shopping mall, they can easily pick up a new Sony TV and some Moschino heels….

Rafael takes us for dinner at a modern, relaxed restaurant on the coast.  We sit by the sea, huge storm clouds gathering on the horizon.  I decide to have fish.  This causes some difficulties because the grill where the fish is cooked is on the other side of the restaurant, and I’m not sitting at the right table.  I don’t speak Portuguese, but I can see this is frustrating Rafael as he repeatedly requests a simple solution: to bring the fish to our table from the other side of the restaurant.  Eventually, he speaks with the chef, and the matter is sorted.  Then another waiter butts in and explains the problem with the fish being at the other side of the restaurant.  Rafael patiently smoothes things over.  And finally, success! My fish arrives.

As we eat (extremely tasty fish) and the rain lashes down, I mull over the country’s many dysfunctions. Everyone seems to want their slice of power in Angola.

This article reflects the opinion of its author only and does not engage MRG’s responsibility.