Angola boom creates gaping divides

2012-08-29 21:48

Huambo - Angola emerged from its civil war as one of the poorest places on earth, with nowhere more devastated than Huambo, its universities, factories and homes destroyed in the war's most crushing battles.

Now Africa's second-largest oil producer, Angola is spending billions of dollars to rebuild, making its economy one of the fastest-growing in the world.

Growth this year is tipped at 9.7% by the International Monetary Fund, but it averaged around 11% over the last decade.

Staggering new wealth has also created one of the world's biggest gaps between rich and poor, a divide seen from the capital's luxury hotels and surrounding sea of shacks, to thriving coastal cities and struggling inland areas like Huambo.

Once a centre of culture and industry, this city of 400 000 people became the stronghold of the Unita rebels, placing it at the bull's eye for government forces under the MPLA party.

Damage from mortar fire still mars some buildings down town, but even Huambo has benefited from President Jose Eduardo dos Santos's reconstruction drive.

"Huambo has transformed in recent years. Homes have been rebuilt, fields de-mined, trade has resumed and the province has opened up to its neighbours," said Reverend Justino Bula, provincial secretary for the Council of Christian Churches in Angola.

A railway to the port city of Benguela has re-opened. Roads are repaired. Schools and hospitals have been built.

Dos Santos recently inaugurated the Gove dam, which will eventually supply the province with electricity.

Modest development

The building boom is welcome, but the city once dubbed New Lisbon by Portuguese colonisers still has a long way to go to regain its lustre.

"The province was among the most prosperous in the country, with farms and ranches, a number of important industries and a rich university and intellectual life," said Festo Sapaloo, curator of the Huambo regional museum.

Crops are again being planted, but at a modest level. The lack of farming is one reason for Angola's staggering cost of living, since even basic foodstuffs are imported. That makes Luanda one of the world's most expensive cities, ranked alongside places like Tokyo.

While Luanda has a new elite filling its streets with SUVs, in Huambo almost the entire population is impoverished, particularly in the countryside. The city has only 1 100 active businesses.

The unemployment rate is among the highest in the country, much higher than the national average of 30 percent, while the monthly income per person was estimated at $400 in 2007, economist Manuel Jose Alves da Rocha said in a 2010 study on regional inequalities.

That leaves Huambo worse off than Luanda, but also smaller coastal cities like Benguela and Kwanza Sul which benefit from oil exports in Africa's second-largest producer.

Nonetheless, in the last parliamentary election in 2008, Huambo joined most of Angola in backing the MPLA, which took more than 80% of the vote nationally.

Urban investments

There's no polling data to give an indication of how the city might vote in Friday's general election, but opposition parties are trying to benefit from the disparities.

"The MPLA acts like Huambo doesn't deserve to develop more. It overlooks the central provinces in favour of the coastal ones," said Marcelo Dachala, an official with the new Casa opposition party.

"The other problem is that everything - investments, projects, jobs - is decided in Luanda without consulting people on the ground," said Liberty Chiyaka, Unita's provincial secretary.

"The investments made, which are rational, in the end only benefit the people living in cities, in the provincial capitals, but not the majority who live in the countryside," said Jose Maria Katiavala, a sociologist who works with the Association for Rural and Sustainable Development, a charity.

As a result, many young people leave the rural areas to settle in Huambo, before heading on to Benguela or Luanda, the country's sprawling and chaotic capital.

"If they want to de-congest the capital and organise its development, they need to invest in other places to prevent the rural exodus and to encourage people to go back to the provinces," said Katiavala.