Africa's Oil Tycoons
It's no secret that Angola's leaders are siphoning off huge amounts of state money. But lurking beneath the sinister statistics and corrosive corruption is the murky involvement of Western governments and multinational oil companies. What role are they playing in the postwar transformation of Angola?
Luanda's Hotel Tropico, a favorite among oilmen and World Bank and IMF officials, offers a clue. When I arrived in Angola's capital bleary-eyed early one morning in mid-October, the slick new lobby was packed. While the Angolan staff scrambled to confirm reservations on malfunctioning computers, middle-aged white men elbowed their way to the long mahogany counter demanding to know why their rooms weren't ready. Others dozed in overstuffed armchairs among stacks of suitcases, waking intermittently to drink espresso or whiskey and smoke cigarettes. It was 5 am, and although Angola has no tourist industry, the hotel was full and our rooms wouldn't be ready before noon. Until then, no one seemed to be leaving the building.
In fact, I'd been warned not to walk outside, and I quickly understood why. Exploring the streets of Luanda is harrowing. It requires careful maneuvering among fragments of broken sidewalk and heaps of reeking garbage. Reckless drivers on rough dirt roads kick up a choking dust that sticks to your sweat in the sweltering heat. And it's almost impossible to make it five blocks without being splashed by sewage. Frequent petty crime in Luanda casts a pall of fear that only ratchets up the tension. This once-thriving "Paris of Africa," now a mix of broken-down colonial villas, 1960s-style apartment blocks and sprawling shantytowns, has essentially been abandoned by the government. Built for a population of about half a million, it's now home to eight times that many, mostly refugees who fled the ravaged countryside during the civil war. They arrived in the capital and built a vast maze of musseques--clusters of cement-block hovels with rusted-scrap tin roofs, held down by stones and patched with plastic sheeting. The government has thrown up its hands: It doesn't provide electricity or running water in much of the city, let alone maintain the roads or pick up the garbage.
To avoid this unpleasantness, most foreigners--whether working for oil companies, aid organizations or the United Nations--travel around the city in chauffeur-driven SUVs. Those who work for ChevronTexaco, which dominates the Angolan oil industry, aren't even allowed to drive themselves. They're also forbidden to venture into the countryside. The limit is the golf course in nearby Luanda Sul, where the company maintains a gated, guarded compound of Southern California-style homes for its employees.
Still, even the most privileged in Luanda can't completely avoid its conditions. When I caught a ride to Luanda Sul with a BP oil executive, the driver had to navigate the Range Rover over jammed mud roads and crater-sized potholes, swerving to avoid the children who picked through mountains of roadside garbage. Men hawked sundries from car to car while women sold produce in the dirt alongside open sewers.