LUANDA (Reuters) - Angola’s showcase Kilamba Kiaxi housing development rises up from an ochre-red African plain, clustered pods of neat apartment blocks in eye-catching pastel shades of light blue, yellow and grey stretching from horizon to horizon.
The impressive Chinese-built project, inaugurated last year by President Jose Eduardo dos Santos, is one of the biggest in Africa, touted by Angola’s leadership as an example of how it is using oil wealth to better the lives of its people.
But draw closer, and you will find few cars or residents traversing the wide, lamp-lined boulevards. Only a fraction of the thousands of completed apartments are occupied, and a fine red dust pools in their yards, hallways and staircases.
Kilamba’s homes are on sale but their prices are out of reach for most of Angola’s 18 million people. The majority live in poverty or struggle to make ends meet in sub-standard housing without electricity and running water in Africa’s No. 2 oil producer, where a 27-year civil war ended a decade ago.
An election landslide won on August 31 by Dos Santos’s ruling MPLA party is, from the outside, as monumentally impressive.
But more than ever before, Angolans, including MPLA supporters, are openly calling for a fairer share-out of the national wealth. This swelling social clamour for more equality and jobs points to cracks and strains in a political edifice that has ruled Angola since independence from Portugal in 1975.
The formerly Marxist MPLA switched to a multi-party system in 1992, but opponents say a thin democratic facade hides a self-serving elite propped up by a pervasive security structure.
“We want the country to change,” said Vitor Mayor, an unemployed father walking with his two young children at a bustling market in Viana, south of the capital Luanda. “The MPLA has ‘eaten’ a lot,” he added, using a common African expression to describe how politicians grow fat on the spoils of power.
Dos Santos’s party won nearly 72 percent of the vote, according to official results of last month’s election. A victory foretold, it signalled no immediate shift in the MPLA hegemony or in the 33-year rule of 70-year-old Dos Santos, extended for another five years.
The MPLA’s tally was 10 percentage points lower than in the last election four years ago, but still dwarfed nearest challenger and former civil war foe UNITA, whose nearly 19 percent almost doubled its 2008 tally. Newcomer coalition CASA-CE, with 6 percent, offered the glimmer of an alternative.
The past year saw sporadic protests by youthful dissidents and disgruntled war veterans.
As pressure for change wells up from within Angolan society, there are questions about how long the MPLA, the self-styled “party of the people” maintain its grip without making reforms.
“The social inequity is only matched by the political inequity,” said Patrick Smith, editor of Africa Confidential, the respected newsletter analysing the continent.
“I don’t see where the model is going. The system looks after the elite, but that’s all ... there is a huge question mark about the political future,” he added.
A groundswell of social discontent can only increase, says Elias Isaac, Angola country director for the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa (OSISA), a pro-democracy group.
But other analysts believe the ruling party is flexible enough to respond and avoid a serious threat to its dominance.
“I think they have to worry about it, that they know enough to give a little,” said John Campbell, Ralph Bunche Senior Fellow for Africa Policy Studies at the New York-based Council for Foreign Relations.
But recalling the Angolan state’s dependence on the oil revenues that represent over 95 percent of export income and almost half of GDP, he added: “One thing that could upset the apple cart - what happens if oil prices collapse?”
Angolans of all classes will tell you the “maka” (a Kimbundu word for “problems” or “trouble”) of their country is its huge natural wealth, and the question of how it is shared.
Angola’s contrasts between rich and poor are as starkly distinct as the red and black colours of the national flag, whose depictions of a machete and an industrial cog are intended to symbolise the proletariat the MPLA claims to represent.
Crowded “musseques”, slums of dusty close-packed shacks, fringe swathes of Luanda, while gleaming new office and apartment blocks thrust into the skyline and dot the southern suburbs where Chinese, Portuguese and Brazilian firms fight out a multi-billion dollar feeding frenzy of construction.
“These houses are for people who are rich,” says mason’s assistant Silva Fernando, 23, a solitary figure in red shorts, a brown T-shirt and flip-flops as he strolls amid Kilamba Kiaxi’s empty buildings and deserted avenues on a Sunday.
He earns 21,000 kwanzas ($210) a month as one of the Angolan workers who labour for the Chinese construction company CITIC on the Kilamba project. Some sleep during the week in old metal shipping containers on empty earth lots between the apartments.
In one of the few Kilamba apartments that are occupied, Severino Gomes and his family are just starting breakfast.
Gomes, 35, is an accountant at a state firm who has just moved in to Kilamba, paying $680 a month under an instalment payment scheme that will eventually give him ownership of an apartment - with running water and electricity, still a luxury for most Angolans - he says has been priced at $140,000.
He recognises he is one of a relatively privileged few but believes progress has been made since the end of the civil war.
“A country is built slowly ... I think we’re coming up,” he said, moving his hand up. “We’re advancing and we’ll have our Angolan democracy in accordance with our reality.”
Defending its performance in the election, the MPLA held up Dos Santos as the best guarantor of peace and prosperity. It said strong growth since the end of the war allowed the government to cut poverty levels from 68 percent of the population in 2002 to around 39 percent in 2009.
Angola’s GDP is expected to expand between 8 and 10 percent this year, and 2010 GDP per capita was $4,328, among the highest in Africa, but also among the least evenly shared in the world.
“I can’t accept people driving around Ferraris in this city,” an Angolan who works in the finance sector told Reuters.
The MPLA’s election slogan included a pointed pledge to “distribute better”. But it remains to be seen whether the government will diversify from showy big-ticket infrastructure projects, after unveiling a host of roads, airports, bridges, hospitals and other works during the election campaign.
Joao Lourenco, a 35, a teacher, points to a $360 million makeover for the Luanda bayside promenade inaugurated by the president days before the election. The project is important, but the country has far more pressing priorities, he says.
“Look at these children, they’re not in school,” he said, gesturing to a ragged gaggle of minors playing in the muddy street of the ramshackle Sambizanga slum, where Dos Santos’s official biography says the president was born. “That money should be used to construct schools and hospitals.”
Africa Confidential’s Smith said there was little evidence of priorities changing: “There is no sign of factoring in to a real change of living standards for ordinary people. There is a lack of change on the ground for ordinary people.”
As Africa’s second longest-serving leader after Equatorial Guinea’s President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, Dos Santos, known popularly as “Zedu”, has remained reserved and inscrutable, deflecting close investigation of his life.
This has not stopped the party from cultivating his image. Dos Santos appears on the national banknotes with independence hero and first president Agostinho Neto. His youthful portrait - belying his real silver-haired 70 years - beams down benevolently from walls and slumside billboards across Luanda.
Opponents and critics accuse him of running the nation and its oil and diamond riches as a personal fiefdom, operating the top-heavy political system as a well-oiled patronage machine to reward loyalty, buy off foes and enrich family and supporters.
“The money does not belong to Jose Eduardo dos Santos, it belongs to the people. Seventy-five percent of people live badly because of Dos Santos and his ‘Royal Family’,” said opposition supporter Arao Salomao, 65, who lost an arm in the war.
Rights groups like Global Witness say a web of state companies in Angola’s lucrative oil and diamond industries lead back to the close-knit group of aides and family surrounding the president at the Futungo das Belas presidential complex.
“People talk about Futungo as a collective ... (Dos Santos) is protected by its layers” said Smith, adding the president was adept at circulating members of the elite through government.
But even detractors say that Dos Santos’s deadpan public speaking style belies a skilful political operator and survivor. With the help of Cold War allies Cuba and the Soviet Union he beat back multiple military invasions by South African apartheid forces through the 1980s. Since winning a brutal civil war against UNITA in 2002 he has presided over peace for a decade.
“He doesn’t talk much, but he acts, he’s very smart,” said OSISA’s Isaac, one of Angola’s leading civil society activists.
Isaac said the United States and Europe, both buyers of Angolan oil, did not want to risk their strategic ties by probing Angola’s ruling system too closely, especially given China’s big and growing trade and investment presence.
“Western governments don’t want to raise critical issues to the Angolan government because they know that China can easily substitute them,” Isaac said.
The European Union and United States sent no observers to last month’s election, which was given broad approval by teams from the African Union, the Southern African Development Community and the Community of Portuguese-Speaking States.
Washington acknowledged “important concerns” raised by opposition parties and civil society over unequal access to the media, problems with voter rolls and a lack of timely accreditation of election observers, but congratulated Angola for “a peaceful and well-managed election”.
Mark Shroeder, Director of Sub-Saharan Africa Analysis at Strafor Global Intelligence said Angola can choose where it sells its oil and minerals, so any country which criticises its government risks being penalised.
“Angola is not a country dependent on anyone, and they know it as well,” Shroeder said.
Said Africa Confidential’s Smith: “This is a classic case of a savvy regime playing off the Americans, Chinese and the Europeans against each other, with resources everyone wants.”
In what most observers see as a succession manoeuvre, a 56-year-old technocrat and former CEO of state oil company Sonangol, Manuel Vicente, was elected Vice-President on the MPLA slate.
Vicente’s elevation is viewed as a sign that Dos Santos wants to steer the country in a more modern reformist direction.
But many wonder whether Vicente, who may face resistance from the MPLA’s political “old guard”, can soothe the social tensions simmering beneath Angola’s muscular oil-driven growth.
“The civil war may be over, but there is no moral peace,” said war veteran Salomao, hugging the stump of his arm.
Additional reporting by Shrikesh Laxmidas