A four-lane avenue separates the shelled ruins of the art deco Ruacana Cinema from Huambo’s shiny new Chinese-built railway station, a symbol of the leaps Angola has made to recover from a devastating 27-year civil war that ended a decade ago. As Angolans prepare to go to the polls on Friday for only the second time since the end of the war, President Jose Eduardo dos Santos’s ruling MPLA party reminds them daily of the rewards of peace and boasts of its reconstruction achievements.
In power for nearly 33 years in Africa’s second-largest oil producer after Nigeria, Dos Santos – who turns 70 on Tuesday – is expected to lead his party to a one-sided election win, thanks to his political dominance and his carefully cultivated official image as guarantor of Angola’s peace and rebuilding. “We were at the abyss for a long time, now … we can see the great gains,” said Joao Limpinho, a government-employed signals manager at the railway terminal at Huambo, Angola’s second city, 600 kilometres (375 miles) southeast of Luanda.
Backed by an oil output boom, Angola has posted rapid growth. Between 2002 and 2008, the economy expanded by an average of 15 per cent per year. A fall in oil prices caused growth to brake to 2.4 per cent in 2009 and 3.4 per cent the next year. After disappointing oil output due to technical problems last year, when the economy also grew 3.4 percent, GDP is expected to expand between 8 per cent and 10 per cent this year.
The IMF says Angola’s GDP per capita in 2010 was $4,328, among the highest in Africa. But rights groups like Global Witness and Human Rights Watch and local rights activists have levelled a barrage of criticism against Dos Santos and his ruling MPLA for failing to share the oil riches more equally among Angola’s 18 million people. In his defence, Dos Santos simply points at what he has achieved since he came to power and how peaceful the country is compared to what it was in 1975.
In Luanda, glossy skyscrapers and high-end shops and restaurants are close to sprawling, crowded, tin-roof shantytowns whose poor residents sell goods – from flip-flops to smartphones – on the streets. The mostly new road between Huambo and Benguela is flanked by dozens of villages composed of shacks whose residents have no electricity and still collect water from nearby streams.