Major Development Challenges Facing the Republic of Angola: Completing the Democratic Transition and Making Government Work

By Dustin R. Turin
2010, Vol. 2 No. 04 | pg. 2/2 |

At this time, Angola does not in practice meet the criteria for being considered a so-called electoral democracy, despite having begun the “democratic transition” more than 15 years ago. As Handelman points out, “only when democratic institutions, practices, and values have become deeply ingrained in society can we say that a country has experienced democratic consolidation” (Handelman 2009: 30); for this to happen, the government of Angola needs to finish what it started in 1992 by holding free and fair elections and ending the tradition of government “whose central purpose [is] self-enrichment” (Meredith 2006: 603).

Making Government Work

The goals of securing democratic rule and broadening prosperity in Angola are made significantly more challenging because of the country’s rich endowment of natural resources. This “paradox of plenty” (Karl 1997) has been at the root of Angolan conflict since the 1990s, when the civil war shifted from a Cold War struggle to something entirely different: “[After the 1990s] ideology was no longer driving the fighting; it was driven by Angola’s oil and diamonds. The combatants fought to control the government because the government controlled the resource revenues. In the end, Angola’s civil war became little more than a grab for personal riches” (McMillan 2005: 158). Decades of war were highly profitable for President dos Santos and his associates; in 2003, the richest person in Angola was the President himself, while the next seven on the rich-list were all government officials who had amassed at least $100 million over the years (McMillan 2005: 155).

Because of rampant corruption, Angola has been largely ineffective at translating vast natural wealth to human development within the population. More than 30% of Angolans remain illiterate and the average life expectancy of its citizens is of the lowest in the world, at 46.5 years (172nd out of 182 ranked countries) (UNDP 2009). In 2003, the non-profit group Global Witness found that approximately a quarter of all state revenue from the preceding two years—about $1 billion per year—had gone unaccounted for, noting “the missing money is over three-times the value of the international humanitarian aid that currently keeps about 10% of Angola’s citizens alive” (2003). Even though GDP per capita has grown significantly since 2002, most Angolans have not realized substantial benefits and “remain dirt poor” (The Economist 2008). In 2009, the World Bank estimates that two-thirds of the population lives on less than $2 per day (Reuters 2009b). What, then, of the vast resource wealth possessed by this naturally well-endowed country?

Out of touch with the plight of its people, the government today remains highly opaque, and in fact the country has fallen backwards in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI), shifting from a 2.0 in 2004 to a 1.9 in 2009 (Transparency International 2009). The country has faced increasing pressure in the past year to increase transparency, culminating most recently in a $1.4 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), disbursements of which are contingent upon meeting goals that include balancing the budget, increasing social expenditures, and stabilizing exchange rates (Reuters November 2009). However, Angola has not made any serious indication of how it intends to achieve these goals, and as one of the most corrupt countries in the world it is clear that making government work for the people—by achieving a more equitable income distribution and reducing profligate government spending—will remain a significant long term challenge. So long as the growth Angola achieves over the coming years continues to be realized only by society’s elite, the population as a whole will continue to stagnate.

Conclusion: How to Move Angola Forward?

The way forward in Angola must be paved with the adoption of more democratic government institutions. The so-far incomplete process of democratic transition has taken nearly two decades, with the sluggish pace coming at the expense of the Angolan populace.

Elections are an important first step, but if and when elections do take place, the international community needs to recognize that a democratic environment is not likely to flourish under a leader who has been in power—secured through brute force—since the days of independence; as a reminder, we need only look to neighbor Zimbabwe and the devastation a stale dictator has caused under the mandate of ‘democratic elections.’ Elections are therefore only a first step, with a more substantial process of democratic consolidation required if a brighter future is to be painted for regular Angolans. The most important consideration needs to be the realization of substantive goals within the population—not just a growing economy that narrowly enriches the nation’s futungos.

To broadly improve these outcomes, it is therefore essential for the government to become more accountable to its people, by increasing transparency and reducing the blatant wastefulness caused by cronyism and other forms of official corruption. Indeed, overcoming the ‘resource curse’ may prove as difficult as ending the civil war; but in the end, it is nearly as important.

If and when Angola can successfully clear these hurdles, it has a wealth of natural resources, a geographically advantageous position in sub-Saharan Africa, and the untapped human potential of its population, all sitting in wait. Together, these elements could poise the country for a fast ascendance with the potential to broadly benefit the population.


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--. “Background Notes: Angola.” U.S. Department of State, 2009. Retrieved from: .

--. "Corruption Perceptions Index 2009." Transparency International, 2009. Retrieved from:

--. “Democracy of Monopoly?” Human Rights Watch, February 2009. Retrieved from:

--. “Freedom in the World: Angola.” Freedom House, 2009. Retrieved from:

--. “Human Development Report 2009.” UN Development Program, 2009. Retrieved from:

--. “IMF says transparency key to $1.4 bln Angola loan.” Reuters, November 2009. Retrieved from:

--. “Marching towards riches and democracy?” The Economist, August 2008.

--. “The World Factbook: Angola.” Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), 2009. Retrieved from:

--. “Timeline: Angola.” BBC, 2009. Retrieved from:

Global Witness. “Will Angola Finally Publish Its Oil Accounts?” Review of African Political Economy. 30.98. December 2003: pp 685-686.

Handelman, Howard. The Challenge of Third World Development (5th edition). Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 2009.

Henderson, Lawrence W. Angola: Five Centuries of Conflict. Ithaca [N.Y.]: Cornell UP, 1979.

Karl, Terry Lynn. The Paradox of Plenty: Oil Booms and Petro-States. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.

McMillian, John. “Promoting Transparency in Angola.” Journal of Democracy. 16.3. 2005.

Meredith, Martin. The Fate of Africa: A History of Fifty Years of Independence. New York: PublicAffairs, 2006.

Minter, William. Apartheid's Contras: An Inquiry into the Roots of War in Angola and Mozambique. Johannesburg: Witwatersrand UP, Zed Books, 1994.

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