Angola: The richest poor country in the world…. and the Chinese connection

Image: manbeastextraordinaire on Flickr / Some rights reserved

Somewhat predictably, I’ve become a little obsessed with the Cup of African Nations in Angola. The tournament was preceded by tragedy, as the Togo team bus was ambushed in Cabinda province, resulting in the deaths of three members of the team party. 48 hours later the football began, with an astonishing 4-4 draw between Angola and Mali; Mali scoring four times in the last 11 minutes. And just like that, the janus-faced character of Africa was once again displayed to the world – the political chaos; and then the extraordinary vitality.

But rumbling beneath the headline-grabbing events is an equally complex tale. Having emerged from civil war in 2002 (crudely put, a Cold War proxy conflict split between those who owned the oil and those who owned the diamonds) Angola is one of the world’s fastest growing economies – In 2007, its GDP grew by 23%, and this year it will hit £50bn, putting it on a par with some middle-ranking Latin American and Asian countries. However, it also boasts the inglorious title of the world’s seventh most corrupt state, in which three quarters of the population earn under $1 a day. [Stats from GQ piece, below]

And lookie here… where is the majority of Angola’s investment coming from? China, stupid.

Anyone interested in the complexities of African economics, and the brutally indiscriminate scope of Chinese foreign investment, will be interested to read the following articles.

First, a GQ feature by John Kampfner, former editor of the New Statesman, on “The World’s Richest Poor Country” (click through for a PDF). Here’s a snippet:

The IMF spent years negotiating a “transparency agreement” with Angola – money in return for commitment to political reform – only to be told hours before the deal was due to be signed in March 2004, that the authorities were not interested in the money. They had secured instead a £1bn soft loan from China, with no strings attached. Since then the Chinese have dominated investment over the past couple of years, cornering the market in building roads, bridges and railways. They bring in entire work troupes, and get things done far more quickly than anyone else.

The second piece – a superb post by Andrew Guest at – homes in on China’s role as the exclusive stadium builders for the CAN tournament in Angola … suggesting that it is part of a larger ‘stadium diplomacy’ in Africa:

The more contemporary geo-political implication of Angola’s oil is that it is one of several African countries embroiled in a quiet contest between the US and China in their quest to ensure energy for the future…Several months ago when US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was on her first major African tour, the New York Times declared “once again Angola is a crucial battleground. This time, it is the contest for influence between the United States and an increasingly powerful, resource-hungry China.”

And what does all this have to do with soccer? One of China’s most interesting tactics as it strives for global influence as an emerging superpower is what some have called “stadium diplomacy.” China’s general scheme in the world of international development has been to worry a lot less about moralizing and telling developing countries what to do (which has been the general caricature of much Western aid), and to worry a lot more about making friends and creating business opportunities with no strings attached. In Africa at least, building soccer stadiums are a great way to do that.

According to at least one source: “The Chinese have built or are in the process of building stadiums across a veritable A to Z of African states, including Angola, Benin, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Congo-Brazzaville, Djibouti, the Gambia, Liberia, Mali, Mauritius, Mozambique, Niger, Guinea, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Togo, Uganda, and Zimbabwe.” I can’t imagine the US Congress would be willing to spend hundreds of millions of dollars for soccer stadiums in Africa, but China doesn’t seem to have that problem.

Indeed it doesn’t. Depressing stuff. Now, back to the football…..

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