LUANDA: Angola is celebrating 35 years of independence after banishing its long chapter of civil war to the history books and becoming one of the world’s top oil producers, but still divided by a huge wealth gap.
Celebrations are to be held on Thursday at the November 11 Stadium on the outskirts of Luanda, a 50,000-seat venue that symbolizes the war-torn country’s rebirth and hosted the opening match of the Africa Cup of Nations in January.
The party is being held amid an economic boom and as memories fade of some four decades of conflict in the sprawling southwest African nation.
Independence from Portugal was preceded by a 14-year guerrilla war against the colonial rulers and followed by a 27-year civil war which ended in 2002.
The peace dividend has enabled Angola’s economy to surge ahead, with the World Bank predicting growth of up to 7.5 percent this year.
Much of that surge has been fuelled by a rise in oil exports, Angola now vying with Nigeria as Africa’s top oil exporter.
In December 2009, Luanda hosted a summit of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), which Angola had joined two years before, allowing the government to showcase a series of massive public works projects.
And in January, the country hosted the Africa Cup of Nations, the continent’s premier football tournament.
But poverty remains a daily reality for many of Angola’s 18.5 million people. According to UNICEF, 87 percent of urban residents live in shantytowns, and just 42 percent of Angolans have access to water.
Seventy percent of the population lives on less than two dollars a day.
"The distribution of wealth is too asymmetrical," economist Alves da Rocha told AFP. "The richest 20 percent of Angolans share 60 percent of national revenues, while the poorest 20 percent have only 7 percent of revenues.
Da Rocha says for that balance to change, Angola has to "actively combat" corruption. Angola was recently ranked the 10th most corrupt country in the world by the watchdog Transparency International.
The country is ruled by Jose Eduardo dos Santos, the longest-serving leader in Africa after Libya’s Moamer Kadhafi, who has faced a presidential election just once, in the 1992 poll that was cut short by renewed fighting.
Dos Santos took over in 1979 from Agostinho Neto, leader of the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), who proclaimed Angola’s independence on November 11, 1975, and became the country’s first president.
That date also marked the beginning of a civil war that saw the MPLA and a rival rebel group, the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (Unita), fight a bloody 27-year conflict for control of the country.
The power struggle became a proxy battle in the Cold War, with the Soviet Union and Cuban army backing the MPLA and the United States and apartheid South Africa backing Unita.
Although the MPLA abandoned Communism in favour of a market economy in the early 1990s, the peace process broke down with a failed election in 1992. The war, which ultimately claimed half a million lives, ended only in 2002 with the death of Unita leader Jonas Savimbi.
But while the conflict is officially over, the African Cup of Nations served up a reminder of remaining tensions when separatists in the oil-rich northern exclave of Cabinda carried out a deadly attack on the Togo team’s bus.
Under a new constitution adopted in February, Dos Santos could extend his grip on power for another decade if his ruling MPLA retains its grip on parliament in elections scheduled for 2012.
The MPLA won 80 percent of the vote in the first legislative elections in 2008. Under the new constitution, the president will be elected directly by legislators, and Dos Santos will be eligible for two more five-year terms.