Magnificent and Beggar Land

Angola since the Civil War

March 2015 9781849042840 288pp
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Magnificent and Beggar Land is a powerful account of fast-changing dynamics in Angola, an important African state that is a key exporter of oil and diamonds and a growing power on the continent. Based on three years of research and extensive first-hand knowledge of Angola, it documents the rise of a major economy and its insertion in the international system since it emerged in 2002 from one of Africa’s longest and deadliest civil wars.

The government, backed by a strategic alliance with China and working hand in glove with hundreds of thousands of expatriates, many from the former colonial power, Portugal, has pursued an ambitious agenda of state-led national reconstruction. This has resulted in double-digit growth in Sub-Saharan Africa’s third largest economy and a state budget in excess of total western aid to the entire continent.

Scarred by a history of slave trading, colonial plunder and war, Angolans now aspire to the building of a decent society. How has the regime, led by President José Eduardo dos Santos since 1979, dealt with these challenges, and can it deliver on popular expectations? Soares de Oliveira’s book charts the remarkable course the country has taken in recent years.

Table of contents

Preface and Acknowledgments

Introduction. “Angola Starts Now”

Chapter 1.  In the Shadow of War: Oil and the Making of the Parallel System

Chapter 2. The Spectacle of Reconstruction

Chapter 3. The Consolidation of the MPLA Party-State

Chapter 4. Oligarchic Capitalism, Angola-Style

Chapter 5. Angola Rising: International Strategies in the Peace Era

Conclusion. Post-Postwar Angola



‘Marvellous.’ — Simon Kuper, Financial Times

‘A lucid, clear and remarkably well-informed look at a particularly complex and so often absurd country, served by writing of a rare literary quality. Brilliant!’ — José Eduardo Agualusa, Angolan novelist

‘The transformation of Angola from a cold-war basket case, wracked by civil war, into one of the fastest growing economies in the world is a remarkable story. Soares de Oliveira is an Oxford academic with a journalist’s taste for on-the-ground reporting. The story has many interesting facets — including the growing influence of China, oil-fuelled growth, corrosive corruption and staggering inequality.’ — Gideon Rachman, Financial Times

‘This engrossing, authoritative account of Angola’s history since 2002, when its three-decade-long civil war finally ended, explains how a Marxist-Leninist government morphed into one of the most corrupt crony-capitalist regimes in the world.’ — Nicolas van de Walle, Foreign Affairs

‘Soares de Oliveira offers a fascinating account of the Machiavellian adaptability of the MPLA leadership … [He] has a particular skill in understanding how what begins as one thing can transmute into another — including how [President] dos Santos the malleable puppet became dos Santos the almighty. He offers a detailed account of the aging president’s accumulation of nearly unchallengeable power.’ — Los Angeles Review of Books

‘Soares de Oliveira charts an extraordinary oil-fuelled state-building project. With an eye for realpolitik, de Oliveira is a deft guide through Angola’s phoenix-like rise. His real achievement is not merely to have obtained such rich source material from a country where it is notoriously difficult to speak critically. Rather, it is to have analysed the crafting of an African petro-state with an ethnographic sense of detail and a political scrutiny that is global in its reach, closely woven to Angola’s historical roots.’ — Zoe Cormack, Times Literary Supplement

‘Soares de Oliveira’s book is an important academic and methodological achievement […] a classic work not only for an understanding of post-conflict Angola, but also for an understanding of post-independence Angolan politics and society.’ — Jean-Michel Mabeko-Tali, Portuguese Literary and Cultural Studies

‘Soares de Oliveira has a real enthusiasm for Angola as it emerges from “its postwar political hibernation” into a harsh, polarising version of African capitalism. He acknowledges the country’s right to lead the field in the media-chic “Africa rising” narrative – plentiful resources, prodigal inward investment, dynamic barter with the Chinese – but its social disarray and its vast inequality trouble him deeply. He thinks that the best Angolans can hope for, living in the shadow of Ozymandian public-private projects and a glittering oligarchy, is to position themselves in the path of government handouts. Angola replicates “the distributional clientelism of petro-states” – Saudi Arabia, Venezuela or Iran – “which provide large, but not overly large, segments of their populations with some disbursements”. He envisages ethnic and race anger, a growing dislike of foreigners, even the emergence of a Chávez lookalike to challenge the postwar order. … He is far too sane to wish another major upheaval on a country that has spent more than half its life since independence mired in conflict. Even so, he can’t imagine the Angolan poor, or for that matter educated dissidents, getting anywhere without a fight.’ — London Review of Books

‘This is a stunning book, which takes the lid off Angola in a way that I have never seen equalled for any African state — and does it, moreover, for a state which is both extremely important and very little known. It is superbly written, and draws on a detailed familiarity that gives a feel for the place that no amount of simple fact gathering could ever convey. It will be absolutely essential for understanding Angola. At the same time, it paints a convincing picture of the African oil state that will have a resonance well beyond Angola, and should bring it to the attention of anyone concerned with African development, and especially the “African miracle” that has been built largely on the back of temporarily booming commodity prices.’ — Christopher Clapham, Professor, Centre of African Studies, University of Cambridge

‘Fascinating, provocative, and based on extensive field research, the book is an in-depth contribution to understanding Angola’s path after the end of the civil war’. — Manuel Ennes Ferreira, Professor, ISEG, Technical University of Lisbon

‘Nothing like this book has existed. Drawing on a large number of interviews and years of closely following the country’s politics, Soares de Oliveira provides a hugely informative insight into Angola’s extraordinary postwar transformation. He provides a detailed analysis of the emergence of an Angolan oligarchy and its roots in an exercise in postwar parallel state building. And he shows superbly how this state has completely monopolised politics, and has rebuilt its place in the world — and in Angola itself — but has not, at any rate as yet, become a developmental state delivering widespread material benefits.’ — Christopher Cramer, Professor of the Political Economy of Development, School or Oriental and African Studies, University of London

‘Ricardo Soares de Oliveira’s profound knowledge of the political economy of petroleum in Angola is once again revealed in his new book on the country’s post-2002 trajectory.’ — Alves da Rocha, Professor, Catholic University of Angola and Director of CEIC

‘This is the best study of Angola in English, and one of the best books in any language on what remains a poorly understood country. It also serves to illustrate some of the deeper complexities underlying the “Africa Rising” narrative that has become so prominent in international business circles.’ — Stephen Ellis, Desmond Tutu Professor, Free University, Amsterdam and author of External Mission: The ANC in Exile, 1960-1990



Ricardo Soares de Oliveira is Associate Professor in Comparative Politics, University of Oxford, fellow of St Peter's College, Oxford, and fellow of the Global Public Policy Institute, Berlin. He is the author of Oil and Politics in the Gulf of Guinea and co-editor of China Returns to Africa, both of which are published by Hurst.

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