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10 March 2003

A strange kind of morality

At the UN, Angola's vote is courted by the west. But should it not belong in the axis of evil?

By Peter Stanford

Much is being staked – by Tony Blair, above all – on the fate of a second resolution on Iraq going before the United Nations Security Council. Many who are deeply sceptical about the wisdom of war seem to accept that if a fresh resolution goes through authorising it, then any attack on Saddam Hussein will have moral legitimacy. To continue to resist, in such a scenario, would undermine the United Nations, the argument goes, and so deprive the world of any credible force for legitimacy.

This position begins to look untenable, however, when you examine the motives of some of the non-permanent members of the Security Council, nations on whose votes the moral defence of war currently rests.

I have just returned from Angola in south-western Africa where President Eduardo dos Santos and his ministers proudly point to their recent accession to the Security Council as evidence of their own elevated standing in the international community. Such claims are slavishly repeated in the state-controlled media there. What they don’t report is a recent leaked IMF report which reveals that the Angolan government has failed to account for $1bn of revenue in each of the past three years from its offshore oilfields. It disappears into what locals call a Bermuda Triangle between the state oil corporation (Sonangol), the Bank of Angola and the government.

Few with any knowledge of Angola have doubts where that money (and much more) has really gone: into running the corrupt patronage system which ensures that around 10 per cent of Angolans live prosperous lives, while the rest of the population exists on less than $1 a day, and has no access to schools or hospitals.

Angola is a kleptocracy and an outrage to anyone who speaks in terms of morality. If we take Blair at his word when, last year, he trumpeted his personal commitment to the eradication of African poverty, then Angola must surely figure in any “axis of evil”.

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If the past behaviour of the dos Santos regime is anything to go on, it will be auctioning its vital vote on the Security Council to the highest bidder. This is a government that, according to the pressure group Global Witness, has equalled the state-looting activities of the late General Mobutu in neighbouring Zaire. Nothing has any value in Angola unless the ruling elite can make a profit out of it. Hence their disregard for the lives of their countrymen. In the 1990s, their auction of oil franchises was exposed in the Angolagate scandal in France, a murky affair that led to the arrest of the son of a former president, Francois Mitterrand.

Something of Angola’s current relationship with the United Nations could be glimpsed in a visit to the country in January by Mary Robinson’s successor as UN high commissioner for human rights. Sergio Vieira de Mello was happy to echo the government’s line that peace had returned to Angola after its long civil war. He refused pointedly either to visit or even to address the province of Cabinda, where a ragtag army of separatist rebels has provoked the Angolan army into what independent observers have described as ethnic cleansing and war crimes. The reasons for his refusal can only be guessed at. However, the offshore waters of Cabinda are home to more than half of Angola’s oil production and in the present world climate, no one in the west wants to see that supply disrupted. A US National Intelligence Council report has predicted that by 2015 a quarter of oil imports to the US will come from the western shores of Africa.

So when Angola has finished playing off the Americans against the French to get the best price for its vote, there will, no doubt, be some additional clauses about not asking too many difficult questions about human rights and progress to democracy in Angola. Dos Santos has promised elections “soon”, but there is little urgency, least of all from the docile national assembly.

Talk of morality, then, seems misplaced – for all Blair’s fine rhetoric and chats with the Pope. Indeed, any expectation that the Angolan government might act morally should be judged against the provincial hospital I visited in the war-destroyed city of Uige, near the border with erstwhile Zaire.

The children’s ward was crammed with infants dying of malnutrition, malaria and TB. Seventy per cent would be dead by the next day, the one doctor working there told me.

The Angolan government has the money to provide those children with the food and medicines and healthcare infrastructure to prevent many such unnecessary deaths. Unlike most African nations, the country is rich. Instead, it chooses to pocket its oil money and spend it on overseas education for the children of the wealthy, overseas hospital care for ministers’ families and shopping trips in Rio for presidential cronies.

Tony Blair seems to me to be sincere in his concern for the Iraqi people, but when he speaks of the immorality of their situation he is being too selective. If the moral case against a particular government can be made on the basis of how it treats its people, then the Angolan regime is just as guilty as Saddam of sitting back and watching them die.

Yet instead of acting as a warning from the international community to this regime to reform its ways, the pursuit of war in Iraq leads the western powers and the United Nations to lend legitimacy to Eduardo dos Santos’s government. That will be the real price of any successful second resolution in the Security Council.

The author travelled to Angola with Cafod, the Catholic aid agency

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