Homeless pay the price of oil wealth

Observations on Angola

The National Assembly building in Luanda was recently the stage for an unusual spectacle: a queue of homeless people that stretched right across the manicured lawns and past the government ministries, each participant waiting to hand in a petition - a rare sign of protest by the city's many dispossessed.

"Our houses have been destroyed by the government," explained one young man, Felizão. "And now we are demanding compensation."

He and his companions once lived in Cambamba, a poor area on the outskirts of the city, and besides turning up with their petitions, many have also put their case directly in letters to President José Eduardo dos Santos - another audacious act in this tightly controlled country.

They are angry because, in March, police and private security men moved into Cambamba with bulldozers and destroyed the homes of hundreds of families to make way for a housing project.

Their slum is to be transformed into gleaming condominiums as part of an expanding development called Nova Vida, or "new life" - but they won't get to live there, because Nova Vida is reserved for members of the army of well-off foreign workers drawn here by the country's oil wealth.

As sub-Saharan Africa's second-biggest oil producer, Angola is reaping the profits from high oil prices, and foreigners are flocking to join the reconstruction bonanza (the civil war ended four years ago). House prices are among the highest in the world.

For the former residents of Cambamba, however, there is no boom. Thousands have been left homeless and many have lost their belongings, too. Until now, the government has not explained the legal basis of the evictions and has offered no compensation.

The tracks are fresh where the bulldozers destroyed their fields, and all that remains of the houses is splintered wood and stray pieces of sheet-metal. "The Europeans get to live in condos," says Manuel António, standing by the shack that represents all he could salvage. "We have to live like this, sleeping rough in the outside - no food, no doctors. Just mosquitoes."

Luanda is a city of slums - mostly populated by those

displaced in the war - on which

the government insists it is spending billions rebuilding, a process that includes slum clearance. But Luís Araújo of Habitat SOS, a local NGO, says: "The government has invested nothing in urban planning. So it just uses violence against the poor."

Maria de Gonga was with her sick infant at hospital when the police struck. "I came back and my house was destroyed," she says, cradling her baby by the baobab tree under which she has slept for the past week. "We are poor. What can we do? Nobody comes here to represent us."

At the National Assembly they represented themselves, demanding a meeting with the prime minister and a stake in the oil boom. Passers-by were amazed. "To challenge the government here is very difficult," said one. "I am impressed."

This article first appeared in the 22 May 2006 issue of the New Statesman, Heroes of our time - the top 50