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May 7, 2012 | 12:33 GMT

27 mins read

The Geopolitics of Angola: An Exception to African Geography

A lone tree stands amidst a rocky and barren landscape.
(Getty Images)
Editor's Note

This is the 18th in a series of monographs on the geopolitics of countries influential in world affairs.

Sub-Saharan Africa is a region hostile to human development. Steep-sided plateaus, jungle-covered mountains, swampy coasts, rugged uplands and barren deserts dominate most of its terrain. These pervasive barriers impede almost every type of meaningful economic expansion in almost every part of the continent aside from South Africa's coastal strip.

Without arable plains, agricultural surpluses cannot be created easily. Without navigable rivers, goods cannot be transported to potential markets cheaply. Most of sub-Saharan Africa's geography is antithetical to capital generation, yet the region needs large volumes of capital to compensate for its shortcomings. As a result, the region — similar to other places where capital is in high demand but low supply — is beset by widespread poverty.

Political disunity is another product of Africa's terrain. The same geographic barriers to capital generation also inhibit human interaction. Forming common identities among populations separated by jungles and mountains — features that divide rather than unite — is difficult at best. The result in the majority of sub-Saharan Africa, as in other regions in the world facing similar climatic and topographic challenges, is disunion of identities.

Angola is one of the continent's few potential exceptions to this geographic generality. The country's robust external barriers shield it from other powers, while its negligible internal barriers make it one of the few African states capable of uniting into a single nation.


The bulk of the country is semiarid elevated savannah. Only two regions, both located in western Angola, have sufficient water for abundant agriculture. Naturally, these regions, the Kwanza River Valley and the central highlands, or "planalto" (Portuguese for "plateau") region, are home to Angola's two dominant ethnicities: the Mbundu and Ovimbundu, respectively. (Unsurprisingly, these groups were the major belligerents in the country's civil war, which ended in 2002.)

The Kwanza River, which meets the Atlantic Ocean roughly 50 kilometers (31 miles) south of Luanda, the capital, is Angola's only notable river. Its river valley offers the only easy access to the country's interior. The planalto is the country's breadbasket. With an average elevation of 1,000-1,700 meters (3,300-5,600 feet) above sea level, the planalto is high enough to capture rainfall and mitigate southern Africa's heat.

Generally, the farther one travels from these core territories, the less useful the land becomes. Eventually, the topography transitions into some of the continent's most distinct and effective geographic barriers. The jungles of the Congo Basin lie to Angola's north. The Namib Desert lies to the south. The eastern border is less distinct, but the land becomes steadily more rugged and arid the farther east one ventures. The vast majority of Angolans live in the western half of the country.


A steep escarpment rising out of the country's coastal plain separates most of Angola's territory from the sea, sharply dividing the interior from the narrow plain. Though relatively small, the plain widens exceptionally by African standards in the region around Luanda and the mouth of the Kwanza River. Here, at 210 kilometers, the coastal plain is at its widest and most fertile. To the south, the plain rapidly narrows and ultimately disappears into desert near the city of Lobito, roughly halfway down the coast to the Namibian border.

Angola's maritime options are constrained in number and in scope (similar to the rest of sub-Saharan Africa). Luanda, the most developed part of the country, has a shallow, small and crowded port. Lobito, home to the country's only potential deep-water port, lies at the desert's edge and has little in the way of hinterland to leverage for commerce. The southern town of Namibe also has a port, but it too is surrounded by desert and is essentially a world away from Luanda. For its part, the Kwanza River is only navigable by small watercraft.

Angola has an additional noteworthy piece of territory: the exclave of Cabinda, located north of the Congo River and the Democratic Republic of the Congo's (DRC) thin coastal strip. Though the Portuguese initially treated Cabinda as a separate protectorate, the territory eventually fell under the administrative control of the colonial governor of Angola. After Angolan independence in 1975, Cabinda remained subject to Luanda despite local calls for independence. Cabinda is not a core Angolan territory. Its people are not among Angola's largest or ruling ethnicities. However, in addition to its natural resources, the exclave provides Luanda a base for intimidating neighboring states — a key tenet of Angolan foreign policy.

Despite its maritime disadvantages, Angola is geographically blessed compared to most African states. As mentioned, most of Angola's geographic barriers — such as the Congolese jungle and the Namib Desert — are external. So unlike most African states, Angola has the potential to unify under a single banner. And while Angola will never be able to generate enough capital to become a wealthy state, its ability to unite is already allowing it to become a major regional power in the future.

The Angolan Center of Power

Little of Angola's colonial history is relevant to a discussion of modern Angola and its future. While the Portuguese were present in the region for the better part of four centuries, they did not fundamentally reshape local cultures as did the British in South Africa or the French in Southeast Asia, to say nothing of the more "successful" colonies in the Americas. Regional challenges posed by the coastal escarpment, hostile tribes and tropical diseases meant that, even in the 20th century, it was quite rare for Portuguese tax collectors to exercise inland influence. In addition, Portugal was one of Europe's poorer colonizers and lacked resources to invest in Angola.

Portugal initially gained control of Angola because Lisbon was the imperial power that discovered it. But Portugal only held Angola because no other colonial powers wanted it. Unlike seemingly endless imperial conflicts over the world's more valuable real estate, Angola hosted only one such clash (with the Dutch in the 1640s), which itself was essentially a sideshow of a larger globe-spanning conflict. As result, Angola was never developed. Instead, the country was used by the Portuguese to procure slaves, who would be exchanged for gold from other regional powers or sent to plantations in Portugal's more profitable colonial ventures, such as Brazil or Sao Tome and Principe. Consequently, unlike other colonies that inherited a modicum of infrastructure and education from colonization, Angola emerged in much the same shape as when Portugal found it in the 1400s — undeveloped, divided by ethnic rivalries and sequestered from the outside world.

The experience of the Mbundu stands as the exception to Portuguese exploitation. Luanda is located where it is for several reasons: It is near the mouth of the Kwanza River, Angola's only sizable river, where the coastal plain is widest and the coastal escarpment least daunting. Thus, the capital is the only place in which the interior of Angola can interact with the outside world. It also is the most-capital rich location within 3,000 kilometers in any direction. For the colonial Portuguese in search of slaves or a launching point to the Far East, Luanda was a logical base of operations for the region. Between the access it afforded to the Kwanza River Valley and the relative width of the plain at that point, Luanda became the only reliable corridor for inland penetration for the Portuguese — but even then they could do so only along the river valley. The Portuguese established other coastal bases and made other attempts to penetrate the Angolan interior, but the Luanda/Kwanza corridor was the only one used consistently.

Consequently, the Mbundu received the few benefits of the colonial experience. What infrastructure the Portuguese constructed was built in their lands. What trade opportunities emerged did so in their territory. What links to the outside world existed were anchored in their city, Luanda. And when the Portuguese left, all of these things became theirs — and nearly theirs alone.

Civil War

For all practical purposes, the Angolan Civil War, waged from 1975-2002, was the second chapter of the country's war for independence, which began in 1961. Three largely ethnic factions, each backed by a distinct array of foreign sponsors, waged most of the fighting. Each group had advantages and disadvantages, but ultimately only the Mbundu, represented by the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), enjoyed the geography, capital-generating capacity and international access sufficient to achieve victory.

The Bakongo, represented by the militant group National Front for the Liberation of Angola (FNLA), hailed from northwest Angola. (For the most part, the Bakongo inhabited the exclave of Cabinda, which was shielded from the war by its geographic separation.) But without a river or a port in Angolan territory and outnumbered 2-to-1, they were easy targets for the Mbundu. The FNLA had rearguard support from Zaire, but when the group's initial attack on Luanda failed, it was only a matter of time before the Mbundu, with a geographical advantage, eliminated the Bakongo threat. The FNLA was defeated in 1976, a year after Angolan independence, at which point the Mbundu focused on their true rivals, the Ovimbundu.

The Ovimbundu, represented by the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA), were formidable adversaries. They too held some distinct geographic advantages. Although Angola generally lacks significant natural barriers to internal movement, the planalto region provided the Ovimbundu a reasonably solid buffer against encroachment. However, the barrier proved more effective during the colonial period than during the civil war, when modern transportation technology such as airplanes and motorized vehicles allowed the MPLA to penetrate Ovimbundu lands.

But the geography of Ovimbundu lands still provided the group significant advantages. The planalto is large (at some 75,000 square kilometers, it is slightly larger than Ireland) and remote (no significant rivers facilitate access to the region), and it occupies Angola's strategic high ground. Portugal lacked the manpower to do more than occupy the cities on the Kwanza River, leaving the Ovimbundu's rural uplands largely undisturbed by the slave trade. The planalto also contains the country's largest chunk of arable land, with an ideal climate and terrain for maize, which was introduced by the Portuguese to feed slaves. Insulation from the slave trade and a diet of high-caloric maize allowed the Ovimbundu something of a population boom. By the time the war started, the group accounted for 37 percent of the country's total population, compared to just 25 percent for the Mbundu.

Yet the Mbundu ultimately prevailed in the war, largely because, from their location at Luanda, they were the legal successor to Portugal and controlled the majority of licit trade. International sanctions forced the Mbundu's rivals to work through middlemen, smugglers and money launderers while the Mbundu could simply place orders normally and have what they needed delivered to Luanda free of such surcharges. For items such as gasoline and weapons, this seemingly small advantage proved critical.

So 27 years and 500,000 lives lost after independence, the MPLA emerged victorious in 2002. Because the MPLA is the only government the independent state of Angola has ever known, this monograph does not so much describe the imperatives of Angola, but rather of the MPLA, which rules the country from the Mbundu core.

Geopolitical Imperatives

1: Establish Dominance Over the Mbundu Core

The Mbundu core is the most important real estate in Angola. It encompasses the capital, the only significant port, the only sizable river and nearly the country's entire improved infrastructure. Almost all links to the outside pass through, or exist solely within, this territory.

While the whole of Angola is protected by external barriers, the Mbundu core is extraordinarily exposed internally. Its geography leaves it vulnerable to invasion from all sides, with no formidable natural barriers to invading armies. Sandwiched by the Bakongo to the north and the Ovimbundu to the south, the Mbundu must first establish dominance around Luanda and the lower reaches of the Kwanza River to prevent the Bakongo and the Ovimbundu from sharing a common border. Such a border would facilitate a Bakongo-Ovimbundu alliance, which was an early objective of the FNLA and the UNITA during the civil war. Assuming the Bakongo could tap the oil revenues from deposits off the coast of their lands, the two groups' combined economic power, surplus food production (from the rich agricultural lands of the Ovimbundu core) and population (combined, they would outnumber the Mbundu nearly 2-to-1) would create a threat the Mbundu would struggle to withstand.

2: Dominate the Bakongo Lands of Angola

When faced with multiple threats from different directions, the most logical move is to work to eliminate them in order of geographic proximity and decreasing payout, thus steadily expanding one's resource base and security. To put this imperative into a familiar context, in World War II Germany eliminated threats posed by the Netherlands and France before turning to the Soviet Union.

The Bakongo represent the most obvious threat to the Mbundu because they inhabit the population zone closest to the Mbundu core. Unlike the Ovimbundu to the south, the Bakongo are not protected by highlands. In the opening days of the war, FNLA forces came within 32 kilometers of Luanda. This forced the MPLA to counter with everything it had, including newly arrived Cuban troops, who proved invaluable. Within two years, the MPLA had pushed the FNLA out of Angola and back into its rearguard support zone in Zaire (today the DRC).

By establishing control over Bakongo lands, the Mbundu did not just remove a threat and reduce the conflict to a one-front war. They also gained unquestioned control over an invaluable economic resource: Angola's offshore oil production. While the Bakongo never controlled oil production (during colonialism the Portuguese administered the industry from Luanda and subcontracted production to international oil companies), their presence in Cabinda, combined with the race to succeed the Portuguese in power, compelled the Mbundu to advance on the FNLA.

Oil invariably will find a buyer in international markets. It buys weapons and loyalty. It serves as collateral for loans from countries that do not make demands regarding good governance. It gives a government freedom to act as it sees fit and, in the case of Angola, it endowed the MPLA with the resources to fight (and win) a long, grinding war. And it became Angola's top export the year before independence, despite an output of less than 200,000 barrels per day over the next decade.

Incidentally, Angola's oil industry produced one of the war's greatest ironies: The Soviet-backed MPLA used Cuban soldiers to protect American-operated oil assets from U.S.-backed UNITA militants so that the oil — used to fuel Western economies — could fund a Soviet-backed government fighting U.S.-backed rebels.

3: Seize the Northeast (the Lunda Provinces)

While its battles with the FNLA were not easy, the MPLA benefitted from a number of advantages that made the outcome relatively certain. However, the Ovimbundu were a far stronger foe than the FLNA. The MPLA simply lacked the force size needed to fight an uphill battle against an enemy like the UNITA, which was able to field an army from a larger ethnic base than the Mbundu. The MPLA needed to expand its zone of control in order to weaken the UNITA without fighting the group in Ovimbundu territory. The solution was to seize northeast Angola's Lunda provinces. Though located outside the Ovimbundu core, these provinces were central to the UNITA's war-funding strategy.

The geographic location of the Ovimbundu core may have provided the UNITA with its greatest strength — manpower — but supplies and weapons are also necessary in war. Securing weapons is expensive in a country with little modern infrastructure and few industrial plants, particularly without access to capital or a decent port. Such was the case with the UNITA during the civil war. So the group sought to obtain funds by establishing control of Angola's alluvial diamond deposits in the Lunda provinces. Alluvial diamonds can be mined by hand with low-skilled labor, and the high value-to-weight ratio of diamonds made them ideal for smuggling out of the country in exchange for much-needed war materiel.

But since alluvial diamonds, by definition, lie close to the surface, they are in limited supply. So diamonds became harder to find as the war continued, and UNITA forces had to spread themselves thinly in search of them. This made UNITA fighters more vulnerable to increasingly well-equipped MPLA forces, and the UNITA quickly fell into combat ineffectiveness. By the early 2000s, MPLA forces were able to sweep across the poorly protected swaths of the Lunda flatlands, scattering and destroying UNITA forces. Furthermore, the region still had an abundance of diamonds embedded in kimberlite geologic formations, which require more skill and equipment to unearth. This granted the MPLA a new income stream that only they — with higher capital capacity and access to Western markets — could tap.

With the loss of the Lunda provinces, the UNITA lacked goods to barter. The group faced a choice: continue a war that would likely result in national destruction or sue for peace. Former UNITA leader Jonas Savimbi chose to fight. Shortly after the death of Savimbi and his deputy in 2002, however, the UNITA entered peace talks with the MPLA and the war ended. An uneasy peace commenced, lasting to this day.

4: Ruthlessly Suppress Internal Dissent

Governing Angola is a steep challenge for the Mbundu, who make up just a quarter of the country's total population. A democratic, multiethnic political system is simply not an option for them; the Mbundu would be greatly outnumbered and outvoted by those they defeated. Similarly, sharing the country's wealth is not an option; the Mbundu won the war largely because they controlled the country's income streams, and what little noteworthy Angolan economic activity beyond oil and diamonds (both still controlled by the Mbundu) happens in the Mbundu core. Direct occupation of the rest of Angola is impossible too. A minority in the country they rule, the Mbundu simply lack the population required to constantly patrol the entirety of Angola.

Instead, the Mbundu maintain control by intimidating the opposition with a rigorous internal security service. An extensive network of local informants planted among non-Mbundus is an effective tool in this regard, as is its robust black-clad paramilitary group known as "Ninjas," which brutally enforce the state's will. To maintain its war gains, the MPLA must steadily grind away the will of all non-Mbundu to resist the state, ideally until opposition populations choose to identify with the Mbundu.

Such policies are applied robustly throughout the planalto, home to the greatest number of Ovimbundu. The MPLA's fear and suppression tactics are applied thoroughly in Cabinda as well. As an exclave, Cabinda requires a larger-than-normal security presence for the Mbundu to retain control, so it is the one part of Angola outside the Mbundu core that the MPLA thoroughly patrols. The MPLA has always maintained security forces in Cabinda numbering in the tens of thousands to eliminate resistance to its rule — despite an overall population of just 350,000 people.

The "Mbunduzation" of Angola cannot be completed in a generation. But Angola's geography, with few significant barriers to internal movement, gives the Mbundu the chance to succeed given sufficient time. This strategy closely resembles that of early Russia, which Moscow has yet to alter 300 years later.

5: Establish a Cordon of Buffer States

With the war over and internal consolidation a long-term task, the MPLA also needs to ensure that Angola's borderlands do not become problematic. There are three concerns here:

First, the relatively small population of Mbundu means that Angola cannot field a military as large as its total population suggests. Angola also cannot engage in traditional military attacks or defense tactics because it cannot trust the majority of its own people to put first what the Mbundu considers to be Angola's interests. Thus, Luanda must prevent large-scale, cross-border conflicts from arising in the first place.

Second, the MPLA cannot allow outside powers to use one of Angola's neighbors as a staging ground for attack (as South Africa used Namibia repeatedly during the Angolan Civil War). Angola lacks the strength — both economic and military — to engage in a broad war against a large, well-funded foe. So its best strategy is to ensure that outside powers cannot use territories in its immediate vicinity as forward bases.

Third, there is no shortage of ethnic-based tension in Angola, firmly rooted in history and liberally enriched with recent bloodshed. It will take the better part of a century or more to craft an "Angolan" identity that can supersede internal resistance movements. Until then, the Mbundu must be proactive about preventing domestic groups from finding assistance nearby. This imperative is complicated by the fact that the MPLA's system of rule by suppression naturally pushes the MPLA's internal enemies to do just that.

While there are few barriers to movement within Angola, most of its border regions are sufficiently rugged to resist patrol by Luanda's limited military forces. This further complicates matters by making the border regions ideal staging grounds for rest and recruitment by groups opposed to the MPLA. For example, while the MPLA defeated the FNLA early in the civil war, the FNLA found refuge in Zaire and launched reprisals from there for years. Indeed, all four countries bordering Angola — Namibia, Zambia, the DRC and the Republic of the Congo (which borders Cabinda) — supported the FNLA, the UNITA or both at various points during the Angolan Civil War.

Angola's neighbors do not need to be conquered, and the MPLA does not want to conquer them. Assimilating each of Angola's disparate and hostile ethnic groups is a century-long task in itself; the last thing the MPLA needs is a larger challenge, especially one involving a geographic challenge like the jungles of the Congo. How the MPLA convinces its neighbors to look out for its interests is unimportant, so long as its interests are secured. This can be done via diplomacy, bribery, threats, border raids, or, working from the MPLA's fourth imperative, the application of Angola's intelligence apparatus.

Separated from Angola's sparsely populated southern provinces by the Namib Desert, Namibia was the state most operationally hostile to the MPLA during the war and the haven of choice for UNITA forces. South Africa occupied Namibia, known at the time as South-West Africa, until independence in 1990 and used the country to train UNITA forces and launch its own attacks on the MPLA. With little room to compromise, the MPLA helped engineer the overthrow of the South African-backed Namibian government in response. After Namibian independence, the South West Africa People's Organization militant group, which the MPLA harbored to fight the apartheid apparatus in Namibia, took power. Namibia today is not exactly an Angolan satellite state, but its government is extremely friendly toward the MPLA.

Zambia, another former sanctuary for UNITA forces, abuts Angola's lightly populated southeastern regions. Zambia poses less of a conventional military threat to the MPLA than Namibia. Even though it was much farther from the Ovimbundu core, Zambia's contributions to the UNITA were critical in another way. Without Zambian complicity in its smuggling operations, the UNITA would have been unable to get diamonds out or weapons into Angola. Consequently, once the UNITA was facing defeat, the Angolan military conducted a series of low-level bombings in major Zambian cities, including an attack in 1999 on the country's lone oil refinery. The message was clear: the UNITA will be defeated soon, and Lusaka is next unless it changes its behavior. Zambia quickly changed its policies and has not threatened the MPLA since.

The DRC — known as Zaire until the overthrow of former President Mobutu Sese Seko in 1997 — stretches along Angola's entire northern border. Most of this region is thickly forested, making it easy for FNLA forces operating from its homeland or UNITA forces operating from the Lunda provinces to cross into safe territory and escape MPLA forces. There are roughly three times as many ethnic Bakongo in the DRC as in Angola, making the country an ideal haven for rearguard attacks against Angola. Like Zambia, Zaire also served as a key link in UNITA smuggling operations. The MPLA responded to provocations by Mobutu by sponsoring its own proxy groups within Zaire. When this proved insufficient, the MPLA openly backed Rwanda's 1997 invasion of Zaire during the First Congo War, supporting multiple insurgent groups and launching brief attacks into Zairian territory to split Zairian forces. Mobutu's overthrow and exile followed.

Angola also deployed its Ninjas to the Republic of the Congo in 1997 to help facilitate the overthrow of former President Pascal Lissouba and support the installation of current President Denis Sassou-Nguesso. Lissouba had supported the UNITA during the 1990s in a manner similar to the anti-MPLA rearguard support provided by Zaire. Luanda remains concerned about lingering Bakongo opposition in Cabinda as well as the possibility of the DRC or the Republic of the Congo disrupting Angolan control of the exclave. Consequently, Luanda's security presence in Cabinda is not just intended to control locals but to intimidate foreigners as well.

6: Prevent the Rise of Regional Powers That Could Reach Angola

With the threats posed by its immediate neighbors controlled, the MPLA's next imperative is ensuring that more powerful regional states cannot threaten Angola. This includes Nigeria, Rwanda and South Africa.

Nigeria, which has more than eight times the population of Angola, is the strongest state in West Africa. Abuja's growing interest in the oil-rich Gulf of Guinea concerns Luanda, but Nigeria's ethnic identity is more convoluted than Angola's, making a nationalistic expansion strategy exceedingly difficult. The majority of Nigeria's energy is spent managing the country's complicated patchwork of competing tribal interests. With the vast Congo Basin separating Nigeria from Angola, conflict between the two states will likely be limited to diplomatic arguments over various maritime borders in the gulf.

Rwanda, in contrast, has half of Angola's population, although it too has a tightly controlling government. Unlike Luanda, which has focused its efforts on dominating its own territory, Kigali has regularly taken the fight to enemies further abroad. Most famously, in the Congo Wars of 1996-2003, Rwandan forces regularly operated more than 1,000 kilometers from their home territory and repeatedly reshaped the government of Zaire/the DRC. But like Nigeria, Rwanda's core concerns lie in a different region — in Kigali's case the Rift Valley of eastern Africa. Rwanda and Angola's interests overlap only in the DRC, where they are interested not so much in power projection, but instead in ensuring that no entities based or harbored there can threaten them. In fact, Angolan and Rwanda forces both opposed Kinshasa during the Congo Wars. So while there is certainly room for misunderstandings, and while relations between the states are hardly cordial, they are simply too far apart to interact unless the DRC becomes a proxy of one state or the other.

The real — and present — threat to Angola is South Africa. Formally, the relationship between the two is cordial. In fact, the MPLA provided sanctuary to elements of the current African National Congress government, including South African President Jacob Zuma, during its anti-apartheid struggle. But Pretoria views the MPLA government as the most credible threat to its dominant position in southern Africa, and the two countries already have been edging into a cold war.

South Africa is the most capital-rich state on the continent, with only Angola boasting similar resources. South Africa is rich in gold and diamond deposits and holds unrivaled industrial and population advantages over every other country in the region. In addition, South Africa has expanded its reach over much of southern and Central Africa, using its superior capital position to fund road and rail projects that link the region to South African population centers and ports.

Economic interests have driven this expansion, including the desire to acquire control over the region's mineral resources, to tap into a pan-regional labor pool, and to ensure that free movement of people keeps South Africa a hub for much of Africa's economic activity. South African financial and engineering assistance has contributed to the development of much of the region's mining and transportation infrastructure. While neighboring countries may prefer markets outside of Africa, dealing with the rest of the world still means in practical terms dealing with South Africa, most notably through the Port of Durban. A belt of territory stretching from Zimbabwe and Botswana up through Zambia and as far north as the mineral-rich Katanga region of the DRC is connected to a transport and supply network that relies on South Africa as a transit and "value-added" hub.

Angola is not part of this network for three reasons: First, Angola has its own port possibilities at Luanda, Lobito and Benguela. Second, the same geographic barriers that could allow Angola to unite internally hamper economic integration with its neighbors. And third, Pretoria sees economic growth in Angola as a potential threat to South African power.

But Angola is alone among regional countries in its separation from the South African network. Each of its eastern and southern neighbors — including the mineral-rich regions in southeastern DRC — are fully integrated into the South African system. This network grants Pretoria a privileged position throughout the Angolan periphery. The need to protect that position — not the politics of apartheid — is what landed South Africa and the Mbundu on opposite sides during Angola's civil war.

The entrenched nature of this network is Angola's biggest challenge. With far lower capital resources, Angola presently cannot compete against the region's South Africa-centric infrastructure. The country has plans for a $100 billion-plus infrastructure investment aimed at changing this reality, but such a project would take decades to complete. The idea is to transform the coastal region around the cities of Lobito and Benguela into a new commercial hub, with a deep-water port and oil refinery in Lobito that would link to a railroad stretching across Angola into Zambia. (Such a railroad was attempted, though never completed, during Portuguese colonial days.) If Angola ever were able to build such infrastructure, it would bisect the South African network, making Lobito the logical place to export valuable minerals from Zambia and the DRC.

But Angola essentially is starting out from scratch after its long and grinding civil war. Aside from Luanda, the country's infrastructure largely is in disrepair, even 10 years after the UNITA's defeat. Coupled with a lack of domestic construction resources and skilled labor, this underdevelopment greatly limits Luanda's ability to compete with South Africa. (Institutionalized government inefficiencies and massive corruption do not help either). So even though the distance to port in South Africa would be roughly 30 percent to 50 percent greater than to Lobito, the cost of doing business via Angola currently prevents the country from becoming a viable economic partner with the region.

South Africa also has demonstrated its ability to intervene militarily in Angola in the past. Despite a general military demobilization since the end of apartheid, Pretoria retains the industrial tools necessary to rearm should it choose — as well as the paramilitary tools to interfere in Angolan affairs in the meantime. South Africa also faces few true national security threats. Its challenges are confined within its borders, primarily endemic crime, sky-high unemployment and social unrest related to wealth disparities. Despite all this, South Africa has never faced insurgencies as strong as the UNITA or even the smaller Front for the Liberation of the Enclave of Cabinda.

At present, South Africa and Angola are unequal competitors. The MPLA does not yet possess the resources (whether manpower, military or economic) to challenge Pretoria directly. But Angola does have tools: The first, quite simply, is bribery, which it uses to lessen bilateral tensions. Angola has offered South African companies access to its diamond and oil resources. Oil, as the one resource that South Africa lacks, is particularly attractive to Pretoria. Bribes also can be used to weaken allegiance to South African interests in key locations. The second tool is Angola's intelligence apparatus, which Luanda can use to shape political positions throughout the region.

Already, both powers view Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe as the first arenas in a brewing cold war. South Africa holds the upper hand in all three theaters simply because it enjoys easy physical access to each by virtue of the infrastructure Pretoria has constructed over the years. But Angolan influence is steadily creeping outward.

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