Thursday 25 September 2008

To Tommy Atkins

I stumbled across this recently. I recited it at my father's funeral. He was called Thomas as well.

To T. A.
I have made for you a song,
And it may be right or wrong,
But only you can tell me if it's true;
I have tried for to explain
Both your pleasure and your pain,
And, Thomas, here's my best respects to you!

O there'll surely come a day
When they'll give you all your pay,
And treat you as a Christian ought to do;
So, until that day comes round,
Heaven keep you safe and sound,
And, Thomas, here's my best respects to you!
R. K.

This was written so long ago by the Soldier's Poet and it still holds true today for the shabby way servicemen and women are treated all over the world.

Tuesday 9 September 2008

A new citizen of the World...

so where is he better off?

There are lots of things that could, and should, be explored here in Angola. The trouble is that editors tend not to be particularly interested in Angola as a rule so one can end up putting in a lot of work to no avail.

The typical angle on Angola is the rich living it up while the poor starve (the latest published in the Guardian/Observer a week ago on Sunday; mine were the only positive comments in it).

I am not an apologist for the ruling party, now returned with a massive majority after the recent peaceful elections. Rather, I am a realist and having been here for fifteen years and having seen the very worst of the civil war and the extraordinary changes made since, I accept that on balance, the government of Angola is doing a good job under very difficult circumstances and things are most definitely better. Look at it this way. While old grannies in UK freeze to death because they cannot afford to pay their energy bills to foreign owned companies enjoying ludicrous profits, the executives of which are paying themselves outrageous bonuses yet this is considered free market economics, the Angolan ministers rake a bit off the top but are actually improving the country yet are accused of corruption. By whose standards?

Rather than looking at it as corruption, we should consider that Angolan politicians have only been doing exactly the same as our Politicians, City Boys and CEOs have done; they have merely awarded themselves a very big salary. Unlike our lot, though, instead of presiding over an ever more dire economy or asset stripping a vulnerable company mercilessly consigning its workforce to the dole queue, this lot are managing the fastest growing economy in the world. A growth that flies in the face of the global downturn.

Now there is an angle to be explored. Rather than the clichéd exposure of corruption perpetrated by arbitrarily targeted individuals, how about a general comparison of the moral issues; why is one sort of rapacious behaviour considered acceptable business practice and another corruption, and of the two groups studied, which is actually doing the better job? Unlike Global Witness et al whose approach is inevitably one sided, a study such as this should make all sides sit up and think. It’s about time the Emperor’s new clothes were exposed for what they are. The bonuses enjoyed in the first world seem rarely performance related, more a right. Yet dipping your hand into the Angolan till is corruption if you are Angolan, perfectly OK if you are French. What is the difference between fleecing shareholders or a population? Are they not all people who have placed their trust in the hands of a few?

Traditionally, oil rich countries tend to ignore other market sectors, such as fisheries and agriculture, in favour of the carbon fuelled Milk Cow with the paradoxical result of urban deprivation and rural poverty. Angola, however, has instigated agricultural loans; easier access to finance for those wishing to rehabilitate or develop farms. Same for the fishing industry. Now that the interior is safe, the government is encouraging investment in mineral exploitation beyond the diamond industry.

The coincidence of high oil prices and the onset of peace places Angola in a similar position to Nigeria in the 70’s. Nigeria wasted the opportunity with costly white elephant projects and the blatant corruption that painted the face of African economics for decades, and the grease stained hand of external influence was writ large on the walls of every African President’s palace. You are not telling me that Mobuto Sese Seko could have raped his country for so long without the support of the United States? This is a temptation which Angola is now resisting, concentrating instead on the rehabilitation and construction of sensible infrastructure and keeping corrupt practices within ‘acceptable’ limits. It has shunned the advice of the IMF, has always been wary of the US and is finally reigning in the French. You can do business in Angola but increasingly only under their terms. You may still be required to pay the odd ‘consultancy’ fee but at least they are leaving enough in the trough to fund improvements.

Leading up to the first elections in 1992, the governing party, MPLA, honestly thought it might lose the elections to UNITA. African politics are such that opposition parties have virtually no funds whatsoever with which to mount an effective opposition campaign. Knowing this, and under cover of a recently declared policy of denationalisation as part of a move from socialism to a free market economy, the government gave party loyalists control of most of the major companies in Angola so that, in the event of defeat, they had their own independent sources of funding. MPLA did scrape a victory but UNITA refused to accept the result. The return to war post 1992 resulted in an imperative to generate the funds necessary to prosecute the war since the end of the cold war also saw the termination of the proxy superpower war and ready supplies of war materiel.

Naturally, these two coincidences made a few people very rich and doing business here over the next decade necessitated some very questionable bedfellows along with the creative accounting that the United States eschews, (but its own lawyers and accountants are experts at circumventing) and which the French, with Gallic shrugs, accepted as part of the field of play.

The end of hostilities with the death of Savimbi in 2002 has allowed the government to gradually swing from the widely acknowledged and criticised opaque war economy to a steadily more transparent peace time economy the benefits of which are tangible. There are those who suggest the government’s investment over recent years were nothing more than a cynical attempt to buy the electorate. I would argue that there are many cheaper ways of buying the vote than building new hospitals, railways and thousands of kilometres of roads. These are long term investments benefiting any party who ends up in power. Faced with literally concrete evidence of the government’s determination to improve the country, journalists typically now resort to ridiculing these efforts by suggesting in print, to quote an example from a recent article, that there is little use in a new hospital if it does not have the qualified staff to run it. Had the correspondent bothered to visit one of these new hospitals, she would have found it staffed by expatriates from Brazil, Portugal, Cuba and even to my surprise, Canada.

My first son was born in 1999 and I made sure I sent his mother to Cape Town to have the baby. My second son was born only a week ago in the Clinica Sagrada Esperanca in Luanda. If, with all my experience and above all means, I am content to allow my second son to be born in an Angolan hospital, then surely that speaks volumes for the improvements that have been made? The big joke here is that I never considered a state hospital for the birth and was blinkered when I chose the country’s most prestigious private hospital and paid well for the privilege. I recently visited the new state hospitals in Luanda, Lubango and Huambo, all of which are free, and was stunned by the standards. I mean, marble bloody floors and all the latest kit including whole body scanners. For free? In UK we have the brightest minds running the government and civil service yet, according to Sky News this morning, the NHS will be bankrupt in four years.

So which country has the brightest prospects?

The UK, the citizens of which are suffering an ever increasing tax burden? A country where food and energy costs are leaping at a rate higher than Angola’s official and far more transparently calculated rate of inflation, and where house prices are plummeting even faster? A country in which government has effectively put a cap on the price of life and where every day new terms to describe the financial woes that beset its habitants are coined? Now a British citizen may not merely be afflicted with ‘negative equity’, his problem will likely be compounded by ‘energy poverty’. I suppose this sounds better than the frank admission that the value of your house does not cover the mortgage and you cannot pay your gas bill let alone fill your car with petrol. Or even tax the bloody thing. A country that has just posted a zero economic growth rate. Unless your name is Alistair Darling, I suspect that no UK politician would be so honest as to admit such gross incompetence to his electorate while at the same time voting himself and his colleagues a pay rise.

So what about Angola? A country the growth rate of which has just been revised upwards from an already unparalleled 23%. A country that has, in the last five years, built more roads, hospitals, railway lines, power stations and schools and connected more people to reliable power and clean water than the UK, the world’s fourth richest economy, has done in the last twenty years? Sure, Angola has its problems and is by no means perfect but don’t forget, the bombs stopped dropping on England sixty-three years ago as opposed to six years ago in Angola.

No wonder Scotland wants to cede from the Union.

The same recent article I referred to earlier suggested that Angolans should vote with their feet, or rather with the lack of their use. A clumsy suggestion; the best way Angolan citizens could protest their mal-afflictions being not to vote at all. What point hard fought for democracy then?

Well the Angolans did vote. And they turned out in numbers that would make a European or US politician bleed with envy. There was none of the violence or intimidation that beset the Kenyan or Zimbabwean polls. None of the blatant rhetoric that accompanies first world politics. Instead, every citizen wasn’t so much encouraged to vote as obliged to. No voter’s registration card meant you could not register a land purchase. You could not register your child for school. If you were not registered, life became more complicated. The government forced democracy on its populace and they responded with alacrity. Every one of the multitude of political parties campaigning, as far as I could tell by hours of mostly boring, sometimes hilarious, party political broadcasts, enjoyed equal exposure on state television and the population were encouraged to ‘vote with their hearts’ and warned that their choice was constitutionally secret.

The opposition parties painted their neighbourhood strongholds in their various colours and put up billboards promising change and a better future. The government quietly erected signs stating simply: so many thousands of kilometres of roads built, so many millions of square metres of land demined, so many new hospital beds and made sure that the new power stations produced and, of course, the face of the benign dictator, the architect of all this progress, stared at his electorate from hoardings, flags and T-shirts and the voters responded.

At first, turn out was slow. People were scared that there would be a repeat of 1992. Then there was confusion. Ballot papers were not delivered on time to some of the thousands of improvised polling stations in schools, hospitals or simple roadside tents. There was no violence so people decided to vote but time was running out. The government ordered the polling stations to stay open late. Then they announced that the polling stations would reopen the following day. The opposition cried foul and demanded a rerun of the Luanda vote. The population said that if Samakuva, the UNITA leader, prevented them from performing their ‘civic duty’, they would kill him. No arguing with that.

MPLA won by a landslide 86%.

The population did vote with their feet and afterwards proudly displayed index fingers blackened by indelible ink. They had exercised their democratic right, in many cases for the very first time, and had voted unanimously for the party that has wrought so much change in the last few years. Yes, you will still hear cynical comments about the ‘Futungo Clique’, the ruling class running Angola like a personal corporation but these Executive Officers seem to be doing a better job of it than most. In five years, they have endowed the country with peace, economic prosperity and above all, hope. There is a long way to go, still many people that need assistance but the general consensus is, those in charge are earning their bonuses and deserve another few years at the helm.

I hope that I and ten million or so other people are right. This is the world into which I bring Alexander and continue to look after Dominic and Marcia.