The U.N. and Ban ki-Moon’s Propaganda in Angola

Article by guest blogger Rob Pires:
Angola is a country that works hard to portray the right image abroad. As we have read on this very website, millions of dollars are being spent on television advertising campaigns and the government really doesn’t like it when foreign media criticise its failings or points out its faults. Thus any high level visit to the country is always a double-edged sword for Angola.

On the one-hand they will receive the endorsement and diplomatic niceties from their visitor, which they can use to fill up the airtime and column inches of the state media. But at the same time the foreign media have an excuse – and an expense account – to visit and if they are halfway decent, will be scrutinising closely.

And so it was with the visit of United Nations (U.N.) Secretary General Ban ki-Moon, which saw plenty of photographed handshakes and saccharine speeches, but also some uncomfortable headlines in the international press relating to allegations of sexual abuse against Congolese migrants and the country’s continuing wealth gap.

For some, what Mr. Ban’s trip to Angola has confirmed is the complete disconnect between how Angola wants to be seen – even how some people believe it is – and the reality lived by the majority of its people.

Events began on Monday morning with a visit to a community health facility where the Secretary General was to meet children and launch a campaign against polio. Angola, which had once eradicated polio, is now one of only a few countries in the world with the disease, thanks, health officials say, to poor sanitation and weak vaccination campaigns, which have seen infections from Angola spread into Congo and elsewhere. Luckily for Angola thought, the U.N. has global targets to eradicate polio so emergency teams have been created and people like U.S. software millionaire-turned-philanthropist Bill Gates have flown in to personally endorse the eradication push.

The Secretary General praised Angola for having provided almost 90 percent of the costs of the campaign – which probably isn’t such a big deal seeing as the country has a faster growth rate than China just now – but he hinted that more could be done to improve the water supply and create a clean environment. The whole polio situation is acutely embarrassing for Angola because its cause (open defecation and a lack of clean water) really does not fit in with the image the country wants to portray to the world, of manicured lawns and gleaming glass skyscrapers.

It also became apparent on Monday (February 27) that the government was also concerned about the image of the Viana neighborhood, so much so that we understand a last-minute change of venue was ordered, leaving a school-full of children waiting for a VIP that never came. There was also reportedly a huge cleanup campaign undertaken in the Viana neighborhood where he did finally go, Casas 500, with litter and other desirable debris hastily cleared away leaving behind only suspicious tractor marks in the unpaved road.

Most of the foreign media however had little time to take in their surroundings, having been put in a bus that failed to get into Mr. Ban’s motorcade as it left Luanda, and then being forced to spend over an hour in morning traffic before it could arrive at the health centre, just as the speeches were ending.

The farce of the bus – which had on board the official U.N. cameraman and Mr. Ban’s interpreter – was intensified by the fact that it had been hired from an agency that works with security-conscious oil companies who do not allow their vehicles to exceed 60 kmph. Add that to the fact the driver had no idea where he was going and seemed reluctant to take instructions, and you would be forgiven for thinking someone had been trying to keep the cameras out of Viana that day. As is the way with the Secretary General, as soon as he stands up, so does everyone else, so it took just a matter of minutes for the whole entourage to clear out of Viana and be led back to their five-star hotel, the real Luanda some might say. The dust that spun from their tires sprayed on the line of singers who stood by in what looked like old Carnival costumes, some with buckets of wilting vegetables on their heads.

Next stop was the Ministry of Foreign Affairs where Mr. Ban sat patiently through a rambling speech by the ever more rotund Foreign Minister George Chicoty. The eulogy to Angolan achievement was not unlike the one he gave to British business leaders and politicians at Chatham House in London a few weeks back, where he painted a picture of a country few Angolan watchers could recognise. Mr. Ban was gracious however, trying to nod at the right moments, though he struggled to hear either the English or Portuguese due to the interpreter who kept speaking over the minister, his voice distorting the speaker system.

When it was the visitor’s turn to speak, he congratulated President José Eduardo Dos Santos for the stability of Angola and for its 10 years of peace and all its “impressive achievements”. He also praised the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and its handling of Madagascar – for which Angola rather ungraciously takes the credit as chair, even though South Africa has driven the process. Mr. Ban asked Chicoty what Angola’s “assessment” was on the “worrying situations” in Swaziland, Lesotho, Malawi and Zimbabwe – on which the SADC chair has been deafeningly silent over the past 12 months. And then he dared to challenge Angola on its own record regarding allegations of abuse against illegal immigrants from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Chicoty visibly bristled when the D.R.C. was mentioned and it didn’t take long for a group of suited – but very well-built – security officials to appear and push the tiny press contingent from the room.

It turned out that the D.R.C. and SADC discussions –and in fact none of Mr. Ban’s talking points – were supposed to have been heard by the journalists, who had been left standing in the MIREX meeting room by mistake. Later, we understand, Chicoty actively expressed his displeasure about the claims, which he said were unfounded and largely made up by illegal immigrants trying to steal diamonds from Angola. Several phone calls between the visiting delegation in Luanda and the U.N. headquarters in New York are said to have followed, asking how the press had been allowed to record such sensitive information. Shoulders were shrugged but many among Angola’s permanent U.N. staff though was that the message had needed to get out and that it was better coming from their boss, so at least they wouldn’t be blamed directly now.

Of course you won’t have read about the D.R.C. issue in Angolan newspapers or heard or seen it on Televisão Pública de Angola (TPA) or Rádio Nacional de Angola (RNA), who with their usual aplomb managed to ignore the day’s biggest headline and focus on how wonderful their visitor thought Angola was.

Far more interesting for the Angolan press was Mr. Ban’s visit to the Cidade de Kilamba, the Chinese-built out-of-town social housing project where so-called affordable homes cost US$200,000. TPA apparently carried a ticker headline under its footage of Mr. Ban walking between the gaudily-coloured buildings in Cidade de Kilamba saying he had praised the project as being “sustainable” – and the state and only daily newspaper Jornal de Angola reported that he had joked that the apartments were cheaper than those in his home country of South Korea. Many baulked at the idea Mr. Ban could have called Cidade de Kilamba “sustainable” while most of the U.N. staff that had travelled with him seemed too shocked by what they had seen to pass comment.

Despite that visit to Kilamba, which seemed ambitious given the already-packed schedule, Mr. Ban, much to the chagrin of the government, made it back to Luanda in time to hold a closed-door meeting with civil society activists. In a dramatic departure from the high-profile flags and welcoming choirs arranged for the rest of the visit, this meeting was held in the bowels of the Epic Sana Hotel where Mr. Ban and his team were staying, at floor level -3, as far away from the public lobby as possible. Although this section of the hotel was still under construction, sufficient sofas had been placed around the waiting area to ensure a comfortable environment for the scores of suited not-so-secret security operatives who sat watching every conversation and handshake.

A large metal detector stood over the entrance to the meeting room and all participants were requested to remove their wallets, keys, phones and belts, and leave their bags and papers outside – a request which annoyed some who had brought pre-prepared notes to read from. When Mr. Ban arrived, Angola’s Paralympic multi-gold winning athlete José Sayovo held him up at the door. They had a long chat, before the UN security team bustled Mr. Ban into the meeting room. As the door closed behind him, several prominent invitees were told they could not enter because they were late and had not presented their physical invitations. A frantic intervention from a member of Angola’s UNICEF staff finally secured their entry, but by that time the sofa observers were on their feet, listening harder than ever. Those who attended the meeting said it went well and they welcomed the chance to speak out about their concerns relating to the judicial system, election preparations, wealth distribution and poverty. Angolan state media did not hang around to interview the attendees after the meeting; though it’s unlikely they would have broadcast or printed what was said anyway.

The Secretary General’s appeal at the airport just before he boarded his plane, to reduce poverty and create “necessary political space” for all actors in the run up to elections, also seemed to be missed by the editors. Focus instead was given to Mr. Ban’s answer to a question about elections where he said he was “confident that the Angolan Government and people will be able to carry out this election in a credible and transparent and democratic way” – or as the Jornal de Angola reported it that “there exists in Angola all the conditions to hold free and fair elections”.

The local press did give some space to the Secretary General’s appeal for Angola to provide military assets such as helicopters to U.N. peacekeeping missions, although when asked about this Chicoty gave a slightly lost look and said it would be “considered”. And buried at the bottom of a long and wieldy Q&A in the Jornal de Angola the following day was a response by Mr. Ban that Angola needed to do more to reduce poverty, considering its great wealth.

But for the government, this visit was about bouquets, not brickbats, and for the majority of Angolans who cannot access the internet and will not see the international wire copy, that is how it will be remembered. Angola’s relationship with the U.N. is complicated. This visit was supposed to make it better. There will be some who agree it has only made it worse.

Where Angola’s engagement with the U.N. differs from the rest of the continent is that Angola does not need the international organization’s money, only its know-how. And because the government holds the purse strings, the U.N. has little political leverage here, leaving it largely unable to outwardly criticise and unable to stop the closure of the Human Rights Commission in 2008. The theme of engagement in Angola is a positive one, this author has been told. “To make sure the U.N. and its institutions can be of use to the people of Angola in a constructive way, rather than risking everything for one issue or one problem,” our source said.

To his credit, during his brief stay in Angola – which is ranked among the bottom of the U.N.’s Human Development Indexes – Ban ki-Moon delivered some strong messages. Such words reached more than just the politicians, despite Angola’s attempt to have “tudo controlado” [full control] during the secretary general’s visit.