Angola and the British Spinning Wheel

When Africa’s richest woman is the daughter of the President of an oil-rich nation who has clung to power for nearly four decades, it’s not surprising that people might entertain the suspicion that her success could be due to factors over and beyond any particular business expertise.

We imagine that empire-building must go so much more smoothly if one has unlimited funds (allegedly from the continual diversion of state funds into daddy’s secret bank accounts), the near-certainty that any bids for state contracts will trump all the competition, and a growing national and international network of complicit politicians, financiers, directors, business advisors, managers, and consultants to create an intricate, complex and almost-indecipherable network of corporations, shell companies and cartels to make it harder to follow the money trail.

Enter Isabel dos Santos, the eldest child of the Angolan leader, who is understandably keen to recast herself as the internationally-recognized, award-winning businesswoman who can change the face of Angola.   How fortunate then, to be able to announce on her Instagram page that one of her pet projects, the ‘Masterplan Framework for the Luanda Metropolitan Area’ has just won an international prize for the ‘Outstanding International Masterplanning Project’ of the year.

It’s true. The master plan for the province of Luanda won the 2016 British Expertise International Prize in that category. Hooray for Luanda!   Ah – but wait…  who or what is British Expertise International? This is the latest rebrand of the organization formerly known as:
1.    the British Overseas Engineering Bureau (1966- financed by Britain’s Board of Trade);
2.    the British Consultants Bureau (1967);
3.    the British Consultants and Construction Bureau (2000, when it merged with the International Construction Group;
4.    British Expertise (2006); and finally…
5.    British Expertise International (2015, when it merged with the D Group).

The repeated emphasis on “British” contains a clue to the organization’s ‘raison d’etre’:  it exists to promote British companies across the world.  To this end it has been financed and sponsored by a combination of British quasi-governmental organizations and British companies, who – not entirely coincidentally – do business abroad and are keen to do more of it.  What better way to promote their expertise and quality to potential new clients than to announce themselves or their projects as “prize winning”? Like the Oscars.  It’s one of the oldest Public Relations gimmicks in the world.

As British Expertise International announces on its own website:

“Welcome to the 2016 British Expertise International Awards. We continue to increase the impact of this recognition programme that provides an outstanding showcase for the international achievements of the UK professional services sector.  Over the past two years the Awards competition has demonstrated just how much our industry has to celebrate. The companies that participated in the 2014 and 2015 Awards are involved in many of the world’s most important development and infrastructure projects, delivering world-beating quality and innovation.”

So how does a British award for British expertise end up in the hands of Isabel dos Santos?  Is she the CEO of a British company?  Not exactly.  Apparently, it’s the British company partnered on this project with Isabel’s company Urbinevste, Broadway Malyan, which is the true recipient of this self-congratulatory award.

However, the identity of the actual award recipient isn’t the real issue here. It’s important to remember that British Expertise International is actually a consultancy and advisory enterprise which specializes in business networking.  And that these awards are just a recent addition to their repertoire in drumming up new business for their clients.  They organize these black-tie dinners at the Royal Garden Hotel in Kensington, for their clients to pay 200 euros a head to be showered with champagne while patting themselves on the back for the prizes they’re helping to fund. This is a totally legitimate public relations exercise.  But let’s not fool ourselves that it’s some kind of impartial recognition of excellence.

No doubt by sheer coincidence, just days after Isabel’s award-winning English partners enjoyed their elegant awards dinner, two British businessmen by the names of David Wynne-Morgan and Lord Charles Vivian were received at Luanda’s Palácio da Cidade Alta.

And who are they?  You may well ask.  David Wynne-Morgan is a former Daily Mail journalist and biographer of Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser, who turned to the dark arts of PR in the late 1950s and for many years led Hill and Knowlton, a PR firm with history in Angola, having helped orchestrate the MPLA’s election campaign back in 1992.  Lord Vivian is the managing director of Bell Pottinger Geopolitical,  a division of the notorious Bell Pottinger,  the PR firm co-founded by Piers Pottinger and Tim “Flasher” Bell, latterly Lord Bell of Belgravia, who was knighted by his longstanding client and political soulmate Margaret Thatcher in 1990 after masterminding her victorious electoral campaigns.

Bell Pottinger, one of the largest PR firms in Britain, has a track record of representing some of the world’s most abhorred leaders – from South Africa’s F W de Klerk to Chile’s General Pinochet, from Thailand’s Thaksin Shinawatra to Belarus’s  Alexander Lukashenko,  Along the way they’ve done their best to rebrand in the most positive light possible clients including the repressive governments of Bahrain and Egypt, the polluting oil company Trafigura; the fracking company Cuadrilla and even the athlete Oscar Pistorius after he was charged with murder.

What can we conclude from this?  That one of the world’s largest international PR firms with a reputation for trying to sanitise the unpalatable, is somehow linked to the dos Santos family?  Could it possibly be that one of their tasks is to try to confer on Angola’s ‘First Daughter’, an impression of technical and entrepreneurial expertise?   Surely not?

But – back to the Master Plan.  That is, the Masterplan for Luanda.   The project states that it is aimed at planning the infrastructure of a region that they predict will have a population of more than 13 million by 2030.   That’s half the current TOTAL population of Angola. Why would any government want to contemplate, far less encourage, such a massive movement of people into one metropolis?   Wouldn’t it make more sense for any regional development around the capital to be an integral part of a national plan?  Why wouldn’t the government want to concentrate on ways to encourage the millions of people who migrated to Luanda only because they were fleeing civil war, to return home?

Why create such a megalopolis in Luanda?  As the most highly-populated African cities have already shown us, the urban drift to cities like Lagos or Cairo have only resulted in an ungovernable sprawl, where insalubrity, poverty and crime reign.

‘Betting the farm’ on Luanda, to the detriment of a balanced and sustainable plan for the rest of the country would be a disastrous political mistake, with enormous environmental repercussions for Angola’s diverse and rich heartlands.   Angola’s future wealth lies in resources to be found across its varied geographical zones, climate, ethnicity and culture; all united by a common language and the bonds of a shared history.   Any urban development project should surely be rushing away from the further spread of already-elephantine cities.

But the great advantage of a slick PR campaign is that it diverts attention away from the real issues, e.g. a capital city in which they are still unable to organize garbage collection, far less potable water or efficient disposal of sewage.  How on earth do they imagine they can provide for more than double the population?  And what happens to the dwellings and people who stand in the way of the infrastructure that would be necessary?  Recent history gives us a clue.

It would be so much more impressive to see the First Family come up with planning projects for the diamond-rich northern provinces or drought-ridden southern provinces, then playing at being modern-day Pharaohs in Luanda.  But African leaders have a habit of embellishing their birthplaces.  And Jose Eduardo dos Santos is not a man who grew up in the countryside.