Angola’s Greatest Work of Fiction: The Budget

A much-lauded cartoon by Angola’s premier pictorial satirist Sérgio Piçarra recently depicted the state of the country’s economy, thanks to José Eduardo dos Santos, the country’s President for the past 37 years. In his depiction, Angola has a ‘Real Economy’, and a ‘Virtual Economy’, but there is an even third one, the ‘Fictitious Economy’.

It’s a reflection of a truth: every year the Angolan state budget (Orçamento Geral de Estado) is a mixture of the actual (real), anticipated (virtual) and the ‘only on paper’ (fictitious) spending for the year ahead.

Now insiders say the 2017 Budget strays even further from reality than usual.

One example: Angola expects to spend more than 1.7 billion kwanzas (US $6.5 million) on maintenance of the memorial to Agostinho Neto, the country’s first post-independence president.

The Soviet Union undertook the initial construction of the memorial. However, with the collapse of the USSR, the construction remained incomplete for nearly 30 years. The structure, whose architecture is reminiscent of a rocket, was finally completed in 2012, comprising a mausoleum that contains the remains of President Neto, as well as a small museum displaying some of his effects.

How can the annual maintenance bill for a mausoleum, completed only four years ago, be so high?

Compare the allocation for what locals dub the ‘Rocket’ (“Foguetão” in Portuguese) with the 2017 Budget’s allocation of 826.75 million kwanzas (less than US $5 million) to build four badly-needed and long overdue municipal hospitals for the provinces of Moxico, Cunene, Bie and Kuando Kubango.

How are Angolans meant to interpret the budget priorities? Is one dead Angolan (who happened to be the first post-colonial President and, ironically, was a medical doctor) more important that the health of hundreds of thousands of living Angolans?

When it comes to budgetary matters, Angola is perhaps the only country in the world that has a body called the Commission for the Real Economy. Yes. This actually exists. And answers directly to the President. Wits say this is to remind the president from time to time that there is something other than the virtual and fictional worlds in which he operates.

You see, it is important for the executive branch to be seen to be planning the building of more hospitals, but many of these plans do not get off the drawing board or turnout to be just shoddy health posts. Some may be ‘real’ and construction may indeed get started. Some are ‘virtual’ – the money is allocated but the projects are not yet ready. Others are ‘fictitious’ from the get-go and the money is really intended for other things. A similar situation applies to Education.

The José Eduardo dos Santos University (serving Region V, for 12,000 students from the central highlands and eastern provinces of Huambo, Bié and Moxico) gets an allocation of nearly two billion kwanzas (US $11.9 million), while the universities serving other regions (particularly those of the North and East) are under-funded. Kimpa Vita (Region VII, for 9,000 students from Uige and Kwanza Norte) is only worth some 900 million kwanzas (US $5.4 million) and Lueji A’Nkonde (Region IV, for 10,000 students from Lunda Norte, Lunda Sul and Malanje) gets even less: about 700 million kwanzas (US $4 million.

From which we can conclude the following: it is worth more to preserve the memory of a former President than to educate Angolan youth – unless they happen to be youth studying at a university named after the current President.

Public sector post-secondary education in Angola can also be classified under the ‘Real’, ‘Fictitious’ and ‘Virtual’ headings. On the one hand you have the ‘real’ education given to the children of the MPLA élite who almost all are funded to study abroad.

Their qualifications are deemed superior to any awarded in Angola (the ‘fictitious’ kind, given the poor standard of teaching and low marks required to gain a degree). That was certainly the official justification given for the nepotistic appointment of the President’s daughter Isabel dos Santos to run the state oil company, Sonangol: that her engineering degree from the University of London somehow made her more qualified.

Then there is the ‘virtual’ kind, whereby some dunce who could only scrape a diploma transforms it into a job that requires degree-level education on the basis of having a ‘sponsor’ within the ruling party machine.

Delivering an authentically high-quality post-secondary education is inimical to the fortunes of the ruling elite, who resent the questioning of their motives (or the origins of their fabulous fortunes) by enquiring minds. Some say the regime can barely scrape together enough brain cells to keep up appearances (the fiction) that they are working on behalf of the Angolan people (virtual reality) rather than to line their own pockets (the real picture).

There is a further possible interpretation: that no-one could be bothered to do the sums to come up with a rational state budget and the whole thing was cobbled together randomly – “à toa” as they say in Angola.

In general, the Angolan Budget has always been a mixture of fact and fiction, a reflection of the contempt shown by the Dos Santos Administration for the Angolan people when it comes to rendering financial accounts.

Even if the figures it contained were properly calculated, even if the capital projects were accurately estimated and certain to be put into effect, the Budget is nothing more than a virtual document, intended to convey high-minded plans while covering up embezzlement on a grand scale by the political elite.

It’s not just a scandal, it’s an insult to the intelligence of the Angolan people – but then that’s just one more virtual insult in 37 years of a government that in reality acts as a kleptocracy while maintaining the fiction of being a functioning democracy.