How This Central African City Became the World’s Most Expensive

How This Central African City Became the World’s Most Expensive

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Sitting in the center of a maze of dirt  roads, shantytowns, crumbling infrastructure,   open sewers, and trash fires, central Luanda,  circa 2015, was defined by opulence. Three   times a week, a specially-configured 747 would  speed 14-hours across the Atlantic from Houston,   depositing up to 189 passengers at Angola’s  international airport—an unusually low number for   this aircraft, reflecting its unusually luxurious  interior: 10 first class seats, 143 business,   and just 36 in economy. The Houston Express, as  it was dubbed, operated as a charter accessible   only to invitees of Angola’s national oil company,  the Sonangol Group, and for the convenience of a   nonstop flight to or from America's oil capital,  they charged an eye popping $2,399 for a roundtrip   economy-class ticket—roughly equivalent to a  half year of income for the average Angolan.  

But these passengers were rarely Angolan.  Rather, American oil executives, businesspeople,   and their families filled the 189 seats—returning  from a visit to their home offices or home towns.   Having cleared customs, most would instruct  their taxis to turn left, or south, towards   their gated community of choice in the polished  Talatona neighborhood. Inside these walls,  

snaking streets dotted by Range Rovers, BMWs, and  Porsche’s opened up to suburban style housing,   featuring manicured lawns, backyard pools,  tennis courts, backup generators, water treatment   systems, and 24/7 security—an approximate  impression of average American housing,   offered for a far higher than average ten or  twenty thousand American dollars a month.   Come evening, Talatona residents might head to  dinner at Cafe del Mar, Pimm’s, Oon Dah, or even   the city’s yacht club—a walled enclave of luxury  carved out of a landscape of tin-roofed shacks.   Regardless of the restaurant of choice, one  couldn’t escape for less than $100 a head.   On a budget conscious night, one could head to  KFC, but still, a meal there went for some $20 a   person. Home cooking was also an option, but the  comforts of home would cost you—a liter of Coke   went for $10, while a pint of Haagen Dazs $17.  While the adults of Talatona would typically   commute into downtown Luanda to work in some of  the most expensive office-space in the world,   their kids would typically stay closer to home  to attend the Luanda International School.  

English-language, American-accredited,  International Baccalaureate curriculum   was taught by an international collection of  teachers in a sprawling, modern, polished campus.   Tuition averaged some $50,000 a year—equivalent to  eleven Angolans’ average annual income—but it was   often paid by the pupil’s parent’s employers as it  was the only school in the city to regularly send   graduates to Stanford, Columbia, and Oxford.  The wealth of the Luanda elite was,   simply put, extraordinary. And so too were  the means by which Luanda got to this point.   Until recently, Luanda was less a destination  for the worldly elite, and more so a destination   for deadly military ordnance. Entering the  1970s, even at the height of decolonization,   it would’ve been hard to imagine Luanda as  the capital of a single, sovereign Angola.  

Entering this century, Luanda would’ve seemed  one of the least likely of African capitals to   have its downtown dotted with high-end hotels and  its streets criss-crossed by BMWs and Porsches.  The bloody, drawn-out process of Angolan  independence began in earnest here, on January 4,   1961, where a protest over farm wages devolved  into violence that spread across northern Angola   before a brutal Portuguese response  stopped the rebellion in its tracks.   The months-long revolt signaled the  upwelling of a nascent Angolan nationalism   while its violent conclusion hinted at the uphill  battle such a movement would face going forward.   In the years that followed this first  rural revolt, a series of independence   movements took shape across Angola. The  FNLA, the main combattant group in 1961,   formed in the north and coalesced around a shared  Bakongo ethnicity. Around Luanda came the MPLA, a   Marxist-Leninist group made up largely of Angolan  intelligentsia. And in central Angola was UNITA,  

a group of FNLA dissidents who rallied around  their Ovimbundu ethnic background. For the next   decade, each group took on Portuguese military  and Portuguese-funded paramilitaries. Because of   such stark ideological and ethnic divides, though,  each group did so individually—and each, in turn,   failed. By 1974, Portuguese forces had pushed  each of these factions to the very brink. Then,   unexpectedly, Portugal itself fell in a military  coup, and with the old regime went any interest in   maintaining the nation’s African colonies. After  400 years, Angola’s colonial period was suddenly  

coming to a close. The ethnic and ideological  divides that had fragmented their independence   movement, however, weren’t going anywhere.  Forty years before it was known for the luxurious,   oil-funded, Houston Express service, Luanda’s  airport appeared in the media as a chaotic,   miserably crowded departure point for some 200,000  Portuguese Angolans fleeing from an impending war.   Just months later, on the eve of Angola’s official  independence, the decision to leave proved prudent   as the MPLA rushed the capitol, pushed the  FNLA out of Luanda, and named the nation’s   new president, Agostino Neto. It was the first  major move of what’d be a decades long civil war.  From the start, the war took on an international  bent, as thousands of Cuban soldiers and   two Yugoslavian war ships bolstered the  Marxist-Leninsts’ hold over the capitol   while South Africa, Zaire, and—through covert  funding—the US all backed the now allied FNLA   and UNITA. A hot spot in the Cold War, Angolan  territory flipped between UNITA and MPLA forces  

practically every battle, every offensive,  and every year, as aid from various world   powers bolstered both party’s ability to keep  fighting. Between the occasional ceasefire or   failed negotiation, the war carried through the  70s and 80s. Without either side able to claim   a decisive victory, it stretched into the 90s.  As the Cold War closed, Angola’s civil war lost  

its ideological edge and international appeal.  Angola’s president, José Eduardo dos Santos,   who had led the MPLA government since Neto’s death  in 1979, liberalized much of the Angolan economy,   while UNITA carried on without money from  the West, instead funding their war efforts   through the diamond trade. In 2002, with  the assassination of it’s longtime leader,   with increasingly tight sanctions on its diamond  trade, and without a real cause to fight for,   UNITA entered peace talks. After nearly 30 years,  the Angolan Civil War came sputtering to a close,   accomplishing remarkably little. The same  party remained in power, the same president   remained in office, while a third of the nation’s  population had now been internally displaced,   two thirds didn’t have access to running  water, and life expectancy hovered in the 40s.  

Late to gain its independence, and mired  by three decades of ruthless civil war,   21st-century Angola was desperately behind. Now, for as long as Angola has been a country,   it’s been an oil economy. In fact,  by the time the civil war ended,   Angola was nearing its hundredth  anniversary of commercial oil production.   Even during the war, as landmines littered the  countryside and deadly violence occurred daily,   international oil giants like Shell and Chevron  braved the conditions on account of the profit   opportunity Angola afforded. Onshore oil fields  were frequently attacked and destroyed, but much   of the country’s oil was located offshore—beneath  hundreds or thousands of feet of ocean. So, focus   gravitated offshore, where the liquid gold could  be extracted in relative safety throughout the   conflict. Ironically, however, the oil industry  itself prolonged their biggest obstacle to  

increased production as they funded the MPLA’s war  machine through the drilling fees they paid them.  But, when the war finally ended, when peace was  found, that obstacle was removed—without the   civil war necessitating burdensome security  contractors and expensive hardship wages,   oil production in Angola immediately grew far  cheaper and far easier. Profiteers the world over   jumped on the opportunity. Sonangol and  its international partners planned for new   rigs and expanded operations, which came at the  perfect time as the West, and especially America,   looked to distance itself from Middle-Eastern oil  in the wake of 9/11. President Dos Santos was even   invited by Bush to the Oval Office to discuss that  very subject. Meanwhile, on the other side of the  

world, China also identified the opportunity: just  months after the war officially ended, it signed a   $2 billion loan agreement with Angola, using its  future oil production as collateral—positioning   the country in a strategic tug-of-war  between two of the world’s great powers.   Within three short years, the post-war economy  was kicking into high gear. 2005’s oil production   figures were already double those of the civil war  era, and the country recorded its highest GDP jump   in history—the economy expanded some 15% in just  twelve months. Soon after, Angola overtook Saudi   Arabia to become China’s largest oil provider,  while the country’s first shopping mall opened   in the center of the quickly developing,  upscale Talatona neighborhood. Angola’s   position as a new oil giant was solidified as  it joined the Organization of the Petroleum   Exporting Countries—a global price-fixing cartel  including Iraq, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and others. 

By the 2010s, Luanda’s skyline had been thoroughly  transformed—glass-fronted skyscrapers stretched   hundreds of feet into the sky, filled with  modern apartments selling for millions or   tens of millions of dollars. Five-star hotels  now offered visiting executives accommodations   on par with those in Houston, Calgary, Abu  Dhabi, or the other oil capitals of the world.   Even the global financial crisis barely shook  Luanda from its path—as the global economy shrank,   Angola’s still eked out growth.  It was one of the fastest growing,   fastest developing, fastest changing countries  in the world—others had experienced oil booms,   but none went from civil war to helipad-laden  $10 million penthouse apartments in less than   a decade. Some asked if Luanda was on track  to become the Dubai of Africa—a place that,  

just a few more years into the future, would have  Lamborghinis on every block, 5-star hotels from   every international brand, and Michelin-starred  restaurants from all the globe’s best chefs.   Others, however, started asking a different  question: what had this boom done for everyone   else? Excluding the expats and oil executives  and politicians and businesspeople,   how had life changed for the everyday  Angolan—the other 99.5% of the country?  Well, between 2002 and 2010, Angola’s economy grew  534%, but, of course, GDP is not a useful metric   for assessing the quality of life of the everyday  person. What is is the human development index,   which combines metrics related to health,  education, and standard of living into a composite   score—Angola’s in 2002 was 0.426 out of 1. By 2010  it was 0.517—it had jumped more than 20%, but so   did the rest of the world’s. Looking relatively,  Angola ranked 154th in the world for HDI in 2002.   In 2010, it ranked higher… by four places. That’s  to say, the economy was now $66 billion larger,  

but somehow, the everyday Angolan  was doing just about the same.   This was baffling, and an embarrassment  for the country’s triumphant leadership.   When the United Nations Development Programme  released data indicating that just 19%   of men and 15% of women in the country  attained high-school level education,   the government disputed the figures—saying  the UN had an incorrect methodology.   But the embarrassments kept stacking—the  facade started to fall. 2010 was supposed to   be a watershed year for Angola as it hosted the  Africa Cup of Nations—the third largest soccer   tournament in existence. It was supposed to be  the clearest indication yet that Angola was safe,   developed, and open to the world, but  in the days leading up to its start,   as Togo’s national team traveled to their  opening match, separatists gunned down their   bus as it passed through Cabinda, killing three of  their traveling party. This incident cast a dark  

shadow on the typically jubilant tournament,  and was positioned in international media as   an indicator that, despite all the pomp and  circumstance of the new Luanda, deep down,   Angola was still the same underdeveloped,  impoverished, violent country of a decade before.   For a decade, the success stories drowned  out failures, but failures began to mount,   and as they did, they became harder to ignore.  2012 brought coverage of what was believed to be   the most expensive apartment sale on the African  continent to date in Luanda. But acknowledging   the difficulty the real-estate boom presented to  housing everyone else, Dos Santos had promised   in his 2008 presidential campaign to build  a million homes by 2012. In 2012, however,   even the pared down post-election version of this  promise faltered. The first 2,800 apartments went  

up for sale in the brand-new Kilamba neighborhood,  which would eventually have capacity for 200,000   working-class residents. But six months in, just  220 of those homes had been sold due to the fact   that the very working-class residents they were  built for couldn’t afford or finance them.   But the next year, Angola was celebrated  the world over as Isabel dos Santos,   the president’s daughter, became the first African  woman ever to make the Forbes billionaires list,   with an estimated net worth north of $3 billion.  It wasn’t South Africa or Nigeria or any of the   continent’s other traditional centers of wealth to  earn this honor, but rather tiny, scrappy Angola.  

Dos Santos owned significant stakes in banks,  media companies, and cell providers in Angola   and Portugal; a home on the private island  of the exclusive Bulgari Resort in Dubai;   a $16 million home in the affluent Kensington  neighborhood of London; a comparatively modest   $1.8 million penthouse apartment in Lisbon;  a $55 million Villa just steps away from the   Casino de Monte Carlo in Monaco; and to go with  it, a $35 million, 50 meter, 164 foot yacht   anchored in the Mediterranean below. And in  2016, her fortunes, both literal and figurative,   only increased as her father fired their entire  board of Sonangol, Angola’s national oil company,   and replaced it with a sole chairwoman: Isabel  dos Santos herself. She was now in charge of   the most powerful company in the country,  making her perhaps the country’s second   most powerful person after her father himself.  However, just months earlier, he had announced   his imminent retirement—Jose Eduardo dos Santos  would pass the torch and Angola would have a new   President, for the first time in thirty-eight  years. The President and his party planned for  

longtime MPLA politician, João Lourenço, to take  the reins, which he did on September 26, 2017.   But then things went less to plan. Isabel dos  Santos was quickly fired from her leading position   at Sonangol, while her half-brother, who had  been leading the country’s sovereign wealth fund,   was arrested on corruption and money laundering  charges. Out of nowhere, João Lourenço turned on   the Dos Santos family, and asked the question no  powerful MPLA leader had ever dared: was it merely   a coincidence that Africa’s wealthiest woman  was the daughter of Angola’s most powerful man,   or was something more nefarious going on? Quietly, this question had been circling   around the international business community  for years, and by the mid 2010s, some were   formulating informed opinions. Western banks  like Citigroup and Barclays backed out of deals   with the business woman, Intertrust and ING  closed accounts linked to her and her husband,   and Sonangol officials railed against dos  Santos’ alleged mismanagement of funds.   For her part, dos Santos pushed back—arguing  that claims of illegality were unfounded,   and that the banks had anti-African biases. Then,  in 2020, as rumors swirled, accusations mounted,  

and investigations dug deeper, the world was  offered its clearest view yet into dos Santos’   business dealings through a landslide of private  documents called the Luanda Leaks. Captured by a   notorious Portuguese whistleblower, passed to the  Paris-based Platform to Protect Whistleblowers   in Africa, then analyzed and disseminated by  the International Consortium of Investigative   Journalists, the 715,000 leaked memos, emails,  contracts, and meeting minutes corroborated many   of the suspicions and outright accusations  lobbed at the former president’s daughter.  At practically every turn in her empire-building  career, the documents showed, Isabel dos Santos   benefitted from insider deal-making that landed  her one massive government contract after the   next. In 1999, there was the brand-new mobile  phone company Unitel, of which she owned a 25%   share, being granted a valuable telecoms license  by the government. In 2015, there was the Isabel   dos Santos-led urban redevelopment project  being greenlit by presidential decree that—the   leaked documents later showed—was drafted  by her own lawyers. At every opportunity,   major government undertakings seemingly designed  to help everyday Angolans were being routed   through various Isabel dos Santos holdings.  Beyond the murky, uncompetitive doling out of  

government contracts, dos Santos and her husband  Sindika Dokolo further boosted their own wealth   through fraudulent deals and creative accounting  which, in turn, further stunted the development   of the Angolan economy. In addition to the  $1 billion in dividends dos Santos made and   the $1 billion stake she still owned in Unitel,  now the nation’s largest telecom provider,   dos Santos also went ahead and set up another  company called Unitel International Holdings,   which she lent upwards of $460 million from  Unitel—signing off as both the lender and the   borrower and leaving the Unitel board utterly  dumbfounded. The money made from shady insider   deals like this then went on to cycle through or  open a vast array of shell companies in places   like the British Virgin Islands and Malta  where tax burdens and government oversight   would be low or nonexistent. This international  expansion, the leaks would prove, explained why   companies like Malta’s Wise Intelligence  Solutions, with herself and her husband as   sole shareholders and only a handful of staff with  no expertise in oil, were being awarded contracts   to restructure a floundering Sonangol in 2015.  All told, the ICIJ analysis of the Luanda Leaks  

claimed that the dos Santos and Dokolo empire  was made up of more than 400 companies and   subsidiaries spanning 41 countries with at least  94 stashed in secrecy jurisdictions like Malta.   By painstakingly pouring over the 70 thousand  documents, journalists helped to substantiate   what skeptical onlookers had been claiming  since 2013—that the dos Santos empire was   hardly something to be celebrated. Rather  than a signal that Angola was on the rise,   Isabel dos Santos’s ill-gotten wealth was actually  going a long way in keeping average Angolans down.  

In late 2020, president Lourenço claimed that  the government of Jose Eduardo dos Santos had   squandered away and outright stolen an estimated  $24 billion dollars of the Angolan government,   and therefore the Angolan peoples’, money.  Angola’s story is tragically unoriginal—an   African country that strikes it rich with natural  resources, but where poverty and pain persist   for all but the powerful few. Equatorial  Guinea, the Central African Republic,   Zambia—the same narrative plays out time and time  again across the continent, crippling the people’s   futures. This natural-wealth/economic-poverty  paradox is so common in development economics  

that it has a name, the resource curse, and  while this continent propagates the phenomenon,   it’s observed globally. Simply: natural  resources rarely propel people out of poverty.   But today there’s the benefit of hindsight.  Corruption and cronyism is now identifiably the   evil holding the people back, so as dictators  die out, democracies across Africa have the   opportunity to try something new. On August 24th,  2022, Angolans will head to their polling places   to decide whether João Lourenço and his MPLA  party will earn a second term, or if UNITA,   for the first time ever, will take control of the  country. Encouragingly, both parties' campaigns  

are centered around defeating corruption—while one  candidate points to his past action investigating   and punishing his predecessors, the other  says he didn’t go far enough and is charting   out a path for more systematic reform.  Angola has a long way to go and is starting   from behind, but the oil’s still there—it’s  still producing millions of barrels per day,   and billions are still left in the ground. If the  people can accurately predict which candidate will   stick to their word, which candidate will find  a path to turn natural wealth into human wealth,   then all is not lost for Angola—it still has  a chance of breaking the resource curse.   If you’re anything like me, you probably spend  an embarrassing amount of time scrolling through   streaming sites trying to find something good to  watch. Well, to stop you from doing that tonight,   I’ve assembled a list of a whole evening’s worth  of entertainment that any Wendover viewer is   sure to enjoy. To start out with, there’s the  first episode of our new season of Extremities,   which does a deep dive into why the US holds onto  the tiny mid-Pacific territory of Wake Island   through first-hand interviews with those who  have lived and worked there. A small hint:  

it has a whole lot to do with airplanes.  Next, you should give the latest episode of   Polymatter’s series China, Actually, a watch,  where he explains how the country manages to   survive and thrive with essentially zero major  international allies. Finally, you should watch   Half as Interesting’s Crime Spree—the pilot  season of our travel-competition show Jet Lag,   where my writers chase me across the country  as I attempt to complete challenges as I go.  

Each of these, and so much more, is exclusive to  either Nebula or CuriosityStream—two fantastic   streaming sites. The first was founded by myself  and a bunch of other educational creators to be   the best home to the stuff we make, allowing us  to make higher-budget, more controversial, more   unique, or other sorts of videos that just don’t  work on YouTube. Meanwhile, CuriosityStream was   founded by the same people as Discovery Channel,  and hosts all sorts of fantastic STEM-oriented   documentaries and shows, including our series,  Extremities. And what’s great about these two   sites is you don’t have to choose. What’s less  expensive than signing up for either of them is   signing up for their bundle deal, where, if you  head to, you’ll not   only get a 26% discount on an annual plan, they’ll  also throw the Nebula subscription in for free,   for as long as you’re a CuriosityStream  subscriber. That means that you’ll get  

both streaming sites for just $14.79 a year,  and you’ll be supporting Wendover and loads   of other independent creators, so head over to to sign up today. 

2022-08-25 10:32

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