Portugal Patches Ties With Angola, As Russia Eyes Region

The rapprochement between Portugal and Angola will have wider implications for security in the region and signals Portugal’s efforts to re-engage with the continent in a constructive way ( a policy effort Lisbon also promotes at the European level).

Angola was prior to 1975 the crown jewel of Portugal’s African Empire. However, the relationship between the two countries has been frigid in recent years. In November, Portugal hosted the first Portugal-Angola Economic Forum in Porto. However, the visit of the Portuguese President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa to Luanda was even more significant.

“The visit by the president was entrance ticket for Portugal to join the transition process in this new Angola that everyone seems to want to be involved in,” says Edmilson Angelo an Angolan expert at the University of London – Royal Holloway. “Portugal felt that they were left behind with Angola going in a new direction of governance and signing deals with countries like Russia, France, Germany, Belgium and the defense deal with Russia. The Portuguese may have felt pressured after recent deals to move quickly.”

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Angola has sought to acquire fighter jets from Russia and other defensive equipment. Unlike elsewhere in Africa, Russian ties in the region run deep. During the first phase of the Angolan Civil War (1975-1991) Soviet trade and military support was key to the eventual success of MPLA government during that conflict. Russian military advisers were still supporting combat operations in Angola at least as late as 1989.

Angolan President Joao Lourenco, a former defense minister, became president last year. He replaced Jose Eduardo dos Santos who has ruled the country since 1979. Like his predecessor, Lourenco studied in the Soviet Union, speaks fluent Russian, and played an active role in the armed struggle against Portuguese rule.

Relations soured last year when a Portuguese court ruled that Angolan Vice President Manuel Domingos Vicente could face bribery charges after allegedly offering a court official $810,000 to kill an investigation into Vicente’s time as head of Sonagol, the Angolan national oil company. Earlier this year the Portuguese courts ruled that the lawsuit could be referred to Angola to face trial.

During the breakdown in ties Angolan President Lourenco even hinted Angola would join the Francophone Community and the Commonwealth of Nations. Then British Foreign Minister Boris Johnson tweeted in support of Angola’s Commonwealth membership earlier this year. Angola’s overture was meant as an insult to Portugal which started the Lusophone Community in part as a Portuguese speaking counter-balance to the Commonwealth. Mozambique became the first Lusophone country to join the Commonwealth in 1995 a move partially motivated by the fact that the first lady.

“Some people called the Manuel Vicente disagreement a “nuisance”. I called it a clash between a fairly regular rule of law country against a fairly irregular rule of law country,” says João Ribeiro who was the spokesperson and Secretary for International Affairs of the Socialist Party (2011-2013) the same party in power in Portugal today.

Portugal’s relationship with its former colonies differs substantially with that of other European countries. Following the 2008-2009 financial crisis many Portuguese citizens moved to Mozambique and Angola. Many of these individuals had been born in Africa prior to the end of the Portuguese Empire in 1975. Conversely, high oil prices saw many wealthy Angolans investing and purchasing properties across Portugal. This month Portugal promised to help Angola recover “unexplained assets” that may infact be funds acquired through corruption. The two states also recently signed a double taxation agreement.

“Angola is perhaps the most important partner for Portugal as it seeks to achieve food security. And Portugal is the most important partner for Angola to develop a fair and equally beneficial investment framework to develop its huge agricultural potential,” Ribeiro added.

The settling of the Vicente matter came less than a week before the 17th Angolan/Portuguese Joint Commission this past May. During those talks, the two countries agreed to a new defence agreement that covered maritime, and cyber-security was signed in May in Luanda during a visit of Portuguese Defense Minister of National Defense José Alberto de Azeredo Lopes. During his five day trip, Lopes and his Angolan counterpart signed a Framework Cooperation Programme between the two countries for the period 2018-2021 to improve defense ties.

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“Portugal has significant cyber-security experience it can share with Angola and its also an important issue for NATO as well so Luanda can draw on some of this experience,” says Amish Laxmidas, the president of the Young Atlantic Treaty Association, a NATO affiliated organization, “recent steps by both sides has created an important environment for business and bilateral investments which will support any new defense arrangement.”

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