Angola: new naval powerhouse?

Huge expansion of navy planned. 

Angola: West Africa’s new naval powerhouse?

By Cassie Blombaum, Guardian Global Resources

The powers that be in Luanda are apparently engaging in a massive expansion of Angola’s naval capabilities – although many are not quite sure why. Since 2004, the country has bolstered its military expenditure in general, with its defence budget growing by more than 36% between 2012 – 2013, alone, a move that pushed it ahead of South Africa as Sub-Saharan Africa’s largest military spender.

In defence of the Angolan leadership, the southern African nation does boast a mighty coastline – some 1,600 kilometres in length – as well as an extensive network of offshore oil platforms, both attributes of which would make Gulf of Guinea pirates jump at the chance to capitalise on potentially lucrative hijacking operations. However, with a comparatively small domestic population of 22 million to protect, and a lack of reported incidents since a major vessel seizure nearly one year ago, are Angolan authorities truly ramping up security measures in the face of a potential rise in maritime crime? Or are Luanda’s elite trying to showcase their country’s booming economic – and future military – prowess?


Between enduring a coup d’état and US meddling during the Cold War, at first look, the formerly war-torn Angola appears to match all of the stereotypes befitting of an erstwhile European colony. This view, however, has since proven outdated – if not Eurocentric – given Angola’s historical rise. After suffering a Civil War that raged periodically for nearly 27 years until 2002, the Lucophone nation has subsequently embarked on a path of genuine prosperity, achieving an average Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth rate of 10.72%between 2000 – 2013. In short, largely due to its vast oil reserves, estimated to be worth nearly US$24 billion, and to a smaller extent, its fishing industry, Angola is now an economic force that can no longer go on ignored. As if to capitalise on this growth even further, Luanda has also recently initiated a series of pro-business manoeuvres as of part a larger effort to infuse much-needed capital in its potentially profitable mining sector. Moreover, in what many have described as a bit of historical irony, Angolan business leaders, including President José Eduardo dos Santos’ very own daughter, Isabel, have additionally started buying up shares in languishing companies once controlled by its former European ruler, Portugal, including Banco Português de Negócios for the paltry sum of 30 million Euros (US$39 million) and, more recently, Portugal Telecom SGPS SA. With this burgeoning financial clout, it is perhaps understandable Luandan leaders would similarly embark on a path of military modernisation – but even these plans have been with contention.


The ability to expand a country’s domestic defences is considered a right of all nation-states; however, when that nation is led by the same leader for nearly 35 years, questions inevitably arise. Controversy over a possible increase in Angolan naval power, in particular, has also been compounded by the sheer fact that many defence-related upgrades had intrinsically been linked to the country’s devastating, decades-long internal war, which left more than 500,000 civilians dead and millions more maimed. To be fair to the dos Santos administration, most of the Civil War’s military additions, including personnel, weaponry and other equipment, were effectively donated by third parties, including Cuba, the US and the Soviet Union, which used Angola as a Cold War-era proxy. In other words, these ‘upgrades’ were not all driven directly by Angola. Moreover, with regard to Luanda’s maritime capability, in the years during, and immediately following the Civil War, Luanda essentially neglected the entire naval branch, opting instead to focus on land warfare. Case in point: whilst at its height, the Angolan Navy had boasted some 4,200 personnel, in 2014, the military wing is believed to number approximately 2,500, of whom 1,000 are sailors. This oversight did not go unnoticed during the infamous hijacking of the MT KERALA on 18 January 2014, when analysts raised concerns regarding the size of the Angolan navy and its ability to monitor all of the country’s maritime assets, including the Luanda Port.

Perhaps aware of these criticisms, Angolan leaders announced in September 2014, they would begin procuring at least 7 patrol vessels from their Lucophone ally, Brazil, ostensibly to help prevent pirate attacks. However, this was not the only upgrade Angola had planned. Even before suffering the KERALA hijacking, Angola allegedly made arrangements as far back as December 2013 to purchase the PRINCIPE DE ASTURIA, a recently-decommissioned Spanish aircraft carrier. This announcement was immediately met with suspicion, given that roughly 1/3 of Angola’s entire available naval personnel would be needed to man the vessel. As part of this military exchange Angola was also reportedly in talks to acquire 4 additional Spanish patrol ships. Not stopping there, Luanda’s Air Force was additionally rumoured to have been the recipient of 12 Su-30 twin-engine fighters from Russia. Germany, too, had previously been a potential military ‘gift’ giver to Angola, having controversially promised in 2011 to deliver upwards of 8 patrol boats to the African country. The budding sale, however, appeared to have been dead on arrival due to Berlin protests. Indeed, despite assurances from German Chancellor Angela Merkel that the defence transaction would have been cemented merely as a means to ensure the “protection” of Angola’s largely insecure offshore oil platforms, many were not entirely convinced, given the legacy of heavy-handed military usage in Angola. To be sure, whilst international interference in Angolan affairs has long made headlines, Luanda has had a tradition of military meddling in its own right. From its incursions into the Republic of Congo, to itsalleged involvement in the overthrow of the government in Guinea-Bissau, as well as its sporadic behind-the-scenes military manoeuvring in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC’s) complex Mai-Mai violence, Angola has not shied away from intervening in African affairs. Its reputation as the African “stabiliser”, and its renowned military schools have also been at the forefront of discussions regarding defence on the continent. It is this history of deployment, however, that could be why any further slight military tampering could raise alarm bells, even if these military changes are simply naval improvements.


Given historical precedence, it is not outside the parameters of reality to imagine that Angola might want to also showcase its potential naval might. For now, however, Angolan leaders appear coy about the issue, preferring instead to discuss – at least when it comes to maritime defence matters – issues connected to the fishing industry, one of the country’s largest economic sectors. Even thoughts on piracy appear vague, with leaders giving unspecified promises to patrol the Gulf of Guinea to protect commercial vessels. Luanda has even yet to truly admit that their most famous attack ever took place. The MT KERALA incident has stirred controversy in Angola, the leaders of which insist had been “staged”. Captain Augusto Alfredo, the spokesman for the Angolan navy, went as far as to declare that there has never been “acts of piracy in Angolan waters”. Captain Alfredo’s words, however, fly in the face of most piracy analysts, who argue that the attack had been an actual hijacking, and that Angolan leaders may have been trying to deflect potential criticism of their security operations in order to maintain their country’s reputation. This reputation is critical. Angolan leaders are likely aware that in order to truly captivate on their evolving role as a major political and economic player, they must back it up with hard power, or in this case, naval dominance. In order to maintain this coveted position, Luanda officials must ensure that all borders, including those maritime-related, are secure. Any major maritime assault, such as the hijacking the MT KERALA, could deter these aspirations, and even lead to a loss of confidence in investors interested in the country’s vast offshore oil assets. And with Nigeria, the continent’s biggest economy, floundering in its defence – at least 8 piracy incidents have been confirmed over the past 2 weeks – Angola maybe looking to fill in the void. In other words, Angola could be playing both hands – ramping up security measures to prevent against potential maritime attacks, and ensuring their economic and political success story continues.


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