The U.S. Strategic Bet on Angola Pays Off—and Vice Versa

The U.S. Strategic Bet on Angola Pays Off—and Vice Versa

Angola is emerging as a hub of various U.S. efforts to support African economic development.

There is much with the Biden administration’s approach to Africa, beginning with its much-ballyhooed but ultimately disappointing U.S. Strategy Towards Sub-Saharan Africa document, which, once one got past the seemingly endless clichés strung together, reflected little more than a commitment to the status quo, both for good and for ill. One year ago, the second U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit brought leaders from forty-nine African states to Washington. Still, many of them left offended by the lack of one-on-one meetings with their American host or even his top officials, with Kenya’s President William Ruto publicly lamenting: “It is not intelligent for…us to go and sit before one gentleman from another place…we are loaded into buses like school kids. It is not right.” Consequently, it is reassuring that the U.S. relationship with the country that President Joseph Biden himself previously described as “one of the leaders in Africa” appears to be on solid footing, especially since his meeting in the Oval Office last week with Angola’s President João Manuel Gonçalves Lourenço, only the third such appointment with an African leader since he came to the White House.

Few African countries—indeed, very few anywhere—have received the sheer quantity of high-level U.S. visitors that Angola has in recent years. The non-exhaustive list of top administration officials who have made the trip to Luanda includes Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) Administrator Samantha Power, U.S. International Development Finance (DFC) CEO Scott Nathan, U.S. Import-Export (EXIM) Bank Chair Reta Jo Lewis, and Deputy Assistant to the President Amos Hochstein. The Biden officials followed in the wake of their Trump administration predecessors, including then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who visited Luanda just before diplomatic tours ground to a halt with the outbreak of the COVID pandemic.

The attention was strategically justified, not only because of Angola’s economic and, increasingly, geopolitical heft among African countries but also the shift in its diplomatic orientation since Lourenço was elected president in 2017. In addition to combating the corruption that had taken root during the nearly four-decade-long rule of his predecessor—Pompeo praised the moves against graft during his visit. His successor as Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, announced corruption designations against two of the top officials of the prior Angolan government as well as the daughter of former President José Eduardo dos Santos. Lourenço has also pivoted closer to the West in general and the United States in particular. Once controlled by the former first daughter, the telecommunications sector has been opened to competition, and a U.S.-owned operator, Africell, was awarded the country’s newest mobile license in 2021 (full disclosure: I am a non-executive director of the parent company). Last year, in a VOA interview, Lourenço even announced that he wanted to equip the Angolan armed forces with NATO equipment from U.S. suppliers, replacing his country’s traditional reliance on Russian arms—this during a period when many in Washington and elsewhere were frustrated by the close ties which some African countries continued to maintain with the Kremlin even after the invasion of Ukraine (to say nothing of the more active support that others, like South Africa, lent to Russia and its allies). According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), as recently as 2019, Angola was the fourth largest importer of Russian weapons in Africa, behind Algeria, Egypt, and Sudan. In addition, during the visit, Angola became the thirty-third country to sign the Artemis Accords, a code of principles led by the U.S. State Department and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) for peaceful civil space exploration and collaboration launched by the Trump administration in 2020 with Australia, Canada, Italy, Japan, Luxembourg, the United Arab Emirates, and the United Kingdom.

Even against this backdrop, perhaps nothing in the blossoming bilateral relationship between Washington and Luanda has been as strategically significant as the development of the Lobito Corridor connecting Angola, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), and Zambia through the eponymous Angolan port on the Atlantic Ocean. The Lobito Corridor was highlighted earlier this year in the G7 Summit announcement of the Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment’s plan to invest in key economic corridors “through key transportation infrastructure,” by making clean electricity “more affordable, reliable and available to all,” strengthening rural “information and communications technology,” utilizing agricultural hubs for food security, improving health care access and “aggregating demand for clean energy solutions to fuel these corridors and service local communities.” 

Shepherded through the interagency process by White House advisor Amos Hochstein, what began as the refurbishment and expansion of a railway from the port of Lobito into an open-access transportation infrastructure connecting Angola to its mineral-rich neighbors in the DRC and Zambia—and potentially beyond—has been reimagined, as the White House fact sheet last week noted, as a full suite of “critical infrastructure that will better integrate DRC, Zambia, and Angola into regional and global markets; develop green energy supply chains; and, spur investment in agriculture, telecoms, and additional sectors in underdeveloped regions of Angola.” An agreement has even been reached with the European Union to collaborate in the effort, which is, effectively, not just the West’s targeted response to China’s “Belt and Road” global infrastructure push but also a vehicle to secure access to the critical minerals needed for the energy transition and future technology. To this end, not only have different envelopes of government funding been tapped—including, in addition to the initial $250 million in DFC financing for the railway refurbishment, $900 million in EXIM financing for solar energy as well as myriad smaller capacity-building initiatives—but also, with the momentum increasingly evident, the U.S. companies that pioneered entry into the market have found Angolan and other firms eager to partner with them.

Coming at the end of the year marking the thirtieth anniversary of U.S.-Angolan diplomatic relations, the first White House meeting for an Angolan head of state in nearly two decades marks a notable success for the U.S. administration and a clear payoff on the bet that it and its predecessor placed on Angola—as is also the case for Lourenço, who happily noted “a new page that has been turned in the U.S.-Africa relations.”  

Ambassador J. Peter Pham, a Distinguished Fellow at the Atlantic Council and a Senior Advisor at the Krach Institute for Tech Diplomacy, is a former U.S. Special Envoy for the Sahel and Great Lakes Regions of Africa.