Professor Ricardo Soares de Oliveira | University of Oxford
View of Morro do Papagaio at Belo Horizonte, Minas Gerais, Brazil
View of Morro do Papagaio at Belo Horizonte, Minas Gerais, Brazil
Image credit: Shutterstock

Professor Ricardo Soares de Oliveira

'What I found was that apparently remote, little-known places in Africa such as the Niger Delta, Angola and Chad, were in fact intimately linked to the very functioning of our own societies. From that perspective I thought oil was an exemplary subject that we tend to think of in exceptionalist terms but is in fact very much linked to our lives and the very functioning of our society.'

What first made you choose to study politics? What made you specifically interested in African politics?
My interest in politics is pretty innate. There were two dimensions that attracted me to African politics: I find Africa intrinsically interesting and deserving of scholarly research, but I also found that – contrary to what a lot of people think – Africa was a location in which many dynamics of global politics played out quite visibly. My first book was on the politics of oil in Africa – and far from being interested in uniquely African trends that happened 'out there', I was actually looking at how some of the major players from our own societies (oil companies, banks, lawyers) acted on the global periphery. So the study of African politics provides important insights into politics more generally


Tell me more about your current book – Magnificent and Beggar Land: Angola Since the Civil War (published by Hurst and Oxford University Press US in 2015).
My first book was about the politics of oil in West and Central Africa – a big, regional study of eight countries. It looked at the pattern of relations between oil companies and governments in this region.

I’ve also looked at the China–Africa relationship. Until about 15–20 years ago, Asian countries were not very important to sub–Saharan Africa, and that has changed radically over the last decade: now China is Africa’s most important trading partner in the world. However, China is still interested in the same things in Africa that Westerners have been interested in for hundreds of years (in other words, natural resources). So, for me, the study of African–Asian relations is a study of continuity and change, not just in the economies of Africa but in global political economy terms.

This takes me to the current book. Angola is a quite extraordinary case: it had a war that lasted for 41 years – from 1961 to 2002. It only ended when the rebel leader, Jonas Savimbi, was killed by the government. The war had killed about a million people and pretty much everything in the country was devastated. What happened from 2002 until 2015 was without precedent. The economy increased tenfold from $12 billion a year GDP to $125 billion in 2013, making it sub-Saharan Africa’s third largest, just after Nigeria and South Africa (and three times larger than, for instance, Kenya). Angola during this period, because of the increase in oil production to almost two million barrels a day and the hike in the oil price, generated almost half a trillion dollars in oil revenues. So the government, which had both the oil money and had won the war, was able to reinvent the country as they saw fit. The result is spectacular and strange: they refurbished their capital city into Africa’s Dubai, so you go to Luanda now, which is the most expensive city in the worldmore than Tokyo, more than Oslo – and there are hundreds of thousands of expats there now, and they build skyscrapers, you see Ferraris, you see Rolls–Royces.

So on the one hand it’s a remarkable story of exponential growth. On the other hand, the way this money has circulated inside Angolan society is very limited indeed. The vast majority of Angolans have not benefited at all from this bonanza. So what the book tries to do is to look at both the remarkable transformation undergone during this period but also the limitations of that transformation, and even the losers from this process. And now that the boom has come to an end, and the oil price collapsed last year, the contradictions accrued during this decade of excess, this orgy of expenditure, are now creating new and potentially uncontrollable social and political forces in Angolan society.

The book tells this story of 'the rise of Angola' but it places it on a global canvas. Because this is not an Angolan story, it is a global story.

The book tells this story of 'the rise of Angola' but it places it on a global canvas. Because this is not an Angolan story, it is a global story. A lot of what’s going on, especially what’s going on in a bad way, could not be done without the assistance of western banks, western accountants, western lawyers, and when you start following the money trail, you start in Luanda and you end up in the City of London or in New York or in Lisbon. A lot of what one might find funny, almost grotesque, in the book is this excess of exhibitionism of Angolan oligarchs, copying their Russian counterparts, copying the lifestyles of the global 1%. We might find them vulgar, but in fact they are holding a mirror to the values of our own societies in the west.


Do you touch on the future of Angola, and whether that has global economic implications?
The main problem is the dependence on oil, and the price of that has fallen substantially over the past year. The other problem that Angola has is also shared by other African countries but is particularly acute in Angola: that is the so-called 'youth bulge', 70–75% of Angolans are below the age of 25. The civil war that ended in 2002, this horrible civil war that lasted 41 years, for them it’s a distant memory – it means the same as the second world war means to someone of my age group in Europe. They don’t compare their life today with life during the war (as their parents do – even if they are not happy, this comparison is always positive). The young people – the vast majority – compare the not-very-nice life they have today with the life they would like to have. They are seething at this rich elite that hoards away from them all the benefits of the oil boom.

The third problem that Angola has is that the same man has been in power for 36 years. He’s getting old. He hasn’t made any arrangements for a succession. No-one knows what’s going to happen after he leaves. No-one knows if he intends to leave or die in power. This political succession problem is going to haunt Angola in the coming years. And, again, this is a story of Angola through which we can refract the broader African dynamics of incumbents often refusing to let go.


Given that the western world is going through a recession, do you think there’s hope for Africa in the future to make more of an impression on the world stage than it has to date?
It’s always been difficult to make great generalisations about Africa. Africa has about 50 countries, and each is really very different. I would say that those differences have even been magnified over the last 10 years. In the late 20th century you could say that many African countries, however different, were experiencing similar problems – the big economic crisis that afflicted Africa in the 80s and 90s in one way or another did impact every country. Over the last 10 years what you have in Africa is a dynamic whereby countries are going in all sorts of different directions: some countries have done a better job in terms of macroeconomic management, or in terms of some modest degree of economic diversification. Other countries are as bad as they’ve always been, if not worse. If you compare Ethiopia and the Congo: Ethiopia is now fairly well managed and doing very well. Like the Congo it started from a low base, but it’s an upbeat story (at least in economic terms: the politics are more complex and Ethiopia remains an authoritarian state). But the Congo is just as bad as it has always been and there doesn’t seem to be a light at the end of the tunnel.

It is difficult for countries in Africa: some have natural limitations: they are landlocked, they are not resource-rich. Other countries are much better positioned to steam ahead. I don’t want to underestimate the extent to which there are structural difficulties for African countries that are poor and often not very competitive outside primary extractive sectors – it’s difficult for them to do well in the world economy. But it’s not impossible. I would emphasise African leadership, without ever pretending that there is a level playing field out there, and that African countries can become Denmark if they so wish – they can’t. But I think leadership plays a very important role and I would emphasise the agency of African decision-making. Unfortunately too many African leaders have made decisions that are enabling for themselves but not necessarily for the rest of their society.


You’ve spent a long time in the field and you have worked with a lot of NGOs and international organisations around energy governance – what motivates that? What would you like to come out of that, in an ideal world?
I do spend a considerable amount of time doing fieldwork: it’s very important to understand these realities directly. My political science is very focused on local knowledge, building strong networks, fieldwork, language proficiency: if you’re monolingual, or you’re not interested in the cultures of other societies, you’re probably not going to do a very good job of understanding difference, and will take refuge in apparently 'universal' traits that are actually characteristic of your own narrow experience. You’re either going to focus on societies that are very familiar to you, or, worse, you’re going to bring your mindset and force it upon societies, institutions and political economies that work very differently.

I deal with a lot of dynamics that are occurring as we speak, on which scholarly knowledge is limited or non-existent. I don’t have 100 books that have been written already on the subjects that interest me, nor can I take for granted data emanating from authoritarian states where the conditions for data gathering are amiss. So fact-finding and the sense of ‘embeddedness’ entailed by a long-term commitment to fieldwork is crucial – I couldn’t get the same information from Oxford or surfing the Internet.

To go back to your question, I’d like to – without illusions about what academics can achieve in terms of political or social change – make what modest contribution I can. I mostly deal with dynamics that are deeply rooted: oppression and injustice and predatory extraction. So I’m not under any illusion that you can just go there and change things overnight. But I do believe that unearthing new knowledge about these matters and providing sophisticated and theoretically informed analysis of them is a worthwhile enterprise.  


What does day-to-day fieldwork look like? What is a typical fieldwork day?
You patiently develop, sometimes over years, the networks of trust that will allow you to inconspicuously get to the heart of things in the fullness of time. I’ve mostly worked in authoritarian locations or in locations where you can’t do conventional data collection: you can’t do surveys, you can’t do questionnaires. I aim at the building of long-term networks – creating trust with political and social actors, typically over many years. The Angola book is the culmination of about 13 years of work. You don’t squeeze your informant dry the first time you meet them, nor do you subject him or her to a formal box-ticking interrogation. A lot of fieldwork is interviewing, but interviewing as a culmination of a careful process of socialisation.

The second type of fieldwork is what anthropologists would call 'participant observation' – which I probably don’t want to call 'hanging out', but that’s what it is. If you want to unearth new knowledge, if you’re finding out things that are not known, it’s only through a long-term commitment to fieldwork that you’re able to source that knowledge.


How many languages do you speak?
Four: English, French, Portuguese and Spanish.


What would you like to consider your ultimate legacy to be?
The dynamics that I study, though they manifest themselves in particular locations and political economies, are global and linked to a historical pattern of exploitation and inequality. I don’t want to sound cynical, but one of the results of my research that I’ve come to be aware of is just how deeply rooted and difficult these dynamics are to address. I’m only too aware of how deep seated these patterns are. They certainly transcend any moralising vision of good and bad guys … if only it were that simple. On the other hand, with full awareness of all of this, I would like to play a role in advancing knowledge and informing global audiences about what these patterns are – how anti-developmental, how violent – and make a (again, necessarily modest) contribution towards a more balanced global political economy.