NEW YORK — It is a sad paradox that one of the potentially richest developing countries in the world is going through one of its worst crises in history. It is a humanitarian crisis that is, to a large extent, the result of that country’s corrupt leadership. While the threat of starvation rages throughout the country, billions of dollars in state revenues have gone missing. Angolan President Jose Eduardo dos Santos cannot avoid responsibility for this situation. Since its independence from the Portuguese, Angola has extensively exploited its natural resources, particularly its huge oil reserves, estimated to be among the largest in Africa. Angola supplies more oil to the United States than Kuwait.

It is estimated that oil represents close to 90 percent of the $3 billion to $5 billion total of Angola’s state budget, of which more than $1 billion goes unaccounted for every year. The Angolan government has been strenuously trying to keep payments from oil exploitation secret.

Although the decades-long war against UNITA ended last April, one-third of Angola’s people are living as refugees in their own country and face a serious crisis from the lack of food. People have resorted to eating rats and leaves, camping without basic shelter and drinking contaminated water. As a result, malnutrition and infectious diseases have become rampant among large segments of the population.

According to the World Food Program, half a million people are suffering from starvation in Angola. Aid agencies report that this is the worst crisis of its kind in southern Africa in more than a decade.

According to UNICEF statistics, almost one in five infants dies in childbirth, and nearly a third of the country’s children die before their fifth birthday, making Angola the nation with the second-highest under-five mortality rate in the world. It is estimated that fewer than 40 percent of children receive routine immunization for vaccine-preventable diseases. Education has also been affected, with the result that only 56 percent of boys and 29 percent of girls are literate.

At least 60 percent of the general population and 90 percent of those from displaced communities use contaminated water. Those indicators for health, education and sanitation fall below the average for Sub-Saharan Africa.

Alberto Stella, the country program adviser for UNAIDS, has stated that Angola is now in the exponential phase of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, with the virus spreading beyond control. In 1999, a survey found that approximately 3 percent of women attending prebirth clinics in the capital Luanda were HIV positive. In 2001 that figure had jumped to 8.6 percent, a 250 percent increase.

Official statistics indicate that half a million Angolans — out of a population of 13 million — are HIV infected. As stated by Melanie Luick, the UNICEF HIV/AIDS program officer in Angola: “If you don’t address HIV, up to 20 percent of the people that you are trying to help through education, demobilization, and health and nutrition programs are going to die from AIDS. Even if you disregard the human rights aspect, it makes sense in economic terms to address HIV in an emergency phase.”

What makes this situation particularly jarring is that the oil industry could bring Angola’s citizens billions of dollars desperately needed to cover basic necessities. More than 30 multinational companies are investing in Angola’s oil sector including Chevron, Elf, Exxon Mobil, BP-Amoco, Texaco, Shell and AGIP. Of these companies, only BP has publicly declared that it will publish information about their oil revenues and payments to the Angolan government.

Angola has become a secretive state, where oil and other sources of government revenue are controlled by the so-called Futungo — a corrupt triangle of actors comprising the national petroleum company Sonangol, the National Bank of Angola and President dos Santos, who has been accused of siphoning billions of dollars out of the country.

An investigation by the Center for Public Integrity reveals that on July 15, 2000, the Marathon Oil Co. sent $13.7 million to an account in the British Isle of Jersey. The money in that account, owned by Sonangol, Angola’s state oil company, was later transferred to another Sonangol account in an unknown location.

That same year, large amounts of money traveled from the Jersey account to a private company owned by a former Angolan minister, a private Angolan bank account and a charitable organization run by the Angolan president. An International Monetary Fund study found that in 2001 alone almost $1 billion had apparently disappeared from the state coffers, a charge denied by the Angolan government.

Walter Kansteiner, U.S. assistant secretary of state for African affairs stated in April that Angola needed to come clean about its oil revenues if it wanted to revive its war-shattered economy. This is diplomatic language for the state’s robbery of health and quality of life of the Angolan people.

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