November 1998. Approaching Luanda by air, you see this beautiful city on the coast with tall buildings and winding avenues. Only as you get closer do you realize the tall buildings are empty shells of construction halted when the Portuguese left suddenly in 1975. And when you get real close, you can see bullet holes from Savimbi’s last stand in 1992. Not to be confused with Savimbi’s last stand of 2002. My oh my! Luanda! No place like it on earth.
Embassy Luanda was a trailer park, plain and simple. As admin officer I was the only American in the admin section, which meant I was also leasing officer, contracting officer, certifying officer, and HR adviser. I saw this coming and managed to get enrolled in all the financial mgmt and HR courses before leaving Washington. I had time to take the overseas management officer course, but my brainless Career Development Officer (CDO) informed me that you had to be FS-02 to take that course. When I countered that I was going to fill an FS-02 job, she simply said, “but you’re an FS-04, No exceptions.” It was a big disappointment for me. I could have used that class. But that is spilt milk, no use crying over it.
One by one, we found residential properties outside, negotiated leases, and moved all remaining staffers off the compound and into newly rented houses and apartments as quickly as our guys could complete the make-ready preps. Of course, it was never quick enough, nor the make-ready good enough for the prospective tenant. We did our best. Then we started the arduous task of securing the permits and permissions from various government offices to begin the New Office Building (NOB) construction project.
Side note. Not at all incidentally, the prevailing practice in Angola real estate was that the finder was paid a fee of 14% of the annual rent payment. On a single residence with $6000 per month rent, the finder’s fee balloons to a payment of $10,800. That’s only one residence. I had no inclination to take that fee because, while prevailing practice, it was most definitely a violation of US contracting law. I can’t say what my predecessors did, nor can I speak for my successors. But I was having nothing to do with it. Of course, our Angolan landlord thought I was crazy. So I negotiated with them to delete the finder’s fee, i.e., subtract it from the total rent payment, resulting in an under market negotiated price. They didn’t care, $10K was actually $10K, and so they agreed to the proposal. We must have negotiated close to ten rent contracts, saving OBO and the State Department over $100K on my watch. End side note.
After several meetings with several different ministries and regional and local government departments, we arrived at a stalemate regarding a “showstopper” for the prospective NOB, closing off the back street to enhance, no to secure setback requirements. In a final meeting I attended with the Provisional Governor (who was on our side) and representatives from the Interior Ministry (who were not on our side), the Interior Ministry folks drew a line in the sand. Their position was that to grant us permission to close off the back street “for security reasons” somehow suggested that they were not doing their job to provide adequate security for a foreign mission (which of course, in their estimation, they were. The Interior Ministry guys studied under the Russians, the East Germans, and the Cubans back during the good old days. They were the best at what they did in the world.). It was all in the wording.
One of the city traffic planners offered the following olive branch proposal: Close off the back street, not for security purposes, as stated, but to provide for temporary construction, knowing full well that once the traffic patterns were changed to close the road for the three years of the construction period, no one would bother to change them again afterwards. I phoned the DCM to get the go ahead. We cut the deal and shook on it. It was done. Ground was broken, and a few years later, after my departure, the New Office Building became a reality — the trailer park, a distant memory.
We made a couple of important budgetary discoveries. One, FAS, a cost sharing device for spreading the costs of maintaining the physical platform across all the the various agencies at post, had been supplanted and replaced by ICASS, International Cooperative Administrative Support Services. When we did the arithmetic in Excel over the years, we discovered that one agency at post was making the cash transfer agency-to-agency in Washington over the past four years. I checked with the budget office in AF/EX and lo and behold, discovered that no payment had been transferred for the past four years. In effect, the State Department was subsidizing that particular agency. AF/EX budget office got us a windfall payment covering the four years.
Similarly, the mission had experienced tremendous growth, new agencies had been added, and what was previously USIS had been absorbed. But there had been no corresponding increase in our representation funding as should have happened. All it required was a written request by the administrative officer. That was me. We scored yet another windfall of back payments. I was flying high and my bosses were loving me!
In retrospect, while I didn’t fully recognize it at the time, I would certainly come to miss the support DCM Jeff Hartley and Ambassador Joe Sullivan always extended to us. Telephones didn’t work half the time. There was no e-mail to the Admin annex where I worked, Casa Inglesa. But I could count on the support of upper management to do the work I had to do. I could take it to the bank. The support I enjoyed and took for granted in Luanda, the collegiality we shared, I would later learn, was rare in this outfit. I remain grateful for having experienced it there.
Addendum: Farewell to Luanda (10/2000)
Dear friends and colleagues,
We are packing out and already I am missing this sad, strange place. Luanda. No place like it. No place like it on Earth.
Coming down with malaria is a pain that I won’t miss. Nor will I miss that illness we get from time to time that fakes out the malaria test. The locals call it catolotolo, while I call it total physical misery. But I will miss the peaceful sunsets and late dinners out on the ilha, the hypnotizing popular music, dancing (more like watching them dance) the kizomba and the high-fives shared when one hits that out-of-sync step with rhythmic perfection.
I’ll miss the taste of zindungo (a spicy sauce made from peppers, garlic and whiskey), the smooth harshness of Angolan robusta coffee, the sweetness of overripe pineapple sold at inflated prices by the women on the street who swear it will last until tomorrow, and the bitter-sweetness of gimboa (a type of local greens) fried with onions and olive oil. More than anything else, though, I’ll miss the effusive, infectious enthusiasm of our local Foreign Service National (FSN) employees, their willingness to learn, their professional dedication and loyalty.
The war, which resumed in earnest two years ago, continues in earnest. The rebels continue to wreck havoc and random mayhem in the distant and not-so-distant provinces. The government continues to blame the rebels and, by extension, the war for all the ills of the kleptocratic society it leads. Luanda’s majority continues its struggle to survive and overcome desperate, oppressive poverty. Luanda’s privileged elite continues to revel in opulent, ostentatious wealth. International oil companies continue to discover and suck out black gold, Texas tea, like there’s no tomorrow. And then there are diamonds. Diamonds are forever. Diamonds are a girl’s best friend. Diamonds. Y’all know the rest of that story. The American Embassy continues its bifurcated operation in the Miramar trailer park and on top of the downtown garage known as Casa Inglesa. Continuity, for better or for worse, is Luanda’s most obvious constant. The strong get stronger, the weak go further off track. Or, if corruption empowers, then absolute corruption empowers absolutely.
Angola diz basta, Angola quer paz. Angola vai vencer. Or so says the steady flow of local media propaganda. Angola says enough. Angola wants peace. Angola shall win. An associate with party connections gave me the red, black and gold t-shirt that repeats the mantra. That makes it so.
The NOB didn’t start on time and may or may not start in the foreseeable future. While I am buoyed by our accomplishments of the past two years, I am a little disappointed over the NOB delays and the failed prospect of being personally involved in yet another building project in yet another former Portuguese colony. Never mind. A luta continua e vitoria é certa (translation: the struggle continues and victory is certain).
We are coming up on two years of official USG presence in Angola in the post-Cold War era (1992-2002). I am soliciting information, anecdotes, photographs, etc. from folks who have served in Luanda, and from PMO’s, FBO Area Managers and desk officers who have paid Angolan dues, so to speak. While talking with people in Luanda and in Washington, I’ve made interesting discoveries regarding the colonial-era Luanda consulate and its employees (1952-1975) and the Benguela and Luanda consulates that supported US Navy ships (the African Squadron) involved in slave trade interdiction efforts in the 1840’s and 1850’s. Keep those cards and letters coming and let’s all meet for a big birthday bash in Luanda in 2002!
Part 1 – Foreign Service Exam and Oral Assessment
Part 2 – A-100 and reassignment training
Part 3 – Embassy Bissau – the first year
Part 4 – Embassy Bissau – the second year
Part 5 – The London Embassy
Part 6 – The Ops Center
Part 7 – Embassy Luanda, Angola
Part 8 – Embassy Accra, Ghana
Part 9 – Domestic Assignment – AF/EX
Part 10 – Epilogue: the final eight years
Part 11 – Bonus: Reflections on War and Peace in Iraq