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Oil-Rich Angola In The International Spotlight

LUANDA — From magazine covers to billboards, messages of "Viva Angola" and "Proud to be Angolan" in Luanda mark the war-scarred southern African nation's rising international presence.

Within three weeks, Angola will stage the football African Cup of Nations (CAN) on the back of hosting Tuesday's powerful OPEC oil cartel and securing its first IMF loan seven years after the end of a 27 year civil war.

"Angola sees itself as a regional superpower," said Alex Vines of London-based Chatham House. "The expanding number of embassies opening in Luanda attest to its growing influence."

Africa's top oil supplier has boomed since the 2002 ceasefire with double digit growth between 2004 and 2008.

Growth for 2010 is forecast at over eight percent after the global recession and emergency oil quotas slashed the years of upswing in 2009, with 95 percent of export income derived from the country's vast crude reserves.

The capital's crane-dominated skyline is testimony to a construction frenzy, with infrastructure spending on next month's four-city CAN tournament estimated at one billion dollars.

"The country is an immense construction site. Everything has to be rebuilt," said Olivier de Quelen, a Luanda-based independent economic consultant.

Chinese firms have several key contracts, with Chinese credit lines to Angola are believed to exceed five billion dollars.

Fear of China's entry into Africa played directly into Angola's hands after years of half-hearted reception from reform-pushing international lenders, said Nomfundo Ngwenya of the South African Institute of International Affairs.

"China?s stepping into the scene was undoubtedly a game-changer. Angola suddenly found a seemingly infinite source of finance, without the stringency of externally-imposed political, social and economic reform," she told AFP.

"Suddenly everybody is acting as a suitor and the Angolans are beating their chests about their ability to engage a wide range of players without being dictated to, something that not many African countries can boast."

Seen as a sign of credibility, Angola's securing of its first post-war International Monetary Fund (IMF) loan of 1.4 billion dollars last month came with commendations from the global lender for commitment to reforms.

But despite the current bask in the spotlight, two thirds of Angolans live on less than two dollars a day and Transparency International last month scored Angola as the 18th most corrupt state on its annual corruption index.

Ngwenya voiced uncertainty as to whether Angola's image had changed despite the current spotlight and high profile visits this year by United States top diplomat Hillary Clinton and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.

"Angola is still synonymous with corruption and poverty and it is not yet clear how the windfall is being used," she said.

"The truth is that the country has been so inward-looking for so long that they have yet to craft a strategy for selling themselves to the rest of the world."

Angola was being forced to reflect on what it wanted from regional and broader foreign policy, she added.

For Vines, the key for Angola is to develop its human capital.

"Angola?s human development indices remain stubbornly low," he said.

At a filling station this week, 23-year-old Evandro Monduro said few had reaped the benefits of living in Africa's top crude producer.

"I don't see anything," he told AFP.

"If you see here, maybe 20 people see the benefits. Only 20," he said, pointing to a 500 metre (yard) queue for petrol stretching behind him, as the exclusive OPEC oil club gathered under Luanda's presidency.

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