Portuguese professionals flee to Angola

POMBAL, Portugal — In a country enduring its highest unemployment in decades, the list of jobs on offer looks very tempting: financial director for a leading retail chain; sales manager in consumer electronics; air-conditioning technician; computer systems engineer; communications consultant.

The online employment agency's advertisements for well-paid, skilled workers seem endless. There’s just one catch: the jobs are all a continent away, in Angola.

Angola’s oil-fueled economy is booming, while its former colonial ruler is stuck in the doldrums. As a result, tens of thousands of Portuguese have left to seek work in the southern African nation, heading in the opposite direction of poor African emigrants desperate to find a better life in Europe.

“Salaries are really much higher than they are in Portugal,” said Goncalo Nobre da Veiga, a Portuguese architect who has worked in Angola for the past four years.

“In Portugal, like in much of Europe, it’s becoming hard to find work. Here there are lots of opportunites and you can climb up the career ladder much quicker, because there’s a lack of qualified people,” he said in a telephone interview from the Angolan capital, Luanda.

From 1961 to 2002, Angola was embroiled in almost non-stop warfare. First the struggle against Portuguese rule, then, after independence in 1975, a brutal civil war between rival factions backed by the Cold War superpowers.

When peace finally came the country was in ruins.

Hundreds of thousands had been killed, a once flourishing agricultural sector devastated and many cities flattened. Angola, however, had a trump card that has allowed its economy to rebound. The country rivals Nigeria as sub-Saharan Africa’s largest oil producer and peace, combined with rocketing oil prices, led to a flood of investment to get the crude pumping from its offshore wells.

Angola’s economy grew at an average of over 16 percent over the five years up to 2008, according to the International Monetary Fund. Over the same period, Portugal’s growth rate was 1.1 percent.

Unable to find employment at home, young Portuguese professionals and skilled workers increasingly looked abroad for jobs. At the same time, Portuguese-speaking Angola was in dire need of qualified people to fill posts in civil engineering, telecommunications, retailing, banking and other sectors taking off in the post-war reconstruction boom.

“Angola really lacks skilled professionals,” explained Ricardo Bordalo, Luanda correspondent of the Portuguese news agency Lusa. “During all those years of war, the priority of the Angolan government was not in training managers and professionals, it was buying Kalashnikovs.”

According to official estimates, there are about 100,000 Portuguese now living in Angola, a country of about 18 million. The real figure could be much higher, taking into account those who have acquired dual-nationality — a possibility for many thousands born in the African country before independence.

Around 25,000 Portuguese were reported to have made the trip south in each of the past three years, with long lines for work visas often forming outside Lisbon’s Angolan consulate. Even the abrupt, but apparently temporary, hiatus in Angola’s boom triggered by the collapse of oil prices last year failed to stem the flow.

Many of the new Portuguese emigrants are small business owners, young managers and professionals looking for opportunites to boost their careers, or skilled workers such as bricklayers, electricians and construction site foremen.

Although many have been successful, life under the palm trees of Angola’s seaside capital may not have turned out to be the expected El Dorado.

“Life can be tough here,” said Nobre da Veiga. “We miss lots of things: cinemas, the theater, traffic is impossible, health care may not be what we’re used to in Europe, there are power cuts, water cuts. But there has been tremendous progress in the past few years.”

Many who came to set up small businesses were hit hard by the impact of the global recession on Angola and found it difficult to survive in Luanda, one of the world’s most expensive capitals. The economy contracted in 2009, but growth is expected to bounce back to 7 percent this year.

Although many of the Portuguese newcomers are too young to remember the colonial years, Bordalo says Angola may not be a totally strange country to them.

“There’s an emotional link between Angola and Portugal that runs deep," he said. "I came here for the first time in 2003, but I’ve lived with an image of Angola in my head, pretty much since I was a kid, because my grandfather came here in the 1940s, died and is buried here. For millions of Portuguese there’s a link to Angola.”

While European settlers in many African colonies were mostly limited to wealthy landowners or imperial administrators, tens of thousands of Portuguese moved to Angola during the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s in an effort to escape from the poverty that grew in Portugal under the dictatorship of Antonio de Oliveira Salazar.

During that period, wars against independence movements in Angola and the other colonies of Mozambique and Guinea Bissau led to the deaths of 8,290 Portuguese soldiers. An estimated 50,000 Angolans were killed.

Back in Lisbon, on April 25, 1974 Portuguese army officers dissatisfied with the war overthrew Salazar’s successor in a bloodless revolution that ushered in democratic rule. The new rulers moved quickly to end the fighting and granted independence to Angola and the other colonies. Amid chaotic scenes up to a million Portuguese fled the “overseas provinces.”

In a nation of 10 million, few Portugueses families were left untouched. Almost all had a relative among the refugees or an acquaintance among the dead and wounded. In this little town in the center of the country the main street is still named for the “heros of the overseas war” in honor of the 37 local boys who never made it home.

Despite the two countries' sometimes traumatic history, Portugal and Angola retained close cultural links. Blame for colonial abuses is laid firmly on the Salazar regime rather than modern, democratic Portugal. Although some refugees from Africa remain resentful over their sudden exodus, many on the political left in Portugal link the African independence struggle to their own resistance to the dictatorship.

Web chatter shows that not all Angolans are happy to have so many Portuguese back among them, just as some Portuguese complain about the 27,000 Angolans living officially in Portugal. However, the newcomers in Luanda seem to feel little real animosity.

“In general, Angolans don’t feel any ill-feeling toward the Portuguese, perhaps some in the older generations still hold some bitterness, but not among the young,” said Angolan sociologist Paulo de Carvalho.

Rector of the university in Benguela, Angola’s second city, de Carvalho says linguistic, historical and cultural ties enable the Portuguese to integrate into Angolan society more easily than other immigrants, such as the around 30,000 Chinese who are estimated to have moved there since the end of the war.

“It’s different now, these Portuguese who come here now, they don’t try to act superior like in colonial times," de Carvalho said. "If they did they wouldn’t get very far.”