The British Government Exploited the Angolan Civil War to Lobby for BP

Forget peacekeeping. It's all about petrol.

by Stephen Delahunty

15 October 2021

John Major
(Chatham House/Wikimedia Commons)

John Major’s government exploited Angola’s need for peacekeeping support during its bloody civil war to ensure British Petroleum (BP) was awarded new operating licenses in the country, declassified documents reveal.

A series of government memos held in the National Archives and made public at the start of this year show how Conservative ministers lobbied the Angolan government on behalf of the British oil giant during a fragile ceasefire between 1995 and 1997.

At the height of these discussions, a British official at the UK embassy in Angola advised civil servants in the Foreign Office “that the BP card be played with care and subtlety” during a discussion about the Angolan president’s planned visit to the UK – an “invitation”, they concede was “largely inspired by a wish to give … BP … a major push”.

The documents reveal a long history of corruption, painting a picture of a government that has consistently been willing to leverage conflict in order to satisfy private corporate interest, undermining its commitments to meaningfully address climate change in the process.

Petrol over peace. 

Angola’s 27-year bloody civil war in Angola began in November 1975 immediately after two decades of anti-colonial struggle against the Portuguese. By the time the communist People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) achieved victory against the anti-communist National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) in 2002 more than 800,000 Angolans were dead, sparking a humanitarian crisis that internally displaced around a third of the population.

The declassified files document a period of relative peace during the conflict that begun with the signing of a ceasefire agreement, the Lusaka Protocol, in October 1994. The agreement attempted to bring an end to the conflict by integrating UNITA into the MPLA-led Angolan government and disarming its forces.

The United Nations (UN) spent more than £1bn overseeing the protocol that one of its officials would later brand a “mistake”, given that both sides continued to buy arms throughout the ceasefire.

Unsurprisingly, the UK had only a fleeting interest in stopping the war. In February 1995, the UN invited the UK to deploy troops as part of a new peacekeeping mission in Angola – the estimated cost of which was £8m. The treasury, however, was not convinced.

“Peace-keeping does not provide worthwhile trade assistance,” argued treasury secretary Paul Raynes in a letter to the Foreign Office on 13 February 1995. He also highlighted the scepticism of government officials “about the relative importance of Angola to essential British interests”, given that Angola accounted for just 0.02% of British exports, or less than £50m a year, at that time. 

The Foreign Office, however, disagreed, with foreign secretary Douglas Hurd writing to his Treasury colleagues to insist that “an effective contribution by the UK to peace and stability in Angola should leave us better placed than we are now to benefit from the commercial prospects.”

Hurd’s argument clearly had an impact. On 13 April 1995, Foreign Office private secretary Sam Sharpe wrote to the prime minister’s office confirming that a British battalion would be in theatre by the end of the month.

A filthy partnership. 

While Hurd was not explicit about what the “commercial prospects” from which Britain stood to benefit were, he didn’t have to be. At the time, the oil industry was responsible for around half of all economic activity in Angola – between $1.8bn and $3bn a year. And central to that were the activities of BP.

Poor reporting practices and a lack of transparency makes it difficult to estimate the scale of BP’s operations in the country during the 1990s, however, some evidence suggests they were substantial. A regulatory filing in the United States in 2002 revealed that BP paid at least $111m to the Angolan government to win the right to operate Block 31, a 5,000km2 deepwater block off the Angolan coast suspected to contain vast oil reserves. 

Yet in the mid-90s, the oil giant was still struggling to win operatorship of the area, and looked to the UK government for support, with Sharpe writing to the prime minister’s office on 17 September 1996 to explain the company’s difficulties. “There are believed to be significant areas of oil that have not yet been licensed,” he said. “BP is seeking the assistance of the Prime Minister in obtaining an operatorship.”

Sharpe pointed out that since BP’s “main competitors were already well established”, and since the awarding of operating licenses was considered “the gift of the [Angolan] President”, a letter from the prime minister in support of BP’s bid would “significantly increase” the company’s chances of success.

Major obliged. Two days later, he wrote to dos Santos “strongly commending” the company’s application.

Shady motives. 

Then came the charm offensive. Dos Santos was invited to visit the UK in December 1996, ostensibly to discuss concerns around the ceasefire and Angola’s economy. In a memo written in October of that year, embassy officials recommend that the president receive the “rolled out carpet treatment”, including a meeting with the queen and having lunch at 10 Downing Street. Yet official documents make clear that peacekeeping support was not the government’s true intention.

In the October memo, officials “also recommend that the BP card be played with care and subtlety”, arguing that “it could be counter productive to create the impression (no matter how true it might be) that the invitation was largely inspired by a wish to give the BP operatorship a major push”.

The trip was eventually cancelled, but in another memo, one official reiterated the strategic importance of rescheduling it: “Although the Angolans have been extremely tiresome over this,” he wrote, “we need to bear in mind the help that a visit to Britain might provide in the context of BP’s interests here.” 

Meanwhile, on 20 March 1997 – two months after a visit to the country by princess Diana, which had, as one UK official put it, “left bilateral relations further enhanced” – dos Santos wrote to Major to confirm he had granted the company “right of preference” (first refusal) regarding the operatorship of Block 31. BP was eventually awarded the contract in May 1999. The 19 discoveries of oil that have been announced to date have generated billions of pounds of profits for the oil giant. 

Looking at all the evidence, it is clear that the UK’s desire to promote BP’s corporate interests conflicted with its peacekeeping efforts.

Just as the UK’s battalion left for its mission in April 1995, dos Santos wrote to the UN general secretary, Boutros Ghali, saying that UNITA was breaking the ceasefire agreement. The UK government, however, dismissed his concerns, with Sharpe telling the prime minister’s office: “It is part of the Angolan government’s continuing propaganda campaign against UNITA. As such it doesn’t require a reply.”

Despite Sharpe’s cavalier attitude, Simon Taylor, the co-founder of the human rights group Global Witness, who spent time in Angola in the 1990s investigating the role of western oil companies and governments in prolonging the civil war, condemns the dismissal of dos Santos’ concerns as “shocking”, adding that “early warning signs were not heeded…maybe…because the focus had already begun to shift from peacekeeping support to commercial interests.”

Oil-financed arms deals. 

The government’s support for BP during the ceasefire was also controversial because, while as much as 90% of the Angolan government’s revenue came from oil, up to a third of it was unaccounted for. According to Global Witness, this disappearing revenue was being used in kickbacks for high-level Angolan politicians, and for “over-priced” arms deals, financed by oil-backed loans.

“A significant proportion of … payments for these blocks … were diverted by the government for arms procurement”, says a spokesperson for the organisation.

So while the government was privately concerned about the success of the Lusaka Protocol, its support for BP would ultimately undermine the ceasefire as the Angolan government was using the money from these deals to stockpile military equipment. 

A long relationship. 

The British government’s relationship with BP goes back more than a century. The government bought a majority share in the company in 1914 after it began speculative drilling in the Gulf, as it realised the company could fuel its war effort. Following BP’s privatisation in 1979, Thatcher’s government would sell the last of its shares in 1987.

Even after the sell-off, BP retained close links to the British government. John Browne, the company’s chief executive at the time of the civil war, was so close to then-prime minister Tony Blair, it was suggested that an appropriate name for the company would be “Blair’s Petroleum”. Such a perception was solidified when Blair made Browne a lord in 2001. 

But beyond Browne, there has long been a revolving door between BP and the British establishment.

Minister for Africa and Tory peer Lynda Chalker, who visited Angola in June 1995 on behalf of the government, worked at a company part-owned by BP before she became an MP.

In 1997, Labour peer David Simon, another former chairman of BP, came under fire for failing to declare his £2m shareholding in the oil giant as he undertook new responsibilities at the Department for Trade and Industry.

Meanwhile, in 2014, Sir John Manzoni was made the chief executive of the civil service after spending 27 years at BP in a number of senior roles. A year later, the former chief of the Secret Intelligence Service Sir John Sawers became a non-executive director of the company.

Climate catastrophe. 

This cosy relationship is, needless to say, a disaster for climate change, and will undermine British policymaking on climate-related issues. “Given that the government has been as one with the fossil fuel industry for so long,” says Taylor, “we should all be concerned about whether it is at all capable of rising to the challenge of our times: the climate crisis.”  

It doesn’t look likely. In May 2020, Greenpeace revealed that BP executives had met with ministers and the government’s COP26 unit in two meetings “to discuss how BP could contribute to the [UK’s] presidency”.

Meanwhile, at the start of last month, lawyers for the UK government argued that emissions coming from burning oil extracted by BP were “not relevant” when granting the company a new oil permit in the North Sea.

The significance of all this for climate change is profound. After being embedded in Whitehall for decades, BP appears to be confident that the government won’t act on its obligation to keep the rise in global temperatures below 2C and will in fact be allies in keeping BP’s revenues flowing. And judging by the track record of our current government, it seems these practices won’t be going away anytime soon.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Development Office and BP all declined to comment on the documents or the nature of their relationship, although the oil company said it was aware of the declassified files. 

Stephen Delahunty is a journalist based in London. He writes about politics, lobbying, corruption and foreign aid.

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