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At the first sound of nighttime rain on the scrap-metal roof of her shack, Ines Monteiro wakes her husband and four children. She hustles them from the two beds they share, out into their metre-wide yard. And they stand there, for as long as the rain falls - sometimes as many seven hours. In daytime rains, they stand out, too: their house is perched on the side

of a mountain of garbage - of plastic bags, empty bottles, crushed boxes, scraps of food - and when it rains, as it does

ferociously hard for several months this time of year, whole sides of the hill slide off, taking houses and unsuspecting occupants to a stinking, mangled death below.

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So Ms. Monteiro, 38, keeps her family standing at the ready through each rainfall, armed with bags of dirt to try to channel the rushing streams away from their house, and ready to run at the first hint that their tiny chunk of land will be the next to go.

"I'm desperate to get out of here. " she said. "But when we came from the country, this was the only piece of land we could find - and there is nowhere else for us to go."

The Monteiros' neighbourhood is called Boa Vista, from the Portuguese phrase for "beautiful view." The view is indeed lovely, out over the teeming harbour of the Angolan capital and the calm, flat sea. The smell, on the other hand, is acrid, the sanitation horrific, and the danger omnipresent.

A couple of days ago, Ms. Monteiro sat with her feet on the carpet of flies that cloaks Boa Vista and considered the approach of Friday's historic elections in Angola, weighing the options of an incumbent government that has done almost nothing for her and an opposition she suspected might be worse. She planned to vote Friday, but she wondered if, in truth, there was much point. "We hope they do something," she said, raising thin hands to a thinner face and shrugging. "But …"

Ms. Monteiro is instinctively aware of a grim truth spelled out in the government's own business records: no matter what the votes show when the total is released a few days from now, it is unlikely to make much difference. So entrenched is the country's political elite, so vast and firm its hold on the oil and diamond wealth being siphoned out of Angola, that ballots cast by the 8.3 million Angolans who registered to vote are all but irrelevant.

Six years ago, Angola emerged from an epically brutal civil war, in which the Soviets, the Americans, the Chinese, the Cubans and apartheid South Africa all played out their grievances by carpeting the country in land mines and blowing up every shred of what limited infrastructure was left by the Portuguese colonizers. A third of the population was made refugees, and millions of people poured into Luanda seeking safety - including the Monteiro family, who could no longer work their small farm in the highlands. Elections were held in 1992, but the results were disputed, and within weeks the parties had once more taken up arms. Years of the worst fighting followed, grinding finally to an exhausted end in 2002. The Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), once the loyal proxy of the Soviets, cast off their Marxist doctrine and threw open the doors to the oil industry.

From their yard on the garbage mountain, the Monteiros can survey 180 degrees of progress in Luanda - the oil tankers that choke the port, stacked up like a child's toys; and the cranes, 23 of them, that punctuate the sky like exclamation marks on the feverish building going on in the city. Every road is torn up. Every second building is being knocked down. Dozens of new shipping terminals are going in, and at the far edge of the Monteiros' view is the sprawl of Luanda Sul, a new city to the south, where thousands of candy-coloured faux-Tuscan villas sprawl behind high walls, homes for the foreign business people pouring in, and for members of the Angolan elite fleeing the construction chaos for plunge pools and golf courses.

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The Monteiro family, like half the residents of this city, gets its water from a standpipe (down the hill and across the highway, 75 cents a bucket) and has no toilet. They can afford to send only one child - clever Mimi, 17 - to school. Ms. Monteiro often feels ill, and believes she needs surgery, but cannot afford a clinic visit.

Yet Angola produces two million barrels of oil per day, and exported $30-billion (U.S.) worth last year, a theoretical windfall for a country that has at most 20 million people (there has been no census in 38 years). There are new discoveries almost daily in the country's offshore concessions and Angola is now Africa's largest producer and a key player in the U.S. plan to end dependence on Mideast oil. The country's diamond mines have been almost unexploited, due to the war, but mining giant De Beers said last week that the country could imminently become one the largest sources of diamonds in the world. Angola's economy grew by 23 per cent last year; the IMF says that rate could hit 40 per cent next year.

Representatives of foreign companies - from China, Brazil, Europe and North America - heave and jostle through the choked corridors of Luanda's airport, determined to get a piece of the place. And nearly every one of those companies has been forced by the government to take on an Angolan partner.

Rafael Marques, a crusading investigative journalist whom the government openly regards as its chief enemy, has the documents that tell the story: page after page copied from the government business registry listing companies with vague names such as "Angola Petrochemical Services" or "Oil Solutions Limited." Each lists the company's owner or owners and Mr. Marques flicks through it with barely suppressed rage. "Jose de Morais, that's the Minister of Finance. Jose de Vasconcelos, that's the Minster of Energy and Water. Kundi Paihama, that's the Minister of Defence. And Isabel Dos Santos, Isabel Dos Santos, Isabel Dos Santos …" She is President Jose Eduardo Dos Santos's eldest daughter, whom Mr. Marques refers to with bitter mockery as "his personal treasury." Infamous in Angola, her name a synonym for graft, she is the majority shareholder in the national telecommunications company, the national cement company, and dozens of others.

"Angola has no conflict-of-interest law," said Lando Kama, co-ordinator of a corruption watchdog called the Coalition for Democracy, Transparency and Citizenship and a candidate for the opposition National Union for the Total Independence of Angola, UNITA. "And so you find that our Minister of Public Works has shares in the companies bidding for public infrastructure contracts."

Mr. Marques said this system of enriching the elite has become so accepted and widespread "that they don't even try to hide it any more." A few years ago, senior officials used extended family members to register their companies, but these days they use their own names. Just weeks ago, he said, the chief whip of the MPLA, the speaker of the National Assembly and several senior cabinet ministers were awarded rights to an oil "bloc" (an undersea territory to be drilled), he said, thumbing through the paperwork.

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Angola's oil industry is personally overseen by Mr. Dos Santos and a small group of his advisers. And it is this that maddens and stymies the pro-democracy groups.

"The total amount of oil produced, the total revenue taken in by the government is not made public," Mr. Kama said. Some of the revenue is tracked on the website of the Ministry of Finance, a fact about which the government likes to boast. "But we know the Angolan government has a parallel budget," he added, money pocketed by the elite, or used by the ruling party (to fund its election campaign, for example) that never makes it to the ministry ledger. What the ministry says it gets, and what the national oil company says was pumped, never jibe, he said.

The end result, said Fernando Macedo, a professor of law and president of the Association for Justice, Peace and Democracy, is a political system that becomes largely meaningless. "We are powerless, By political means you can't change the situation … they have too much at stake to let themselves lose." That means using state funds to ensure they win control of the legislature, he said, and then promulgating a constitution that will enshrine the current mode of doing business. And if by some fluke the opposition took the assembly, he added, the elite would buy them off - or sidestep the house all together - to preserve their interests. "I fear these people," he said. "They have no limits on their behaviour."

And while some Western countries periodically criticize Angola for corruption, few foreign firms make any effort to stop it. "This place is heaven for oil companies," Mr. Marques said. They are notorious in Luanda, for example, for "renting" houses owned by senior figures in the regime for $40,000 or $50,000 a month, far above even this city's crazy rental rates, a cost they can claim as a business expense and which buys them continued favour.

In any case, Angola's primary trade partner and new best friend is China, source of up to $13-billion in soft loans, in exchange for friendly access to new oil concessions, and China says absolutely nothing about the corruption, Mr. Macedo noted.

Rui Luis Falco Pinto de Andrade, the director of the Ministry of Information and Propaganda, denied that Angola's corruption was any worse than that in other nations emerging from war, or a threat to healthy democracy. "People always want to point a finger at us and talk about those in high positions with nice cars and big houses - where in the world is it any different?" he said. "To develop Angola we have to create an Angolan way of doing things … [Foreign]people who see those getting rich and developing the country are bothered because they want to see all of this going to the international community."

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And steps are being made to regulate graft, he said. "It's a process - corruption doesn't stop just by saying 'stop.' We know the sickness we have but we also know the cure."

Meanwhile, he said, the government has succeeded in making huge strides in the six years since the end of the war - building 2,400 kilometres of new road, 230 new bridges, 223 new medical clinics and 30,000 school classrooms, he said.

Allan Cain, a Canadian who heads Angola's oldest development organization, called Development Workshop, and who has worked in Angola since the early 1970s, has some sympathy for the government position.

"If you really look at the numbers, the government doesn't have limitless resources - if you look at the billions of dollars of infrastructure damage done during the war against the oil income, it's not as massive," he said. "Angola is a country of 18-20 million people and it has a budget less than a third of the province of Ontario's." And it isn't just physical building required, he said; there are still land mines in huge areas of the country. There was no local administration at all left at the end of the war in most municipalities; there was state presence in less than 30 per cent of the country, and agriculture had virtually ceased. Families had been displaced and traditional community institutions shattered.

"Economic growth is spectacular but it's from such a low base," he said. "There has been improvement in health care and the number of children in school has increased significantly. Many of these social indicators lag behind the economic ones, so we will start to see real improvement. … In the six years since the end of the war there has been some reasonable progress … but it's going to take 20 years to rebuild their country."

For Mimi Monteiro, who has grown up in Boa Vista spending nights in the rain so she doesn't die in a garbage landslide, the progress is still invisible.

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"Some people say this is a rich country," she said. "But I don't feel it's really rich."

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