This paper investigates a paradoxical case of business success in one of the world's worst-governed states, Angola. Founded in 1976 as the essential tool of the Angolan end of the oil business, Sonangol, the national oil company, was from the very start protected from the dominant (both predatory and centrally planned) logic of Angola's political economy. Throughout its first years, the pragmatic senior management of Sonangol accumulated technical and managerial experience, often in partnership with Western oil and consulting firms. By the time the ruling party dropped Marxism in the early 1990s, Sonangol was the key domestic actor in the economy, an island of competence thriving in tandem with the implosion of most other Angolan state institutions. However, the growing sophistication of Sonangol (now employing thousands of people, active in four continents, and controlling a vast parallel budget of offshore accounts and myriad assets) has not led to the benign developmental outcomes one would expect from the successful ‘capacity building’ of the last thirty years. Instead, Sonangol has primarily been at the service of the presidency and its rentier ambitions. Amongst other themes, the paper seeks to highlight the extent to which a nominal ‘failed state’ can be successful amidst widespread human destitution, provided that basic tools for elite empowerment (in this case, Sonangol and the means of coercion) exist to ensure the viability of incumbents.