Africa, Politics

Cabinda, place of constant sorrows

By Branko Brkic 19 January 2010

Many observers around the world had barely heard of Angola before the attack on the Togolese soccer team, let alone about its volatile enclave, Cabinda. One careful look into its past reveals a oil- and pain-rich place that was never really peaceful.

Cabinda is the kind of place where Joseph Conrad, in his novel “Heart of Darkness”, might have come across a man-of-war anchored off the coast: “There wasn’t even a shed there, and she was shelling the bush. It appears the French had one of their wars going on thereabouts… In the empty immensity of earth, sky, and water, there she was, incomprehensible, firing into a continent.”

It’s a place where the Portuguese unhappily co-opted rival kingdoms into their slave trade, making certain men rich for selling others into penury. It’s an exceptionally oil-endowed place that no-one thought much about, except, of course, international oil companies and the Angolan government, which is busy arresting all sorts of people after the tragic killing of members of Togo’s soccer team ahead of their opening game in the Africa Cup of Nations.

But now everyone’s heard about Cabinda, though few comprehend what the killings proved. The two factions claiming responsibility for the attack say they mistook Togo’s team bus for part of an Angolan military convoy. So why is Cabinda now everybody’s business?

Angola’s 13 million people are made up of about 100 different ethnic groups, speaking three main languages. They supported three independence groups struggling for the freedom of Angola. The Ovimbundu people in the south backed Unita (National Union for the Total Independence of Angola), the central Kimbundu group allied themselves with the MPLA (Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola), while the Bakongo in the north of the country put their money on the FNLA (National Front for the Liberation of Angola).

Angolan president Agostinho Neto and his MPLA governed the country from the capital, Luanda, after the Portuguese colonists walked away in 1975. He died in 1979 and was succeeded by Jose Eduardo dos Santos who remains President today. The party, of course, took more than a keen interest in Cabinda’s oil wealth, being drilled at that time by US company Gulf Oil (later Chevron), and invaded Cabinda with its Cuban allies. Amazingly, Gulf Oil’s installations were guarded by Cuban troops during the country’s subsequent 30-year civil war, to the chagrin of successive US administrations that supported Unita and the FNLA.

The Holden Roberto-led FNLA had mounted the first serious challenge to Portuguese rule in Angola in 1961, receiving support from parties as disparate as then-Zaïre, the US, China, Ghana, Israel, France and Romania. But after being absorbed into Unita during the final stages of the war against the Portuguese, they were decimated by the Marxist MPLA in the battle for Luanda, and became extinct. Unita died decades later, after its apartheid-supported leader, Jonas Savimbi, was killed by government troops in 2002.

The Cabinda enclave came about through the centuries-long fusion of three kingdoms: the N’Goyo, Loango and Kakongo. It’s separated from the rest of Angola by a strip of the Democratic Republic of Congo, fuelling its claims to independence. Nowadays it harbours some 65% of Angola’s oil, which make its tiny minority of culturally and ethnically distinct people extremely vulnerable to Big Brother down south in Luanda.

In the early 1960s, several separatist movements for the liberation of Cabinda came into being. The MLEC (Movement for the Liberation of the Enclave of Cabinda) morphed into Flec (Front for the Liberation of the Enclave of Cabinda). Since then, Cabinda, whose population is said to be in the region of 360,000 (including, no doubt, many settlers brought in from elsewhere in Angola) has seen Flec split into numerous factions, with an estimated one-third of Cabindans living as refugees in the Democratic Republic of the Congo

It’s two of these factions that have now claimed responsibility for the attack on the Togo soccer team’s bus, from the comfort of their leaders’ homes in Europe. The main group of Flec signed a ceasefire with Angola in 2006, and some of its members were absorbed into Angola’s government.

On 10 January 1975, some 10 months before Angola gained independence, the Alvor conference in Portugal assembled Unita, the MPLA and the FNLA and legitimised the annexation of Cabinda by Angola (basically, the MPLA). This was backed by the Organisation of African Unity, which today is the African Union.

Flec wasn’t invited to the conference, so the few remaining fighters (some say just hundreds) still battle on for independence. In the meanwhile, Angola has become Africa’s biggest oil producer, with China and the US pumping in billions of dollars in infrastructure. Big money will never like instability anyway but, after the 8 January shooting, don’t expect anybody else to sympathise with the remnants of Flec.

By Mark Allix

Read more: The Nation, The Cabinda Network, The Washington Post, The Schwarz Report

Photo: Angolan police special forces guard a bus as it leaves the Olympic Village, where the Togo, Ghana and Burkina Faso teams taking part in the African Nations Cup soccer tournament are housed, in Cabinda, January 9, 2010. REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh


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