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Cabinda’s cause, Togo’s tragedy

Behind the attack on Togo’s footballers in Angola’s enclave of Cabinda is a complex mix of history, geography, oil and politics, says Alex Vines.
Alex Vines
12 January 2010

Most of Angola is peaceful and safe, as the devastation of the long civil war of 1975-92 becomes a memory. But its northern Cabinda province – a coastal enclave that has no land border with the rest of the country - has for many years been insecure because of a low-level insurgency by separatists operating out of the Mayombe rainforest. Now, after the attack on 8 January 2010 on a coach transporting the Togolese football team to its opening match in the African cup of nations, a blame-game has started – especially why Togo’s players were driven from Pointe Noire in Congo to Cabinda city. To the group responsible for the attack, a splinter of the Front for the Liberation of the Enclave of Cabinda (FLEC), this was an irresistible invitation.

The Angolans had been complacent over security in the oil-rich but dirt-poor province. António Bento Bembe, the former leader of the FLEC-Renovada faction that in July 2006 signed an agreement with the Angolan government, shared this attitude. He stated in late 2009 that FLEC was a spent force; after the attack on the Togolese he admitted he had been wrong.

The evidence suggests that FLEC is and will remain a security threat in the far north of Cabinda, whose territory is surrounded by the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The group has perpetrated a series of attacks in the last two years. In December 2007, FLEC rebels killed a police official and a Brazilian expatriate worker. In March 2008, FLEC claimed responsibility for an attack that led to the death of an employee of Geokinetics (a company subcontracted to do prospecting for Britain-based Soco International) and another on a construction company that killed two workers. In November 2009, the group abducted a Chinese technician while he was prospecting for the state oil company, Sonangol.

A problem for the Angolan authorities is that FLEC has since the late 1970s been factionalised, so that agreements such as the 2006 one are not comprehensive. When the Angolan civil war ended in 2002, Angola deployed about 30,000 troops to Cabinda - among a population of about 300,000. The army’s mix of counterinsurgency operations, agreements and co-option has resulted in smaller cells, making splinter-groups even more difficult to penetrate. There is no united platform on the Cabinda side; the aspirations of pro-separatists range from significant devolution to full independence. The response to the attack on the Togolese football team reflects this fragmentation; two factions (FLEC-Military Position and FLEC-FAC) claimed responsibility while others distanced themselves from the operation.

The conflict, like many of Africa's independence struggles, has its roots in colonial times. The Cabinda region was established in 1885 as a Portuguese protectorate known as Portuguese Congo, at a time when Angola as a whole was ruled by Portugal and the Congo by Belgium. The separatist claim is that the region was never administered as part of Angola and thus deserves now to be considered as a distinct entity.

Cabinda's physical isolation from Angola proper may soon be ended. A Chinese company is charged with building a nineteen-kilometre-long bridge that will cross the DRC’s territory and connect the province to its mother-state; the bridge, at an estimated cost of $2.55 billion, is scheduled to be completed in October 2012. But the shorter-term prospect is of a continuation of the low-level insurgency in the northern part of Cabinda. During the football tournament, the Angolan security focus is on ensuring that no further attacks take place on footballers and their supporters; after it ends, a new counterinsurgency operation is probable.

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