Alex Vines
Research Director, Area Studies and International Law; Head, Africa Programme

Most of Angola is peaceful and safe but northern Cabinda province has for many years been unsafe because of a low level insurgency by separatists operating out of the Mayombe rain forest. A blame game has started over why the Togolese football team decided to drive from Pointe Noire in Congo to Cabinda City. This was like dangling a juicy joint of meat in front a pack of hyenas and the result was the attack on the footballers by a splinter group of Front of the Liberation of the Enclave of Cabinda (FLEC).

The Angolans had been complacent over security in the province. António Bento Bembe, former leader of FLEC-Renovada, a faction that signed an agreement in 2006 with the Angolan government, stated in late 2009 that FLEC was a spent force. This weekend he was forced to admit he was wrong.

The facts show that FLEC is and will be a security threat in the far north of Cabinda. In November 2009 a Chinese technician was abducted by FLEC while doing oil prospecting for state oil company, Sonangol. In early March 2008, FLEC claimed responsibility for an attack that led to the death of an employee of Geokenetics, a company subcontracted to do prospecting for UK-based Soco International, and also an attack on a construction company that killed two workers. In December 2007, FLEC rebels killed a police official and a Brazilian expatriate worker.

A problem for the Angolan authorities is that FLEC has since the late 1970s factionalized and 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, which has a population of only about 300,000, but such counter-insurgency operations, agreements and co-option have resulted in smaller cells, making splinter groups even more difficult to penetrate. There is no united platform and separatist supporter aspirations range from significant devolution to full-fledged independence. The response to the attack on the Togolese football team reflects this, with FLEC-Military Position and FLEC-FAC claiming responsibility and other factions distancing themselves.

Like many of Africa's independence struggles, the conflict has its roots in colonial times. Known as Portuguese Congo during colonial times, separatists say the region was never administered as part of Angola, but was established in 1885 as a separate Portuguese protectorate. Cabinda's isolation from the rest of Angola may soon end. A Chinese company is planning to build a $2.25 billion 12-mile long bridge that will cross the territory of the Democratic Republic of Congo and link the province to its mother state and is scheduled for completion in 2012. Low-level separatist insurgency is likely to continue in the northern part of this oil-rich Cabinda province and after the African Cup of Nations tournament a new counter-insurgency operation is probable. For the time being, the Angolan security focus is on ensuring that no further attacks take place on footballers and their supporters, but this will be followed by a crackdown.


Further resources

Thirst for African Oil: Asian National Oil Companies in Angola and Nigeria
Chatham House Report
Indira Campos, Alex Vines, Markus Weimer and Lillian Wong, August 2009

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