In-depth: Cabinda

ANGOLA: Cabinda, one of Africa’s longest, least reported conflicts

Photo: IRIN
Cabinda town – Sept 2003
JOHANNESBURG, 6 October 2003 (IRIN) - Successive attempts over the past 27 years to end a secessionist conflict in Angola's Cabinda enclave are yet to bear fruit. However, a recent visit to the Angolan capital, Luanda, by the founder of the main rebel group has been seen as evidence that peace may finally reach the troubled province.

Although details surrounding the meeting of Ranque Franque, leader of the Front for the Liberation of the Enclave of Cabinda (FLEC), with Angolan authorities in July remained vague, some observers saw it as the latest attempt by the government to move towards a negotiated settlement with separatists, who have battled the central government and each other since Angola achieved independence in 1975.

This webspecial examines the economic and social impact of the protracted struggle on the people of Cabinda, arguments for secession, and attempts to anticipate the possible obstacles peace negotiators and humanitarian actors will face in the future.

Often dubbed "Angola's forgotten war", the decades-long conflict in the oil-rich province of 250,000 people took a new turn with a government offensive in October 2002 in the Buco-Zau military region, in northern Cabinda.

"We have always been in a state of war, and we have come to expect that as part of our daily lives. But the situation deteriorated in October 2002," a Roman Catholic priest, Father Jorge Congo, told IRIN. "Before then there were reports of attacks, but these happened only now and then."

In 2002 it was widely believed that FLEC-FAC, a splinter group of the original FLEC movement, posed the most serious military threat to the government. The government reportedly stationed some 30,000 soldiers in the province for a planned counter-insurgency campaign.
According to Congo, the Angolan Armed Forces (FAA - a Portuguese acronym) advanced into the heart of rebel-held territory and by the end of October 2002 had destroyed Kungo-Shonzo, FLEC-FAC's main base since 1979, in the municipality of Buco-Zau, 110 km from the provincial capital, Cabinda town.

Just months later, FAA General Nundo Sachipengo announced that a FLEC-FAC "command post" in the area had been closed down. At the end of December 2002, FAA claimed it had captured the base of another separatist faction, FLEC-Renovada (FLEC-R).

By the end of February this year, General Armando da Cruz Neto, the FAA chief of staff, confidently announced: "We are in a position to state that there have been significant changes in Cabinda's military situation as a result of operations carried out by our armed forces. FLEC-Renovada has ceased to operate since late 2002. We could say that the operation launched to restore peace in Cabinda has reached a positive phase. The next phase entails the development of border control mechanisms, so as to prevent FLEC forces from regrouping and returning."

FLEC had for years used territory in the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Congo-Brazzaville as rear bases from which to launch attacks into Cabinda.

On 8 June 2003, the Angola Press Agency reported that the FLEC-FAC chief of staff, Francisco Luemba, and six other high-ranking officers had surrendered to government authorities.

According to Jaoa Porto of the Pretoria-based Institute for Security Studies (ISS), the armed secessionist movements, with a combined estimated force of no more than 2,000 troops, are no match for the battle-hardened FAA, who in 2002 had finally forced Angola's UNITA rebel movement to sue for peace after three decades of war in the country.

But the apparent containment of Cabinda's separatists has come at a high price.

The price of containment

In December 2002, civil rights activists in Angola released details of widespread allegations of human rights abuses by the FAA following the October military campaign against the rebels in the Cabinda enclave.

The report, "Terror in Cabinda", contained 20 pages of testimony on alleged abuses, including summary executions, murders, disappearances, arbitrary detention, torture, rape and looting.

In one incident reported in November 2002, 30 villagers were said to have died during an attack by a helicopter gunship. In the same month, a 16-year-old girl was allegedly gang-raped by 14 soldiers.

Although the report cited abuses by both the Angolan security forces and FLEC, the overwhelming number of accusations were made against the FAA.

One local leader told IRIN: "It is no secret that the majority of Cabinda people support the FLEC's call for self-determination, but it seemed that during the October raids [government] soldiers were targeting civilians instead of soldiers, because of this tacit support."

Photo: IRIN
Ordinary Cabindans are often unheard victims of the protracted war
According to the report, the FAA had prohibited peasants in the interior of Cabinda from farming without the presence of a soldier, "to prevent them from contacting FLEC".

The provincial government has since admitted that it was aware of human rights violations, but argued that the acts of violence were committed by "individual" soldiers and were not "institutional behaviour".

The deputy governor of Cabinda Province, João Santos de Carvalho Mesquita, told IRIN: "The provincial government is aware of these reports and the accusations made against the army, but I must point out that these are isolated incidents and not institutionalised behaviour. These kinds of abuses are carried out by individual soldiers. The problem is not only in Cabinda, but throughout the country. The armed forces need to be educated on the rights of the citizens. This will take some time."

According to the report, villages in the interior, such as Makonkongolo and Chimuanda, had been targeted for "repopulation movements", with families coming from the south of Angola to the enclave to be resettled there. One Cabinda resident said: "After some time, all the children in Cabinda will have an Angolan father. This would have sorted out the government's problem."

On a recent visit to the province, IRIN spoke to 30-year-old Lourenco Gomes. Gomes, a FLEC-FAC sympathiser, recounted how he had allegedly been kidnapped, beaten and detained by government troops.

"It was around midday on 16 November 2002 when they came for me. An FAA truck stopped outside my house, with many soldiers. They grabbed me, blindfolded me and tied my hands and feet with rope. About 30 minutes later I realised I was in a military garrison," Gomes told IRIN.

"I denied knowing anything, since I had never been to the forest, the more they beat me. Some used their belts, others just picked up bricks and started throwing them at me. Eventually, I think they got tired, and thought they would not get anything out of me, so they stopped.

"I was put back on the truck and driven to another garrison. When I arrived there I was put in a hole in the ground, together with another young man. I can't remember how long I was in the hole, but we didn't get much food or water. One day the soldiers fetched both of us from the hole and took us to a place in the forest.

"When we got there, they shot the other man in the leg. After that they attacked him with their guns. They stabbed him with their bayonets many times. When he began to bleed they poured peri-peri hot sauce into his wounds...

"After a few months they got used to me and gave me small jobs to do around the garrison. One evening the soldiers who were guarding me got so drunk that they fell asleep with their guns at their sides. I took that opportunity to escape," Gomes said.

Arguments for secession and moves towards a peaceful solution

Cabinda is separated from the rest of Angola by a sliver of the DRC. Central to the argument for self-determination among separatist factions is that, unlike mainland Angola, Cabinda was never a Portuguese colony, but a protectorate. It was therefore subjected to only 90 years of colonial rule, in contrast to the 500 years experienced by Angola.

Moreover, Cabindan separatists claim the enclave has its own distinct and separate identity, history and culture, and that it was illegally occupied by the ruling MPLA government following independence in 1975.

An ISS report, "Cabinda: Notes on a Soon to be Forgotten War", points out that the cause for self-determination has been undermined by factionalism since the early 1960s. The report, written by Porto, noted that the government has in turn used these divisions to argue that without legitimate and representative interlocutors, negotiations towards peace would be handicapped.

The government has dismissed ethno-cultural differences as a basis for self-determination. It says the argument is "not enough to grant it [Cabinda] independence, because all the provinces in the country have specific cultures".

Santos de Carvalho Mesquita told IRIN: "There has been so much mixing and intermarriage in Cabinda that it is really very difficult to tell who is a true Cabindan. One [common] thing is that we are all Angolan."

Negotiations between the government and various FLEC factions began during the 1980s, but these exploratory talks were characterised by mutual mistrust. During the 1990s several more meetings took place under the auspices of the Gabonese President Omar Bongo.

Analysts point out that although these meetings did not achieve any meaningful results, the Cabinda issue ceased to be one of "reconciliation" with separatists and became one of working out the future status of Cabinda.

Separatists have in recent years called on the former colonial power, Portugal, to intervene in the situation. However, the Portuguese have historically seen the Cabindan issue as an internal Angolan problem. Moreover, the kidnapping of several Portuguese workers in the enclave during 1999 and 2000 by both FLEC-FAC and FLEC-R did nothing to endear the Lisbon government to the separatists' cause.

Photo: IRIN
The fruits of peace would be seen in a flow of humanitarian assistance
In September 2002, the political bureau of FLEC challenged the Portuguese government - as it had done on previous occasions - to "assume with courage a clear political position on the question of Cabinda".

In recent months there has been greater focus on finding a way out of the political and military impasse. In January 2003 government representatives met with FLEC-FAC in France to conduct exploratory talks. Although hopes were high that this meeting would signal a thaw in relations between separatists and the government, FLEC-FAC rejected the government's proposals, insisting that a "draft peace plan" should define how the offer of autonomy for the province would work in practice.

At the time, the FLEC-FAC representative in the Netherlands, Xavier Builo, told IRIN that although independence was a "desirable solution to the ongoing conflict", FLEC-FAC remained open to negotiations over the "future status" of Cabinda.

FLEC has consistently argued that a referendum, in which only Cabindans would vote, could finally end the conflict. The government has vetoed this approach, arguing that, given the national significance of such a referendum, all Angolans should vote.

Father Paulo Taty, Vicar-General of the Diocese of Cabinda and an ardent supporter of independence, has dismissed the idea of a referendum entirely. "A referendum will not solve anything, because referenda, like elections, can be manipulated."

In recent months Taty and other prominent activists have organised a series of meetings among Cabindans in an attempt to form a common front that poses a challenge to the exiled leadership of the FLEC factions. Leading this loose coalition is the Roman Catholic Church, a significant factor in this avowedly Catholic region.

"The church has had to assume the role left vacant by the various factions of FLEC. As the situation gets worse, there is no option but for the church to speak out about the atrocities. I think Cabindans are tired of other people sorting out their problems. They are standing up for themselves now, which is perhaps a lot more problematic for the [Luanda] government," Congo told IRIN.

Among ordinary Cabindans, the often unheard victims of the protracted war, the need to finally resolve the issue of secession is long overdue. The fruits of peace would be seen in a flow of humanitarian assistance into the province that produces some 60 percent of Angola's oil revenues, and is viewed locally as having been deliberately marginalised by the Angolan government.

Residents have been critical of the role of major oil companies in the province. In 1999 an oil spill near the Malonga oil base dealt a severe blow to the struggling local fishing industry. At the time, oil giant ChevronTexaco paid the 10 percent of fishermen affected by the spill US $2,000 as compensation. Cabindan fishermen have attributed reduced fish stocks to continued pollution. They told IRIN that they expected ChevronTexaco and other oil companies to contribute more to the development of the province.

Attempts by IRIN to obtain comment from ChevronTexaco were unsuccessful.

According to local businessman Jose Pitra Chocolate: "We need to sort this situation out so that we can rebuild the economy. There is nothing here. Poverty is all around us. We shouldn't have to live like this."

Cabinda has no port facilities and consumer goods are flown from the capital, Luanda, or trucked in from neighbouring countries. However, much of the rest of Angola is equally underdeveloped after three decades of civil war against UNITA. Chocolate urged authorities and separatists to negotiate, "if ... only to improve the living conditions of Cabindans".

Observers have suggested that some kind of negotiated autonomy is the only solution to the conflict in Cabinda.

However, they add that any agreement cannot be limited to FLEC leaders and must include civil society and the church as part of an enlarged peace process. This, Porto argues, will support the gradual development of a broad-based movement that would "undoubtedly serve as a gauge for the aims and objectives of all Cabindans [including the various FLEC factions]".

Civil rights activists have also called on the government to conduct serious discussions around the concept of provincial or regional autonomy.

Rafael Marques, representative in Angola of the pro-democracy NGO, Open Society, told IRIN: "It is important for the government to clarify to all parties what it means by autonomy - if this is in fact up for serious discussion. There is uncertainty around how this concept will actually work, which has led to mistrust among all concerned."

Pundits have remained sceptical despite the government's overtures towards greater autonomy for Cabinda, arguing there is little chance of the Luanda government relinquishing its hold over the oil-rich enclave.

The province receives 10 percent of taxes paid by oil companies with operations off Cabinda's shores, such as ChevronTexaco.

But even key figures in the former rebel group, UNITA, have openly argued that secession is not a possibility, and that a peaceful solution to the impasse could only be achieved through dialogue.

Abel Chivukuvuku, a prominent UNITA official told IRIN: " ... if this means listening to the voice of Cabindans, to heed their wishes, then let it be so. If we need to move towards rethinking the kind of state that Angola will be, opening up the possibility of autonomy for Cabinda, then so be it."