Cabinda – the unreported conflict
Windhoek – 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 recently 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.
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 recent months in the Buco-Zau military region of northern Cabinda.
Cabinda produces some 60 percent of Angola's oil revenues, but locals say this wealth has hardly benefited them.
“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 recently months,” a Roman Catholic priest, Father Jorge Congo, told The Southern Times.
“Before then there were reports of attacks, but these happened only now and then.”
In 2012, it was widely believed that FLEC-FAC, a splinter group of the original FLEC rebel 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 Father Congo, the Angolan Armed Forces (FAA, a Portuguese acronym) advanced into the heart of rebel-held territory and by the end of February 2013 had destroyed Kungo-Shonzo, FLEC-FAC's main base since 1979, in the municipality of Buco-Zau, 110km from the provincial capital, Cabinda Town.
Just months later, FAA’s General Nunda Sachipengo announced that a FLEC-FAC command post in the area had been closed down.
At the end of December 2012, FAA claimed it had captured the base of another separatist faction, FLEC-Renovada (FLEC-R).
By the end of February this year, s senior FAA officer 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 2012.
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 DRC and Congo-Brazzaville as rear bases from which to launch attacks into Cabinda. On June 8, 2012, 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 South Africa-based Institute for Security Studies, 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 forced the UNITA rebel movement to sue for peace after three decades of war.
A High Price
But the apparent containment of Cabinda's separatists has come at a high price.
In December 2012, 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, and rape and looting.
In one incident reported in November 2012, 30 villagers were said to have died during an attack by a helicopter gunship.
The report also cited some abuses by FLEC fighters, but primarily dwelt on government forces’ alleged excesses.
One local leader told The Southern Times: “The majority of Cabinda people support the FLEC's call for self-determination, and it seemed that during the October raids (government) soldiers were targeting civilians instead of soldiers, because of this tacit support.”
The provincial government has since said it was aware of human rights violations, but argued that the acts of violence were committed by “individual” soldiers and were not “institutional behaviour”.
Former deputy governor of Cabinda Province, João Santos de Carvalho Mesquita, told this paper that, “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.
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 of Lisbon.
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.
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 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 said, “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.”
There have been 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 Gabon’s 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.
In recent months, there has been greater focus on finding a way out of the political and military impasse.
In January 2013 government representatives met FLEC-FAC in France for 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 The Southern Times 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, the Catholic 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.”
Catholic Church leaders have played a prominent role in trying to unite the people of Cabinda under one banner.
“The Church has had to assume the role left vacant by the various factions of FLEC … 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 government.”