Angola’s low-level Cabinda insurgency shows signs of life

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The disputed Cabinda Province is an exclave of Angola situated between Congo-Brazzaville and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The FLEC rebel group has fought for independence since the 1960’s. (Image Source: CIA; Wikipedia)

In the six years since a high-profile militant attack in Cabinda on the Togo football team gained global attention, the long-running insurgency in Angola’s isolated Cabinda province has once again drifted out of international headlines. The conflict and fight for independence – led by separatist group The Front for the Liberation of the State of Cabinda (FLEC) – was assumed until recently to have fizzled out, underpinned by the assumption that FLEC has been in a state of gradual long-term decline, with less than 200 active members and dramatically reduced fighting capabilities. However, a recent spate of attacks have followed FLEC’s pledge earlier this year to resume its armed campaign against the Luanda government, signalling a period of heightened intensity and demonstrating that the struggle for Cabinda is far from being over.

FLEC can best be described as a relatively small and fragmented insurgent group, who contest Angola’s ‘occupation’ of the territory and have fought for independence since the early 1960’s.  The group first took up arms against the former colonial power, Portugal, before continuing their insurgency after Angola gained independence in 1975. Cabinda – a thin slice of territory situated between Congo-Brazzaville and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) – is home to around 700,000 people, and as an exclave, is geographically isolated from the rest of Angola. The insurgency was at its strongest during the Angolan civil war, which ended with a peace deal in 2002 between the government and the main rebel group UNITA. The nationwide conflict allowed FLEC to exploit an atmosphere of chaos and disorder within the country, enabling it to run an effective campaign of guerrilla warfare which was successful in destabilizing the region.

At the end of the civil war, Angola’s newly-elected MPLA government launched a direct and sustained offensive against FLEC, severely degrading its military capabilities and sending its leaders fleeing into exile. During the 2000’s, the group’s presence significantly waned as it splintered into disparate factions, including FLEC-Posicao Militar (Military Position) led by an exiled leader in France, and FLEC-FAC (Armed Forces of Cabinda) – a larger and better-organized faction, which continued to wield considerable influence over the organization. In 2006, Angola’s government reached a controversial peace deal with one of the group’s factions, which was signed on behalf of FLEC by divisive figure Antonio Bento Bembe, who later joined the Luanda government. Bembe had little credibility amongst the majority of FLEC’s supporters, and as a result, the memorandum has been described by analysts as largely meaningless and ineffective. The peace deal served only to cause further divisions and frictions within the group, which has since fractionalized further and continued its insurgency, albeit at a low level of intensity such that it has barely registered with the outside world.

However, this widespread perception of FLEC’s diminishing power altered dramatically in January 2010, when separatists launched a surprise attack on the Togo football team’s bus, as it passed through Cabinda province for a match in that year’s African Cup of Nations tournament, which was hosted in Angola. The government and armed forces were drastically under-prepared and three people were killed by the rebels, drawing international attention to their struggle for independence and reminding the world of FLEC’s determination to pursue its cause. While a tragedy for the innocent people killed, the event sparked concerns at the time from analysts and human rights advocates that the government would launch a fresh crackdown on Cabinda, which had already been subjected to years of repression to compound its economic underdevelopment and high poverty rate. Prior to the attack, a 2009 report from Human Rights Watch had already raised concerns over arbitrary arrests, torture and inhumane treatment by Angolan security forces in Cabinda, carried out with impunity away from the scrutiny of international media spotlight.

Looking at Cabinda’s situation in the wider geopolitical context, a single most significant driving factor in its troubled history can be identified: oil. The presence of extensive energy resources in Cabinda is key to understanding its insurgency, along with providing an explanation for Angola’s desire to retain control of the province. Angola is amongst Africa’s largest producers of crude oil and has signed highly lucrative contracts with energy firms from the Unites States and China. It produces more than 1.75 million barrels of oil per day, of which approximately half is pumped from offshore fields off Cabinda’s Atlantic coastline – making the province a rich source of export earnings and providing an essential source revenue for the Luanda-based central government, which for this reason is unlikely to ever allow Cabinda to declare independence. Despite its resource-wealth, Cabinda remains Angola’s most impoverished region, with few benefits from the oil industry trickling down to local people. This causes much resentment amongst the region’s inhabitants, and continues to provide motivation for FLEC’s armed struggle against the state.

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Angola’s government announced a controversial peace agreement with FLEC in 2006. However, the group has since splintered into factions and the low-level insurgency continues. (Image Source: David Stanley, Flickr)

Since the attack on the Togo team bus, the insurgency has continued at a low-level, under the radar of western news outlets. However in February 2016, FLEC issued its most significant statement in years, declaring that it would resume its armed campaign after the government failed to respond to its request for talks. The press release stated that FLEC would once again adopt the ‘’military way’’ until the Luanda Administration agreed to a ‘’serious and concrete dialogue’’.

So far, FLEC appears to have stood by its tough rhetoric, evidenced by a spate of attacks throughout 2016. FLEC released a statement earlier this year to AFP news agency, saying that it staged two attacks in March resulting in the deaths of around 30 Angolan military personnel, including an ambush on 13 March in the northern town of Buco-Zau which killed 20 government troops. This was followed by an extremely rare incident in May, during which armed men claiming to be from FLEC boarded an offshore Chevron Gas Platform off the coast of Cabinda. According to witnesses, the group of 5 militants approached the rig on a speedboat, before boarding the platform and warning foreign energy industry workers that they should leave the province. Although no-one was harmed, this incident offers the most significant indication yet that FLEC possesses the level of capability necessary to target the country’s heavily-guarded energy installations. Since the altercation, the Angolan Navy have stepped-up patrols around the dozens of oil and gas rigs dotted along Cabinda’s coastline, whilst civil society activists have reported an increased military presence in the province.

Recent months have seen further reports of clashes between FLEC fighters and the Angolan armed forces. FLEC has claimed that 9 Angolan soldiers were killed and 14 wounded in clashes during July, in addition to another 12 troops killed during an ambush on 4 September in the Buco-Zau region close to the border with the DRC. However, it must be noted that Angola’s government has neither confirmed nor denied these reports, which are often difficult to independently verify due to the supposed location of the incidents in remote areas. Some analysts have indicated that the reported rise in violence could be attributed to the death of 88 year-old FLEC-FAC founder Nzita Henriques Tiago in Paris earlier this year. This theory suggests that the death of such a unifying figure has the potential to cause further splintering into sub-groups, which would then naturally seek to increase their influence by raising the intensity of their operations, which could provide an explanation for the increased level of separatist activity witnessed so far in 2016.

The renewed violence puts Cabinda’s plight back under the spotlight: it remains a geographically-isolated, underdeveloped and impoverished region, with its people receiving few benefits from the province’s substantial oil wealth. Some have even drawn parallels with the situation in the Niger Delta, where militants have long fought for greater control over resources from the central government and foreign-owned energy companies. Despite the reports of renewed clashes, the Angolan government maintains that FLEC poses no overall threat to stability in the region, with provincial Governor Aldina da Lamba Catembo confidently declaring that FLEC ‘’does not exist’’. However, recent events contest this assertion, and instead suggest that Cabinda’s five-decade old insurgency may be about to enter a period of heightened intensity.

In the wider context, the deteriorating situation in Cabinda is unfortunately not a one-off: instead, it serves as yet another reminder of the problems long-associated with the ‘resource curse’, which appears to remain prevalent across many states in Africa and across the developing world. Cabinda is therefore an example of how the resource curse can make already-complex territorial and nationality-based disputes worse: fuelling resentment, compounding failed attempts at development, and often giving rise to intractable conflicts.

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