Attack on Togo team gives rebels spotlight

With Angola known around the world for two things - its brutal 30-year civil war and its oil wealth - it is understandable that the separatist conflict in the exclave of Cabinda has been sometimes referred to as its "forgotten war".

JOHANNESBURG // With Angola known around the world for two things - its brutal 30-year civil war and its oil wealth - it is understandable that the separatist conflict in the exclave of Cabinda has been sometimes referred to as its "forgotten war". That changed completely with the deadly ambush of the bus carrying Togo's football team to play in the African Cup of Nations finals by rebels of the Front for the Liberation of the Enclave of Cabinda - Military Position (FLEC-PM).

With three people killed and Emmanuel Adebayor, a Manchester City's striker, as well as players from clubs in countries across Europe on board the bus, the attack propelled the decades-long fight onto the world's front pages. Cabinda is a small sliver of land, with 90km of coastline and no more than 113 km deep at its widest point. Historically it was made up of three kingdoms, where Portugal established a protectorate in 1885. For most of the colonial era Portugal administered Cabinda separately from Angola until both were granted independence in 1975, at which point Luanda's forces invaded to establish Angolan control.

In various forms, the FLEC, which fought for independence even during the Portuguese period, has continued its struggle ever since. But in recent years it has been largely crushed militarily. After the end of the Angolan civil war in 2002, the country's highly respected military was able to concentrate on rooting out the FLEC. In recent years, the FLEC has lost the support of the two Congos, whose people are ethnically related to Cabindans. They now co-operate with Luanda in order to exploit the oilfields, even though they have their own disputes over the reserves.

At the same time, the independence movement is highly fractured - FLEC-PM, based in exile in France, is only one of a number of factions - and over the years several groups have signed peace deals with Luanda and been co-opted into government. The most important came in 2006, when the leader of FLEC-Renovada (FLEC-Renewed), Antonio Bento Bembe, became minister without portfolio in charge of Cabindan affairs in the Angolan government.

But the incentives for independence remain strong. With only 300,000 people, Cabinda would struggle to be viable as an independent state were it not for the fact that it is home to more than half of Angola's petroleum reserves, which have seen it rise to overtake Nigeria as sub-Saharan Africa's biggest oil producer. It generates billions of dollars in revenues every year, fuelling both Luanda's need to retain the province and resentment among ordinary Cabindans, who mostly remain desperately poor as they have not seen the benefits of the oil.

Human rights groups have regularly accused the authorities of rights violations in their attempts to eliminate FLEC militants, who have on occasion kidnapped foreign workers and attacked security personnel. Paula Roque, a researcher with the African security awareness programme at the Institute for Strategic Studies in Pretoria, South Africa, said: "The Cabindans have always wanted a separate state. In the general population you see it in how they have participated in national elections - there have been complete boycotts. They don't want to participate in processes relating to the national territory of Angola."

Luanda had decided to make Cabinda one of the Nations Cup host cities in order to show it had "normalised", she added. "The Angolan government is particularly good at propaganda and manipulating false images of what the country is about. Angola projects a wonderful image of a country undergoing rapid economic growth with multiparty elections and rising from a brutal and long-lasting civil war and setting an example of how post-conflict situations should be structured - well, it isn't.

"It's very much an authoritarian state that has a ruling elite that's extremely nasty and not accountable to its citizens," she said. The government, Ms Roque said, saw the Nations Cup as its "coming-out party", akin to the Beijing Olympics for China in 2008, and had mobilised the entire country for the event. "FLEC struck right at the heart of this symbolic display of nationhood. They saw an opportunity and they took it. They have been attacking soldiers, it doesn't hit the news, if they had hit an oil installation it really doesn't hit the headlines any more."

The fact that it was the Togolese team that was involved was irrelevant, she added. "The value of such an attack at this point is the world was watching." It was a tragic incident but showed that separatism in Cabinda had not died, she said. Mr Bembe, the separatist turned government minister, effectively admitted as much to Agence France-Presse yesterday. "Everyone is free to say whether or not this was a FLEC attack. For me, these are elements staging terrorist attacks. I made war in Cabinda, I speak with knowledge of the cause," he insisted.

But he went on: "Perhaps Angola's security forces underestimated the FLEC's ability to pose a nuisance."