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Cabinda rebels in Angola carry on the struggle for independence

The deadly attack on the Togolese football team has thrust the Cabinda separatist movement in Angola into the spotlight. The guerrilla fighters continue to demand a greater stake and autonomy in the oil-rich region.


The Togolese football team bus was sprayed with gunfire on Friday when it arrived in Angola to take part in the Africa Cup of Nations. The ambush claimed the lives of two Togolese team members and that of their Angolan bus driver.

Yet according to Rodrigues Mingas, leader of the separatist movement that claimed responsibility for the attack, the murders were unintended. "We did not target Togo, but the Angolan army,” he told FRANCE 24 on Monday. “We are fighting for the complete liberation of Cabinda, against Angola’s illegal occupation."

Invisible to the general public just a few days ago, Rodrigues Mingas is now hotly pursued by the international press. He is the secretary general of the Forces for the Liberation of the State of Cabinda-Military Position (FLEC-MP), a group he, in exile, leads from France. "The action against Togo’s bus has thrust the movement into the media spotlight,” says Philippe Hugon, director of the private French research group IRIS and an Africa specialist. “From this point of view, their operation hit its target.”

'Historical and juridical legitimacy'

The FLEC was founded in 1963. At the time, the Angolan region of Cabinda, a narrow strip of land wedged between Congo-Brazzaville and the DR Congo, was a Portuguese protectorate. In 1975, Portugal gave up its colonial claim to Angola and Cabinda became one of the country’s 14 provinces. The region's struggle for independence was bolstered after this date, and gained the support of then DRC president, Joseph Mobutu, and of South Africa.

In 2006, the FLEC and the Angolan government signed a peace treaty granting greater autonomy to the province in a move that diminished the number of violent clashes. Dissident factions opposed to the agreement with Luanda regrouped in 2003 to create the FLEC-Military Position (FLEC-PM), to carry on the fight. "The history of Cabinda is not the same as that of Angola,” explains Hugon. “There is a certain historical and juridical legitimacy to their claim to independence, but the real issue is oil."

Sixty percent of Angola's oil exports come from Cabinda, providing precious revenues for the government of Jose Eduardo Dos Santos. Indeed, Cabinda, dubbed the African Kuwait, has made Angola one of Africa’s top oil exporters. "All the international oil firms, including France’s ELF, once partook in the political chess game, pandering to both Dos Santos and the FLEC,” says Hugon. But according to the researcher, the oil firms have now given that up and would welcome stability in the disputed region.

A fairer distribution of oil revenues

"The weapons will continue to do the talking," Rodrigues Mingas asserted on Sunday; the statement that has put Paris on its guard. On Monday, France’s foreign affairs ministry said Mingas’ statement “would not go unnoticed”.

On the ground, the powerful Angolan army still counts a sizable presence. About 30,000 soldiers continue carrying out operations against the separatist guerrillas in Cabinda. A 2009 Human Rights Watch report denounced cases of torture, arbitrary detention and ill-treatment by the army against FLEC supporters and sympathisers.

Dos Santos’ government could choose to renegotiate the 2006 treaty with the remaining insurgents, granting more autonomy to the province and establishing a fairer distribution of oil revenues. "The complete independence of the province, however, seems very unrealistic," says Hugon.

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