Cabinda’s once-forgotten separatists won new notoriety with their deadly attack on Togo’s football team, embarrassing Angola’s government, which has long tried to quell the movement, analysts said.
The gun attack killed two members of Togo’s squad and left a third in intensive care, just as the world’s attention was turning to the country’s hosting of Africa’s top football tournament.
“The Africa Cup of Nations was always going to be bigger than just the soccer. It’s very intimately linked to national pride. This was Angola’s coming-out party” after decades of civil war, said Nomfundo Ngwenya of the South African Institute of International Affairs.
“The kind of attack they suffered in Cabinda is egg on their face. It’s humiliating,” she said.
In a country where media is tightly controlled, the separatists struck just as Angola was allowing in scores of foreign press to cover the tournament.
“The attack obtained what they wanted, which was to draw international attention to their forgotten conflict in Angola,” said Alex Vines, from British think-tank Chatham House.
The Front for the Liberation of the Enclave of Cabinda (FLEC) has claimed the region’s independence since colonial power Portugal withdrew in 1975, arguing that it had never been administered as part of Angola.
The dispute has an outsize importance for a territory just one third the size of Wales as it pumps 60% of the oil that has made Angola the top producer in Africa, while most of the 300 000 residents live in poverty.
But the long conflict had fallen off the radar overseas, as the separatists fractured into small groups whose individual actions became less visible, and Angola sharply limited access to the province.
Divisions among the guerrillas complicate efforts to end the conflict. A 2006 peace deal with the government was signed by only one group, FLEC-Renovada, whose members are now seen as sell-outs by rivals.
The internal squabbling erupted again over the shooting that killed Togo’s assistant coach and media spokesperson, as two separate groups claimed they were behind the attack.
“The aim was to attack the Angolan security forces escorting the Togolese team,” said Rui Neumann, a specialist on Cabinda and reporter for the Portuguese News Network.
He said the separatists no longer have the forces they commanded during the 1990s, when they controlled up to 70% of the territory.
“FLEC uses a military strategy of deployments in small groups, commandos, who are still very much present in the Mayombe forest,” Neumann told Radio France International.
Their attacks, rarely reported in the media, still target “mainly security forces and the Angolan Armed Forces, and pressure foreigners” working in the oil industry, he said.
Chevron maintains a large staff base in Cabinda.
Limited access to Cabinda curbs the flow of any information about violence there, allowing Luanda to paint the province as a peaceful region ready to welcome its seven matches in the Nations Cup this month.
Despite Togo’s decision to withdraw from the tournament after the attack, President Jose Eduardo dos Santos refused to move any matches from Cabinda.
“If they decide to move the matches, then it will mean they are playing into the rebels’ hands,” said Thatisi Machaba, an historian at the University of Pretoria.
“The message they are communicating now is that ‘we have this under control’.”
Analysts expect a major crackdown in Cabinda, rather than a new effort at negotiations.
“The Angolan authorities are expected to react with a new offensive against the separatists after the football tournament,” Vines said.
“For the time being, their focus is on security on the football stadium.” — AFP