Saturday, 9 January 2010

Angola – Nothing To Do With Football

Yesterday, a bus carrying the Togolese squad for the African Cup of Nations through the northern Angolan province of Cabinda was machine-gunned, resulting in the death of the driver, and the wounding of several passengers. The footage of shaken survivors making their way to safety had echoes of the similar incident last March in Pakistan where the Sri Lanka cricket team were fired upon.

Because this act of terrorism coincides with the world of football, this morning’s television saw a bewildering array of underqualified retired sportsmen pontificating on the politics of southern Africa in a way that even Paul Merson recognised as laughable.

I watched Sky Sports Soccer Saturday earlier today and, much as I admire Jeff Stelling, I am not sure his bantering style is quite right for matters of African politics. His encyclopaedic knowledge of League Two centre-backs was not much use when he asked Charlie Nicholas’ opinion on the situation.

Champagne Charlie cleverly combined a breathtakingly cavalier lack of knowledge with a subtle piece of implicit racism by saying that “some of these countries are unstable. We know that.” Which countries, Charlie? Former Portuguese colonies? Countries with abundant natural resources? Oh, you can’t mean, oh dear this is awkward, black countries? Can you? Not sure what he meant, but anyway, they are unstable. And they all look the same to me.

Next to share his wisdom was Matthew Le Tissier who expressed concern for the upcoming World Cup. It took me a minute to figure out what he meant until he spelled it out – “that meant to be in Africa too.”

Surely not? Surely Matt Le Tissier wasn’t just comparing Angola to South Africa as surely as if they were the same country? Oh I’m afraid he was. This is laughable. The Cabinda region is to the North of Angola, and is thousands of miles from South Africa. The next time there is a bomb in Ingushetia, should we consider cancelling the London Olympics? The distances are roughly the same.

What Charlie and Le Tiss had done was to cleverly avoid any reference to the facts or the history of the situation before opening their stupid mouths.

As a counterpoint to the casual indifference you will be hearing from the media, why not learn a little about the fifty year long conflict that has led us to this point.

Angola was, until the second half of the twentieth century, a Portuguese colony. Alongside the other independence movements that flourished throughout Africa, Angola had several armed factions who tried to throw off the European yoke. Eventually, in 1975, after a coup led to the collapse of the fascist Portuguese regime, the new left-wing government conceded independence to Angola.

The main independence movements in Angola were the communist MPLA and the anti-communist UNITA. After their uneasy coalition had earned them the prize of independence, they immediately plunged their new country into a 27-year-long, draining and bloody civil war. During the Cold War, the Soviets and Cubans funded their ideological brethren the MPLA, whilst America and South Africa both provided support to UNITA.

The result was an ever-escalating, all consuming conflagration that rendered the entire country a generation-long war zone. In 2002, life expectancy in Angola was less than 40 years, and today there are still an estimated 15 million landmines planted around the country.

Cabinda is a small enclave separated from the rest of Angola by a thirty-mile stretch of coastline that gives the larger Democratic Republic of Congo access to the Atlantic Ocean.

When independence was granted, Cabinda became part of the Republic of Angola, although crucially, nobody from the Cabindan Independence movement was present at the signing of that agreement. In short, many felt that they had simply been transferred from one colonial overlord to another.

During the civil war, the MPLA held control of the region by force, with an independence movement – The Front for the Liberation of the Enclave of Cabinda (FLEC) – fighting a long guerrilla campaign, killing government troops and kidnapping foreign workers.

In 2002, when the civil war ended in the rest of Angola, it rumbled on here, with the government continuing to rule Cabinda with an iron fist. Human Rights Watch claim that there are still atrocities happening in the area, and FLEC’s campaign for independence has never gone away.

So far, so messy. But I haven’t told you the best part: Cabinda is swimming in oil, producing 700,000 barrels per day – 65% of Angola’s crude production comes from Cabinda’s “Block Zero” oil field. 90% of Angola’s state budget is provided by oil sales, and so it is no surprise that the government is keen to brutally suppress any idea of independence.

The largest player in Cabinda Oil is ChevronTexaco, who have a 39.2% share in production. Operating from behind barbed wire and armed guards in their Malongo Terminal base, it is unlikely that their American employees have any idea what is going on in Cabinda.

Rather than benefiting from this wealth though, the people of Cabinda continue to be oppressed. A 2006 report to the European Parliament spoke of “beatings, torture and disappearances,” whilst Human Rights Watch tell of military tribunals replacing civilian trials for any crimes considered to be related to state security.

And so, we arrive at the barbaric and indiscriminate shooting of machine gun fire into a bus filled with foreign footballers. This is absolutely indefensible, and an indication of how all-encompassing war can be.

What I will say, though, is that allowing Africans to benefit from the natural resources in their land would probably equate to less hostility. Rather than exploiting their mineral wealth and oppressing those who question the situation, local people and their representatives should be included in the decision-making processes of the oil industry.

If a fraction of the wealth being generated in Block Zero were filtered to the people of Cabinda, FLEC would simply disappear.

That’s probably what Alex Ferguson is thinking, anyway.

* Image from BBC Website.


  1. Great piece Gareth, but we need Big Ron's opinion, surely...

  2. Thank you Gareth!!! it is so refreshing to know that not all Europeans think we are one homogenous mass called "Aafricah" (usually followed by a deep sigh)

  3. As someone who's travelled in Cabinda (though not recently) and written about the place, I found your comments interesting. I just did an interview on the BBC World Service about this, and funnily enough made exactly the same analogy as you do, that the connection between Cabinda and the World Cup in South Africa is about as tenuous as the connection between events in the Caucasus and the London Olympics. I'd just differ with your final remark though. I agree with you completely about the need for oil wealth to be shared, but I don't really buy the "more money for Cabinda" solution. My perception from spending a lot of time in Angola, and rather less time in Cabinda, is that in material terms the average Cabindan is better off than the average Angolan. The sense of separateness is fuelled by long-standing historical grievances, and this gives rise to the calls for a regionally-based solution now. But the failure to share the wealth of natural resources is an Angolan problem, not specifically a Cabindan one. I'd be happy to discuss further if you give me an e-mail address.

  4. Hi Justin. I don't have your first-hand experience and would be very keen to hear more about your view. Is your perception that the rest of Angola in an even worse state?

    I'm on