Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
The Bakongo people of Central Africa comprise around 13 per cent of Angola’s population, and the majority of the inhabitants of the northern Angolan province of Cabinda. The Cabinda exclave is separated from the rest of Angola by the sliver of the Democratic Republic of Congo that runs to the Atlantic.
Despite its huge oil reserves, Cabinda’s population itself is very poor and has little economic development. As a result, many Cabindans feel exploited by the central government and foreign oil companies.
A separatist movement for independence for Cabinda has been in existence since 1961, when in Bakongo coffee estate workers created the largest colonial uprising in any part of tropical Africa during the entire colonial period. The Front for the Liberation of Cabinda (FLEC) was subsequently formed in 1963.
In multi-ethnic Luanda, a place of ‘savage capitalism’, Bakongo men and especially women found success in trade, virtually all of which is unregulated, and hugely dependent on untaxed and pilfered merchandise. Other Angolans resented this, and during the war scapegoated Bakongo as ‘Zairians’, implying both illegitimate citizenship and unfairly gained wealth. In January 1993 armed civilians killed over 60 Bakongo in Luanda marketplaces. Police and judicial protection of Bakongo people was at best half-hearted. A Bakongo-based movement, Movimento para Auto-Determinação de Bakongo (MAKO), with an active armed wing, emerged in the early 1990s, advocating an independent Bakongo federation including Cabinda. It has since dissolved, and the main separatist militants are organized under the FLEC and its various splinter factions.
Cabinda comprises only a tiny fraction of Angola’s territory, but accounts for the majority of the country’s oil output. Ordinary Cabindans have not benefited from this wealth any more than other Angolans. Despite efforts by both of the main Angolan political movements, the Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola (MPLA) and the União para a Independencia Total de Angola (UNITA), to recruit them into privileged ranks, aspiring Cabindan politicians set up various separatist movements down through the years, most with tacit backing from the neighbouring Republic of Congo and Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo), and from French military and multinational oil interests. These groupings tended to split up and regroup, some in alliances of convenience with either the MPLA or UNITA, neither of which wished to see an independent Cabinda. With the end of Angola’s civil war in 2002, fighting in Cabinda between separatists and the Angolan army intensified, resulting in widespread human rights abuses against Cabindans. The resulting insecurity made many refugees from the region reluctant to attempt a return, as many were doing in other parts of the country.
From March 2006, an umbrella organization, the Cabinda Forum for Dialogue (FDC), entered into discussions with the government. In July 2006, the government banned one element of the FDC: Cabinda’s only human rights organization, Mpalabanda. In August one Cabindan rebel leader signed a separate peace with the government that was disavowed by other Cabindan factions. The head of Mpalabanda was arrested in September 2006 and released one month later, pending trial for ‘instigating, inciting and condoning crimes against the security of the state’. In 2011 the organisation submitted a petition calling for their appeal of the ban to be heard without delay; the case has yet to be resolved.
In 2007 a staff member with international NGO Global Witness, in Cabinda on a government-authorized mission to discuss transparency in oil revenues with civil society members and local officials, was detained by security forces but eventually allowed to leave the country. Reports of arbitrary detention, ill-treatment and torture in detention and due process failures for those arrested in military operations carried out in the wake of FLEC attacks on armed forces or accused of state security crimes continued; one of the victims, Fernando Lelo, a former Voice of America journalist who had previously reported on human rights violations in the province, was tried before a military court in a procedure that reportedly fell far short of fair trial standards. He was released from prison in 2009.
Cabinda saw a number of highly publicized incidents, including an ambush on a bus of Togolese footballers participating in the African Cup of Nations in January 2010 and an attack of Chinese mine workers some months later. Several human rights defenders, including former members of Mpalabanda, were among those detained on state security charges in the aftermath of the attacks. They were found guilty of state security charges and sentenced to between three and six years in prison, but were released at the end of 2010.
In 2013 the UN Human Rights Committee expressed concern at arbitary arrests and detention of suspected FLEC sympathizers and human rights activists by security forces. Reported incidents of political repression in the region continue: in one example, José Marcos Mavungo, a former Mpalabanda activist, was arrested in March 2015 for attempting to organize a demonstration on human rights and governance in Cabinda. The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention subsequently found that he had been unlawfully detained. He was eventually acquitted by the Supreme Court of state security charges in May 2016 and released.
Violence in Cabinda has continued, driven in part by resentment against the Angolan government and the corruption surrounding the management of its oil revenue: in a highly controversial move in June 2016, for example, then President dos Santos appointed his daughter as head of the state oil company Sonangol, responsible for managing the country’s largest source of revenue. Foreign oil companies, particularly Chevron, the largest oil operator in Cabinda, have also been heavily criticized for contributing to the endemic graft in the country’s oil industry, the process depriving the local population from any economic benefits from its extraction. The death in June 2016 in Paris of FLEC’s longstanding leader, Henrique N’zita Tiago, is also believed to have resulted in a spike in violence by armed separatists in the region, with dozens of Angolan soldiers killed in the months that followed and foreign workers targeted with abduction.
Minorities and indigenous peoples in