July 4, 2007 | World Defense Review

Cabinda: The “Forgotten Conflict” America Can’t Afford to Forget

Because of the sense of urgency repeatedly communicated by this column as well as the parallel efforts of other “Africa hands,” the precarious situation of Nigeria – which I have described as that a “flailing state” which “would not require much to slide into the category of a failed state” – has received at least some attention in Washington policy circles. And the United States should be concerned since, as I have previously noted, “security of the oil infrastructure of Nigeria – from whose 36 billion barrels of proven petroleum reserves, the largest in Africa and the fifth largest worldwide, flowed an average of 1,139,000 barrels a day to America last year – is of vital concern to U.S. national interests.”

As I reported last month, the West African country is especially important in America's effort to wean itself from dependency on hydrocarbons originating in the volatile Persian Gulf: this past March, Nigeria edged past Saudi Arabia to become our third largest supplier, delivering 41,717,000 barrels of oil that month compared to the desert kingdom's 38,557,000.

While Nigeria is the most important African source for America's petroleum imports, running a respectable second is Angola. According to the most recent data from the U.S. Department of Energy's Energy Information Administration, the southwest African nation exported some 68,527,000 barrels of oil to America during the first four months of this year, making it our sixth largest supplier, accounting for a little less than 5 percent of our imports. And, like Nigeria farther up the Gulf of Guinea, Angola has its own smoldering local conflict, which could easily compromise its stability – and, thus, America's energy security.

Few, even among those vaguely aware of Angola's significance to American interests, however, have ever heard of Cabinda, the 7,283 square kilometer enclave some sixty kilometers north of the Congo River and surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean, the Republic of Congo (Brazzaville), and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where more than half of Angola's oil is produced and from which the country earns nearly all of its foreign exchange. Even fewer are cognizant of the protracted conflict that has been going on in that pocket of territory since Angola achieved its independence in 1975.

Cabinda is not only physically separated from the Angola by the DRC, but by a distinct culture and history. Unlike Angola, which has a Portuguese colonial history dating back to 1483, the three Kikongo-speaking kingdoms of N'Goyo, Kakongo, and Loango maintained their independence from European empire-builders until the Treaty of Simulambuco in 1885 turned their realms into a Portuguese protectorate with its own governor. The 1933 Constitution of António de Oliveira Salazar's “Estado Novo” reaffirmed that Cabinda and Angola were distinct parts of the Portuguese empire. The population of the enclave, presently estimated at between 250,000 and 300,000, largely belong to ethnic groups who traditionally straddle the enclave's political frontiers with Congo-Brazzaville and the DRC. One consequence of this ethno-geographic reality is that nowadays while over 90 percent of Cabindans with education speak French, less than 10 percent speak Portuguese. The overwhelming majority of the population is Christian, most of whom are Roman Catholic (in the rest of Angola, it is estimated that the religious affiliation of the population can be broken up into 48 percent adherents of traditional African religions, 38 percent Roman Catholic, and 15 percent Protestant). Perhaps most importantly, the pervasive view among most Cabindans is that they are ethnically distinct from other Angolans. For example, the final report of a 2003 conference on “A Common Vision for Cabinda” sponsored by the Open Society Foundation's Initiative for Southern Africa which brought together 1,500 Cabindans of different political and social backgrounds found that “the identity of Cabindans as being unique from that of Angolans was…a common theme.”

With this background, it was not surprising that at the founding of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) in 1963, Cabinda was given a separate numerical designation among the territories to be decolonized and joined to the OAU as a sovereign member (39) from that assigned to Angola (35). That same year, the Frente para a Libertação do Enclave de Cabinda (“Front for the Liberation of the Cabinda Enclave,” FLEC) was formed out the three main independence movements in Cabinda. However, after the collapse of the conservative government in Portugal led to the erstwhile colonial power rapidly abandoning its possessions, the Soviet-backed Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola (“Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola,” MPLA) entered the enclave in 1975. While FLEC announced the established of a provisional government (in exile) for a “Republic of Cabinda” in 1977, internal leadership splits within the Cabindan nationalist movement prevented it from fully exploiting the long civil war which the MPLA regime, with Soviet bloc support including Cuban combat troops, had to fight against Holden Roberto's Chinese-backed Frente Nacional de Libertação de Angola (“National Front for the Liberation of Angola,” FNLA) and Jonas Savimbi's União Nacional para a Independência Total de Angola (National Union for the Total Independence of Angola, UNITA), backed by the United States and apartheid-era South Africa. Nonetheless, while troops from the MPLA regime control the local capital of Cabinda, most of the interior was long in the hands of the FLEC forces.

Over the years of low-intensity conflict, sentiment became increasingly embittered, especially over widespread human rights abuses which, although committed by both sides, were overwhelmingly a feature of Angolan counterinsurgency efforts. Anti-Angola feeling ran so high that two years ago, when the dying Pope John Paul II appointed a priest from Luanda, the Angolan capital, Filomeno do Nascimento Vieira Dias, as the new bishop for the three-quarters of the Cabindan population who belong to the Roman Catholic Church, the nomination was met with massive protests on the part of clergy and laity. (While the dispute was regional and ethnic, didn't help matters that Dom Filomeno also happened to be the cousin of Hélder “Kopelpipa” Vieira Dias, chief of the military staff of the Angolan presidency.) When the papal nuncio in Angola, Archbishop Giovanni Angelo Becciu, came to try to calm the situation down and install the new diocesan ordinary, his car was stoned by angry Cabindan congregants.

After the failure of the offensives that it has repeatedly launched against separatists in Cabinda since winning the civil war in mainland Angola in 2002, the MPLA government of President José Eduardo dos Santos last year offered a peace deal to Cabindan leaders which promised “special administrative status” for the enclave within “a complete and indivisible state” of Angola. The Cabindan leader who signed the July 15, 2006, “memorandum of understanding” in Brazzaville was António Bento Bembe, a longtime FLEC leader who was arrested in June 2005 by Dutch authorities on an Interpol warrant issued by the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation which wants him in connection with the kidnapping of a contractor for Cabinda Gulf Oil, a subsidiary of Chevron. Evidently deciding that he preferred peacemaking to facing terrorism charges in post-9/11 America, Bembe made bail and disappeared before reemerging at the negotiations last summer. In any event, the deal was quickly disavowed by other members of the umbrella Fórum Cabindês para o Diálogo (“Cabindan Forum for Dialogue,” FCD), including N'Zita Henriques Tiago, the Paris-based septuagenarian leader of FLEC; Father Raúl Tati, the former vicar-general of the Cabinda diocese and a leading advocate for Cabindan self-determination; and Raúl Danda, a leading figure in Mpalabanda (“Civic Association of Cabinda”), the enclave's leading human rights group. For its trouble, Mpalabanda found itself banned by the Angolan government soon after the “peace accord” took effect August 1, 2006, while for his, Father Tati was canonically suspended by the bishop-cousin of the military chief (the ecclesiastical censure was lifted two months ago).

What the future holds for Angola and Cabinda cannot, of course, be charted with precision: conflicts in that subregion have very long lives, during which their lines meander with extraordinary complexity. However, two points might be borne in mind:

– First, in addition the somewhat abstract identity question, there is the very concrete economic one. Two months ago, I observed with respect to Nigeria that “economically, the south's hydrocarbon sector accounts for 95 percent of the Nigeria's exports and 70 percent of the total national economy. At some point – whether it is this year, next year, or a decade from now – southern Nigerians of Yoruba, Igbo, and Ijaw extraction will be asking themselves what they gain from being in a united country with their relatively unproductive northern Hausa and Fulani neighbors with whom they share few bonds of kinship, religion, or culture, but whose demographic heft will guarantee them a certain predominance in the country's politics.” The same might be said, with even greater emphasis, about Cabinda, where income from the enclave's oil production brings more than $4 billion a year in taxes and royalties to the government in Luanda, which can hardly do without it. Yet, if the Cabindans had this sum for themselves, their nominal GDP per capita would put them on par with the Czechs while the purchasing power parity GDP per capita would peg them just behind the Taiwanese.

– Second, while the conflict in Cabinda has, on the surface, nothing to do with the West's war against Islamist terrorism, at another level it has everything to do with that monumental struggle. In a column last year, I wrote that “if Osama bin Laden is serious about waging economic war against the United States – and, from his record, there is no reason to dismiss his pronouncements out of hand – and if his minions heed his advice about hitting one of America's vital arteries, then we can expect at some point a maritime threat, most likely to West African production facilities.” In the past FLEC has staged kidnappings of foreigners, generally oil workers, to raise money for its fight against the Angolan government. There is very little preventing it from adopting the large-scale kidnappings so successfully used by Nigeria's Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) or, for that matter, precluding an outside terrorist group with a different agenda to operationally assist FLEC just to disrupt the flow of petroleum from Cabinda.

A year ago, when I first raised the specter of the low-intensity conflict in the Niger Delta impacting U.S. security interests, my call was precautionary: “Even if there no evidence has yet emerged of international terrorist involvement, certainly the architects of international terror have already assessed the potential of exploiting MEND's potential. The problem is very real and growing and could well spread to other parts of the subregion and across the continent.” One year later, attacks by relatively small number of active MEND militants – with, as I subsequently suggested in analyses later supported by the research of Dr. Moshe Terdman of the Project for the Research of Islamist Movements (PRISM) at the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center of Israel's Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, with financial and other help from outside forces – have nonetheless had the cumulative affect of cutting Nigeria's total oil production by almost one-third and helped pushed the London spot price for a barrel of Brent crude to a close of $71.82 last Friday.

The same potential risk that has haunted the Niger Delta today also exists in Cabinda, especially when one considers the threat from within the enclave and without, the vulnerability of Angola's oil infrastructure, and the cost that attacks would exact on those countries like the United States which depend on oil extracted there. It is yet another reminder that in today's global economy, especially in the midst of the war on terrorism, we can ill afford to ignore any “forgotten conflicts.”

– J. Peter Pham is Director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs and a Research Fellow of the Institute for Infrastructure and Information Assurance at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. He is also an adjunct fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington, D.C.


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