Hosting an international event – a conference, a sporting event – is a classic strategy for rebranding a troubled nation. Concerned that your rigged elections and abysmal human rights record makes you look a little backwards? Host an international meeting on information technology to prove you’re firmly rooted in the 21st century. (Yeah, that went well.) Concerned that you’re better known for violent civil war and land mines than for your booming oil industry and bustling capital? Host the Africa Cup of Nations!
Actually, hosting Africa’s biggest football tournament – that is, up until the World Cup later this year – was probably a good branding move for Angola, which has made vast strides since the Angolan civil war ended in 2002. The mistake was in holding one of four sets of matches in Cabinda. It proved to be a tragic, deadly mistake: Separatist guerillas attacked a convoy of team buses, led by Angolan military, as they travelled from Congo-Brazaville into Cabinda, killing three members of the Togolese national team’s entourage and wounding nine others.
If the world’s media wasn’t busy asking itself, “Where the heck is Yemen?“, we’d probably be asking “Where’s Cabinda?” It’s not in Angola – at least, it’s not geographically contiguous with Angola – it’s a small enclave separated from Angola by a 60km wide strip of the Democratic Republic of Congo. About the size of Puerto Rico, it’s ethnically and linguistically separate from the rest of Angola – Cabindans speak Cabindês and French, rather than Portuguese. About 100,000 Cabindans live in Cabinda – twice as many live in exile in neighboring Congo-Brazzaville and DRCongo.
Oh, and Cabinda is very, very rich. Which is to say, it’s got 60% of Angola’s oil… and Angola is now the largest oil producer in sub-Saharan Africa. (According to one history, Cabinda is part of Angola through Chevron’s support of Angolan MPLA forces in 1975.) As often happens in resource-rich nations, Cabinda doesn’t see much of that oil money, a major grievance of the Cabindan people. A recent agreement invests 10% of oil profits into Cabinda. That agreement helped the Angolan government achieve a ceasefire with some members of the FLEC – Forces for the Liberation of Cabinda.
At least one faction of FLEC – the Forces for the Liberation of the State of Cabinda-Military Position (FLEC-PM) – wasn’t on board with this plan. Their general secretary Rodrigues Mingas told the media that he’d warned Cup of Nations organizers not to hold matches in Cabinda, as his faction of FLEC considered themselves to be at war with Angolan forces. Mingas went on to apologize for the loss of Togolese life:
We didn’t specifically target the Togolese. It could have been Angola, Ivory Coast, Ghana… Anything is possible,” he said. “We are at war, and it’s no holds barred.”
“We always regret the death of human beings but there are also thousands of Cabindans killed over 35 years,” he said.
Obviously, the attack by FLEC-PM on unarmed footballers is a horrific and disgusting act of terrorism. But it’s hard to imagine the Angolans screwing the situation up much more thoroughly. First, hosting matches in Cabinda was clearly a political decision designed to demonstrate Angola’s firm hold over this disputed territory. Colin Droniou, writing for the AFP, observes that police presence in Cabinda is currently higher than normal, but quips: “Normal in Cabinda means one soldier for every 10 residents.” Human Rights Watch reports that those military forces are routinely involved with the detention and torture of rebels. The Angolan government had to know that there was a risk of violence during the tournament, a risk they could have mitigated by moving matches out of Cabinda. One analyst calls the decision to host matches in Cabinda “stupid and tragic“.
Angolan President Jose Eduardo dos Santos has refused to move the matches – instead, he’s increased security. And tournament organizers have been less than accomodating towards Togo, whose backup goalkeeper is in hospital in South Africa and one of whose coaches was killed in the assault on their bus. Togo’s players returned home for three days of national mourning, and requested that the organizers allow them to return and play a delayed opening match against Ghana. The organizers refused, and Togo has evidently been disqualified for failing to arrive for their scheduled match. The other teams competing in Cabinda – Ghana, Ivory Coast and Burkina Faso – all had discussions about whether to pull out of the competition, but elected to stay and play.
The results of an attack like this one are complex and far-reaching. Obviously, the attack has called attention to FLEC’s cause and the “forgotten war” in Cabinda. Whether that attention helps their cause – or causes the Angolan military to attempt to crush them once and for all – is unclear. Angola, which had been hoping to showcase its newfound stability and prosperity, has probably taken a major step in the wrong direction.
It’s possible that the attacks in Cabinda will make it significantly harder to host international football tournaments in the future. Kevin Eason, writing in the Times of London, points out that African football teams generally can’t insure their players when they travel to a location like Cabinda. Some of the stars on African sides might have anti-kidnapping coverage through their European clubs – many others don’t. It’s likely that top European sides may be more reluctant to release players like Didier Drogba or Michael Essian to play in tournaments like the Cup of Nations if they’re worried not just about injury, but about kidnapping and death.
The killings in Cabinda are also putting a dark cloud over the upcoming World Cup in South Africa… even though the countries don’t share a border. Critics of the decision to host the World Cup in South Africa suggest that the attacks in Cabinda point to the “danger” of the African continent. Danny Jordaan, the leader of South Africa’s organizing committee, responded to this suggestion angrily: “The world understands that sovereign countries are responsible for their own safety and security and to say what happened in Angola impacts on the World Cup in South Africa is the same as suggesting that when a bomb goes off in Spain, it threatens London’s ability to host the next Olympics. It is nonsensical for South Africa to be tainted with what happens in Angola…”
Nonsensical, yes, but it seems likely that the attack in Cabinda could change the travel plans of some global football fans. Perhaps they should consider the fact that the Confederations Cup, and the U-17 and U-20 tournaments all took place this year on the African continent and went without a hitch.
Meanwhile, Cabindan rebels threaten more attacks. My fingers are crossed for the Ghanaian, Burinabe and Ivorian players, the fans and everyone in Cabinda.
Stories like this one take you into some of the stranger corners of the Internet. Reading about Cabinda, I learned that the country was a member of UNPO, the Unrepresented Nations and People’s Organization, an international group for peoples, territories and groups that aren’t recognized by the UN. UNPO is able to point to four former members who’ve gone on to become recognized, soverign nations. And they’ve got fifty four members, who range from an Australian aboriginal group to Somaliland, which often functions more effectively than its nominal parent nation, Somalia. It’s fascinating to imagine the conversations at UNPO, especially given that one of the members is Freedom Front Plus, an Afrikaner group that seeks a separatist Afrikaner volkstat in the Northern Cape of South Africa. I wonder if they and the Cabindans ever meet for friendly soccer matches?