Cabinda nation under occupation by Angolan troops

A brief account by an American

It's largely inactive and lingers on the periphery as a threat to Angola's national security. "That's what one learned analyst says about the resistance freedom fighters in the occupied nation of Cabinda. It may be an accurate analysis but when you're up close and personal with them on the ground and the tracers are flying it's a different story. A largely active resistance force is akin to being "kind of pregnant."

Case in point: On 28 July at about 0200 hours Francisco and Jose looked at each other nervously. Lying in the thick undergrowth, the buzz of mosquitoes insistent in their ears, they gripped their stockless, dirty, and poorly maintained Kalashnikovs with sweaty palms. Cabindan resistance freedom fighters on night time mission against government troops we can only imagine what went through their minds on this, the last night of their lives.

The two Cabindan freedom fighters were part of a military unit belonging to FLEC (Frente de Liberacion do Enclave de Cabinda - Front for the Liberation of the State of Cabinda) which attacked an Angolan Army armor unit's motor pool. The tankers, based near Subantando and Bungo Fuana, got a wake-up call courtesy of FLEC sappers running amok in their compound. Overrunning a portion of the perimeter the freedom fighters engaged Angolan troops and their six Soviet supplied tanks with AK-47s and maritime emergency flares (stolen from the nearby Cabinda Gulf Oil Company's Molongo oil terminal). Not smart.

The Angolan tankers merely fired off all their main guns and hosed down the perimeter with their 12.7mm machineguns until the barrels glowed red-hot. Whether these were some of the same Angolan tanks which supported Kabila's rebels on their recent drive to Kinshasha, I don't know, but Angolan troops had been massing in Cabinda, just north of Zaire's narrow western neck, for several months. There were several unconfirmed reports of cross border raids to aid Kabila. Regardless of why the tanks were there the Angolans gave a good account of themselves and waxed a bunch of freedom fighters. Body count was rumored to be 30 FLEC freedom fighters. 

Angolan Weapons

Black Gold

Oil rich and heavily forested the 4,807 square mile Cabinda (1988 est. population 600,000) is separated from the republic of Angola by a 40-kilometer strip of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (former Zaire) and the Congo River and is bordered by the Republic of the Congo (Brazzaville) to the north. After twelve years of exploration oil was discovered off the coast of Cabinda by Gulf Oil in 1966. Production from the large offshore reserves has been non-stop since 1968. Chevron's Cabinda Gulf Oil Company (CABGOC) holds a 39.2% share while Sonangol, the Angolan national oil company, retains another 41%.

Cabinda is the Angolan oil industry with the Cabinda concession accounting for most of Angola's output with estimated revenues of more than $2 billion a year. The region, however, has not benefited from the oil wealth. Chevron spent only $1.3 million locally on local service contracts in 1994. Such economic disparity fuels resentment of the government and persistent fighting by Cabindan freedom fighters. FLEC's aim is to free Cabinda from Angolan rule and use the petrodollars to develop the local economy and directly benefit Cabinda's inhabitants. Such an arrangement obviously appeals to your average Cabindan living in a bush hut or the third world urban squalor Cabinda city but one wonders how much would actually trickle down to the people.

Cabinda City

One young Cabindan I spoke with was relatively unconcerned about the politics - but the economy was foremost on his mind. Like many of his generation who were pre-teens when the Cuban withdrawal and the winding down of the civil war began, he had avoided serving in the army. Most Cabindans had seen little if any of the civil war against UNITA unless they were in the army and sent into the war zone. "Joao" told me his main concern was trying to learn English and find a decent job so he could earn enough money to immigrate to America.

He had no dealings with FLEC but introduced me to an older gentleman who claimed to be a FLEC " supporter." "Paulo" referred to his fellow Cabindans as "my brothers." When I asked him whether Angolans were also his brothers he paused and replied, "No, I am a Cabinda." Like many Cabindans, he had absolutely nothing good to say about the Portuguese who are still widely reviled in Cabinda.

Cabinda was the scene of heavy fighting during the war for independence (1961-75). Cabinda's dense Mayombé forests provided sanctuaries for MPLA freedom fighters in their war against the Portuguese colonialists. Today the same forests harbor FLEC freedom fighters. Present day Cabindan resistance base their claim for independence on the 1885 Treaty of Simulambuco which first linked the enclave to Angola while recognizing its special status. The treaty was an attempt by Portugal to consolidate its African empire and protect it from further encroachment by the French, Belgians, and British. For the Cabindans it was an opportunity to escape the Belgian Congo’s forced labor levies.

The Portuguese didn’t want to lose Cabinda in the 1960s and neither do the Angolans today. With the economy in shambles, one of the worlds' worst inflation rates, and an infrastructure destroyed by nearly three decades of war Angola desperately needs Cabinda’s oil revenues. In the past few years Angola has become sub-Saharan Africa’s largest arms purchaser.

Increasing the national debt substantially weapons procurement has reached record levels, even surpassing the huge influx of Soviet arms at the height of the war against UNITA in the 1980s. After UNITA renewed the civil war following the 1992 elections the government revoked the Bicesse Accords' Triple Zero arms embargo and went on an arms buying spree to the tune of $3.5 billion in 1993 and 1994. Angola's total daily oil production is more than 500,000 barrels of oil a day (current production in Cabinda is 430,000 barrels a day and expected to reach 600,00 a day by 2002.) While those 500,000 barrels a day are worth about $2.75 billion a year, more than 60% of that goes directly to the defense budget.

The government has issued tenders for weapons on short-term loans mortgaged against potential future oil production. It’s rumored that the next seven years oil production is currently mortgaged. Some estimates of Angola’s oil reserves limit production to the next fifteen years, though this was before increased prospecting in Chevron’s offshore Area C - for which there are no accurate reserve estimates available. The early 1960s saw the formation of several resistance movements in Cabinda. In the forefront was the Mouvement pour la Liberation de l'Enclave de Cabinda (Movement for the Liberation of the Enclave of Cabinda - MLEC). MLEC, led by Luis Ranque Franque, had evolved from anti-colonialist émigré groups in Congo - Brazzaville, long a home to West African coffeehouse revolutionaries, hence its francophone title. Another group, Antonio Eduardo Sozinho's Alliance de Mayombe (Alliama) represented the Mayombe, the indigenous people of Cabinda’s jungle interior.

An MLEC faction led by Henrique NZita Tiago seceded in December 1961 and formed the Comite d'Action d'Union Nationale de Cabindais (Action Committee for the National Union of Cabindans - CAUC). These three resistance groups united in 1963 as Frente para a Libertacao do Enclave de Cabinda (the Front for the Liberation of the Enclave of Cabinda - FLEC).

The next year when the MPLA - FAPLA began using Cabinda as a sanctuary its troops encountered hostility from FLEC freedom fighters from the coastal region around Cabinda city and from the Mayombe region. These FLEC freedom fighters effectively controlled the Congo frontier region which the MPLA freedom fighters were crossing on their infiltrations into Angola. In 1967 FLEC set up their government in exile in Tshela, Zaire, with Nzita's FLEC faction forming the Comite Revolutionnaire Cabindais in Pointe Noire, Congo.

Since 1963 FLEC waged an on-again, off-again independence struggle, first against the Portuguese and then against the MPLA regime until the movement almost died out in the mid-1980s. Zaire’s withdrawal of support in the late 1970s, including a failed CIA sponsored invasion (see sidebar) and the concentration of large numbers of Cuban and FAPLA troops in Cabinda caused a decline in FLEC's fortunes. As in many insurgencies mounting internal dissension soon caused FLEC to break into five factions - three of which have remained marginally active. The fragmentation of such a small and mostly independent (there was intermittent covert support from Zaire over the years) guerrilla movement was especially disastrous. The Cabindan resistance movement would no longer have either the manpower or the resources to significantly challenge the Angolan government’s sovereignty of Cabinda. Today FLEC’s two major divisions are FLEC - FAC (Forcas Armadas de Cabinda) and FLEC - Renovada (Renewal). Henrique NZita Tiago is the "president" of FLEC - FAC and Jose Tiburcio headed FLEC - Renovada until a recent schism resulted in a change of leadership.

Negotiations resulted in further setbacks for the hard-line advocates of Cabindan independence. Luanda granted an unofficial amnesty in 1983 and in 1985 the government signed a cease-fire agreement and began further negotiations. President Dos Santos recently initiated a limited autonomy plan and an economic aid package which increases the share of Angola’s oil revenues spent on Cabinda from 1 percent to 10 percent; still but a drop in the huge oil bucket. Cabindans are skeptical of Luanda’s offers of autonomy -- they’ve heard it all before. FLEC wants nothing to do with such a stopgap measure. They want it all. Whether it’s altruistic regional economics or blatant self-centered greed, well, I don’t know ... or as they say in Portuguese "No se."

Graffiti: VIVA FLEC

Two Decades of War
With the help of over 10,000 Cuban combat troops and massive Soviet arms shipments the MPLA defeated the rival FNLA and shortly after (January 1976) the South Africans withdrew to Namibia leaving Jonas Savimbi's UNITA in the field alone. While UNITA's fortunes have ebbed and flowed with Savimbi's freedom fighters controlling significant amounts of territory including Angola’s diamond fields UNITA never had a significant power base in Cabinda. Although it was forced to fight the Zairian-backed FLEC while at the same time engaged in a decades long struggle with UNITA the MPLA retained control of the enclave.

During the war for independence, the MPLA had initially carried out guerrilla operations from Zaire. With the bulk of their forces based in northern Angola and in and later in the Congo it established a fighting front in Cabinda. In the years following independence FLEC remained active in northern Angola and in Cabinda, but in 1978 President Neto of Angola and President Mobutu Sese-Seko of Zaire signed an agreement to improve relations -- mutually ending support of opposition groups from the neighboring state.

This rapprochement followed the March 1977 and May 1978 invasions of Shaba by Katangan rebels and Congolese National Liberation Front (FNLC) freedom fighters. The agreement led to better relations between the two countries, a relatively calm northern border and a decline in guerrilla activity by Cabindan resistance.

Despite peace on the Zairian border war continued to rage in Angola proper. From 1978 to 1988 Angola was the object of military raids by South African troops in Namibia, ostensibly striking at the bases of freedom fighters seeking Namibian independence while UNITA continued their guerrilla war against the MPLA's Marxist government. In 1988 Cuba and South Africa agreed to remove Cuban and South African troops from Angola: the South Africans left in 1988 and the Cubans completed their withdrawal in 1991. The government and UNITA signed a cease-fire agreement in 1991 that called for unified armed forces, a market economy, and free elections in 1992. When President Jose Eduardo do Santos and the MPLA defeated Savimbi (aka O Mais Velho - The Wise One) and UNITA in the 1992 election (regarded as generally fair), UNITA denounced the results as rigged and resumed fighting, taking control of two thirds of Angola before a stalemate ensued.

Chaos in Cabinda
During the general elections FLEC called for a province wide boycott of the government’s voter registration. Their support was evident: only 16,000 signed up to vote. Most were police, military, MPLA political hacks, and government employees. After the elections a dramatic uprising occurred in Cabinda. Hundreds of FAPLA troops, many just teenagers clad in ragged uniforms and carrying Kalashnikovs, rampaged through the center of Cabinda city killing nine civilians and spraying the seaside residence of Governor Augusto da Silva Tomas with automatic weapons fire. He escaped his seaside residence on the hill just south of Cabinda hospital by climbing out a window, running down the hillside to Cabinda harbor, and fleeing to Soyo by boat.

During the next two days there was effectively no government as FAPLA soldiers, previously under attack by FLEC freedom fighters, roamed the streets of Cabinda drunk on palm wine and cheap African scotch threatening their officers and demanding discharge papers. The situation reached a state near anarchy. With the near collapse of FAPLA in Cabinda FLEC began freely roaming the coastal road from Cabinda north to Pointe-Noire. Ambushes were common. Most were rather benign affairs: a small group of FLEC would stop a truck or bus, force the passengers out, and then burn the vehicle. Prime targets were the decrepit, slow-moving buses carrying workers from Cabinda to the Malongo oil complex.

The roadway was littered with the burnt hulks of ambushed vehicles pushed off into the ditches. Other attacks were more violent. FLEC - FAC freedom fighters ambushed a vehicle carrying Miguel Fernando Nzambi, a senior Cabindan police officer, murdered him and dumped his body in the Chiloango River. Unable to control the situation and with his ego still stinging from his less than courageous flight from his seaside residence, Governor Tomas ordered FAPLA troops in Cabinda to shell known FLEC positions and suspected strongholds with heavy artillery.

Bonga - Bonga and Beg For Your Life Although FLEC may be a rag-tag band of freedom fighters akin to bandits, there is some "professional" leadership.

Captain Bonga - Bonga (I swear I’m not making this up...) a forty-something former FAPLA officer with 20 years service defected to FLEC-FAC. Bonga - Bonga is well known in Cabinda. He once walked into the Cabinda city jail and freed 69 prisoners including 7 FLEC - FAC freedom fighters all without firing a shot. In 1993 during the post-election chaos when the governor was bombarding the jungle, Bonga - Bonga was operating largely unopposed from his headquarters in Bofo, a small "liberated" village between Landana and Malembo and only 20 kilometers north of Malongo.

One observer noted that the entrance to the village was guarded by a .50 caliber machine gun emplacement and thirty or so AK-47 toting teenagers dressed in a motley collection of castoff uniforms, civilian clothes, flip-flops or sneakers and badly in need of haircuts and a good scrubbing. Bonga - Bonga wasn’t the only interesting nom de guerre -- one guerrilla, the chief of operations, called himself Ped a Vida: Beg for your life.

On Sunday, 2 January 1994 FLEC - FAC mortared the oil production terminal at Malongo necessitating the hurried evacuation of Chevron oil workers. The installation suffered minimal damage as FLEC dropped only a few rounds before the phantom mortarmen melted away into the jungle. The mortar attack was justified by FLEC - FAC's Henrique NZita Tiago in a Radio France International broadcast two days later: "The oil which is to be found in Cabinda belongs to Cabindans." Nearly two years later (October 1995) FLEC signed a ceasefire agreement with the Angolan government but the very next month the resistance attacked onshore oil facilities. Meanwhile the government’s ongoing negotiations with the FDC deadlocked over the issue of compensation for oil production and political representation in Lusaka.

FLEC ushered in the New Year in style in January 1996 kidnapping four foreigners employed by a mining company, releasing the three South Africans and the Sao Tome Principe citizen after a week of captivity. Kidnapping is a favorite FLEC activity. In a case of mistaken identity FLEC snatched an American aircraft mechanic and held him for eight months. His meals were box lunches from Chevron’s employee cafeteria at Malongo carried out the front gate everyday by FLEC sympathizers employed on the compound.

More recently (February 97) FLEC-FAC kidnapped two foreign engineers, a Malay and a Filipino, working for Inwangsa-SDN, a forestry company. Emmanuel NZita, FLEC-FAC's "secretary for external relations" issued a statement from Brazzaville accusing the captives of spying for the Angolan government and threatening to punish them under revolutionary law. The kidnapping followed an ultimatum for all Western investors to leave Cabinda.

In early June 1996 FLEC-R violated their agreement with the government and began actively recruiting young men for their armed units. One FAA commander in Cabinda, Colonel Manual Paiva, reported that FLEC-R was deploying units in southern Cabinda. In the North the FDC was busy cooperating with local UNITA forces and ambushed an FAA vehicle near Belize.

A week later the political and military situation changed as FLEC launched renewed attacks against FAA units in Cabinda. FLEC-FAC hit army garrisons in Uanda Conde, Belize District, Bataiemba - Necuto, and Buco Zau. FLEC-FAC commandants authorized the press-ganging of teenagers to swell the insurgent ranks while FDC organizers in Belize were mobilizing their own youthful sympathizers and agitating for a cessation of talks with the government.

A few weeks later FLEC freedom fighters ambushed a patrol near Buco Zau killing four FAA soldiers. FLEC’s Brazzaville office trumpeted the action while claiming that since May 15, 1996 the FAA had deployed 5,000 troops in Cabinda in response to their attacks. More conservative estimates place FAA troop levels in Cabinda at around 3,000. The situation remained tense with resistance forces building up their armed guerrilla units and conducting harassing attacks on FAA troops and Angolan police. The FAA was unable to mount any significant counter insurgency operations or in any way seriously harm the resistance guerrilla infrastructure.

On April 11 [1997] the Angolan government and FLEC-Renovada announced a cease-fire agreement and their intent to work on a peace plan. Talks were held between the two antagonists in Windhoek, Namibia under the auspices of President Sam Nujoma of Namibia. Despite an agreement between the antagonists to develop a "mechanism for a peace plan" a lasting peace was not in the offing.

New Offensives 
In the spring of 1997 there was also a large influx of foreigners (mostly Chinese, Filipinos, and Malaysians) from the Congo to the Wandakousoubi area about twenty kilometers northwest of Buco Zau. These Asian "immigrants" are gold prospectors and miners carrying identification documents issued by FLEC - FAC necessary for movement in FLEC controlled areas. The gold bearing Buco Zau area is strongly resistance in sympathies and has long been an FDC (Frente Democratica Cabinda) stronghold but FLEC controls the gold deposits around Bembo Bote and Tando Conde, respectively just a few klicks north and south of Buco Zau, causing some conflict between the factions.

The government reacted with counter-insurgency operations. In late February 1997 the FAA shelled the area from Subantando to the Zaire border fifteen kilometers to the east, in what could only be termed harassment and interdiction fire, in an attempt to dislodge FLEC fighters from their jungle sanctuaries. The FAA followed up with ground operations; meeting with little success. Other counter-guerrilla operations were mounted in the north near the Congolese border.

At the same time (spring and summer of 1997) FLEC began reinforcing its military units with about 400 freedom fighters. They were then reorganized into twenty-man groups which FLEC called battalions. These battalions were then moved into areas where FAA troops were already carrying out counter-guerrilla operations - specifically the villages of Micuma I, Micuma II, and Micuma III just east of Buco Zau. Their mission: step up attacks against government forces. On March 18 (1997) FLEC freedom fighters attacked an FAA patrol killing five soldiers and wounding others.

Over the next three days following FLEC-FAC’s ambush of the FAA patrol there were at least three kidnappings in Cabinda city by uniformed freedom fighters thought to be FLEC - Renovada. In one case an Angolan CABGOC employee, “Alexander,” was accosted by five men wearing FAA uniforms and carrying AKMs. He later identified them as FLEC - Renovada. They knew who he was and abducted him within sight of his home in Cabinda city in what was apparently a planned snatch for intelligence gathering purposes. After moving out of the city they spent the rest of the night and the entire next day in the jungle. The FLEC freedom fighters told their captive that they would move only at night. His second night in the jungle with his FLEC captors Alexander was able to sneak away as his captors slept.

Despite the renewed (and successful) attacks on government forces and the prospects of increased income from gold mining, not everything is going in FLEC’s favor. In addition to the disastrous assault on the six FAA tanks at Subantando, a FLEC - Renovada officer recently deserted. Joao Batista Bras, a FLEC - Renovada major, deserted and turned himself in to government authorities 10 July 1997. Speaking at a press conference Major Bras, 46, formerly in charge of “mobilization and education of the masses,” in effect, a political officer for those areas under FLEC -Renovada control, said he had deserted the ranks of FLEC-Renovada because of internal leadership disagreements.

According to Bras the disagreements in the very heart of the organization took the form of a "golpe de forca" or strong blow, causing former Chief of Staff Antonio Bente-Bembe to usurp the leadership of the movement from Jose Tiburcio. Bras confessed that the only solution he sees for the Cabinda question (independence) is for FLEC to establish a dialogue with the government. Major Bras also announced that he had left “politics” to work for the development of his native country.

FAA combat operations against FLEC fighters continued throughout the summer. A commando unit, Comandos de Angolanas, carried out counter-insurgency operations, but engaged FLEC in little if any actual combat. Training exercises and uneventful patrols were the norm. The Comandos have a fearful reputation in the Angolan Army. Comandos de Angolanas units were responsible for the elimination of garimpeiros (illegal diamond miners) from the Sociedade Mineira de Lucapa diamond mines in Lucap in the spring of 1995. It was brutal, sometimes bloody, and always effective. Only this time the enemy had AK-47s instead of picks and shovels and were hardened guerrilla fighters, not poor farmers trying to get lucky in the diamond fields.

Now they were in Cabinda to roust out FLEC. At one of their bivouac sites I spoke with several of these “commandos.” The first thing I noticed besides dozens of empty liter bottles of Zairian Primus beer littering the ground were two “commandos” sprawled face down in the dirt next to a pile of Kalashnikovs. A few feet away was a pile of RPGs, loaded and armed. The weapons weren’t stacked or laid out -- they were just thrown into a pile. Load bearing equipment was scattered haphazardly about the area.

New, I mean brand new out of the box, DPM camouflage spec ops rucksacks were strewn about. They looked as if they’d never been used. Each soldier wore relatively new FAA woodland pattern combat fatigues tailored in the French style with zips on the breast pockets, black berets, new USMC issue Kabar fighting knives, and even though it was 1900 hours and the sun was setting, cheap, plastic Easy Rider style sunglasses. Yeah, real wannabe bad dudes, but with the whiskey and beer in them I thought it wise to play along with their drunken Rambo-esque bravado. Nothing scarier than a mean drunk with a fully automatic Kalashnikov. A few nights later two different FAA infantry units would squabble and the reach for their rifles. One soldier was wounded in the ensuing firefight during as expatriates living nearby scrambled for cover.

I wandered amongst the troops. Several carried a Kabar, a machete, and a Kalashnikov bayonet on their belts and a bottle of beer in their hands. Most of the Comandos had a glassy-eyed blank-faced expression (indicating the possible use of other substances) while they wandered around aimlessly or lolled on the ground listening to their portable cassette players with earphones. Most were just plain drunk. And belligerent. They pointedly demanded whiskey and cigarettes. I quickly became a lightning rod for every staggering drunk looking for a handout. When I passed around some Marlboros every recipient tried to grab the whole pack from my hand. Thugs in uniform.

Needless to say I wasn’t terribly impressed at this point. I could well imagine the terrifying effect they would have on a village of innocent women and children in Cabinda’s interior. No foreign press and no UN observers. Africa is not a nice place to be a civilian during a guerrilla war. I’d heard stories from some expatriate friends living at the airfield about a FLEC sympathizer being tortured and interrogated by FAA troops. It wasn’t very nice. There’s no Geneva Conventions in this dirty little bush war.

I spoke with one of the Comando officers, a clean, nattily dressed major wearing pressed BDUs adorned with French and Angolan parachute badges. He appeared to be a professional, yet appeared unconcerned while I was nonplussed by the behavior of his troops. Then again, what I witnessed is fairly typical for an “elite” regular army unit in sub-Saharan Africa. In other words “a real goat rope.” After chatting with the good major for about fifteen minutes I bade him farewell as night was fast approaching and I needed to catch a ride into Cabinda city. Besides, if these guys were this looped at 1900 hours I didn’t want to be around after dark and they started in with some serious partying.

Despite the presence of the Comandos of Angola, the Heroic Cabindan Resistance continue to stage attacks on Chevron company vehicles, equipment, and personnel but inflict scant damage on Chevron’s installations. Chevron, however, has briefed its employees that there is “a growing threat of potential disruption to oil operations.”

Casualty figures of government troops and freedom fighters are largely unreliable as skirmishes with FLEC are rarely reported by the government controlled media. The lack of coverage by the western press might be explained by the recent State Department travel warning: “Travel within Angola remains unsafe due to the presence of bandits, indisciplined police and troops, and unexploded land mines in rural areas.” Which all made it a very interesting trip.