Angola: Cabinda Calling

Luanda’s domestic terminal is a crowded, dim, smoky place that definitely has not been affected by the obsession with banning cigarettes that has swept across the globe. Amongst local Angolans hauling piles of luggage were crowds of men from the Philippines and China, packed closely together, dutifully handing their passports over to their handlers when the time for check-in came. Other folks with American accents ran the gauntlet into the waiting room, which was a little less humid, sporting one working air conditioner and some truly squalid bathrooms.

Par for the course, really, in central Africa. Luanda, in spite of Angola’s nascent boom from oil and diamonds now that the war has ended, still sports a grimy little airport packed to the gills with those who would see the country’s industrial revolution arrive in full. I was heading north out of Luanda, to follow the oil workers to their mecca on the African west coast, a tiny dot of a place that few can even find on a map – Cabinda. It’s something of an exclave, wedged between both Congos, and for many, a great unknown as to what would await them there.

Cabinda has trailed far behind in the peacemaking that the rest of Angola has been enjoying for around five years. FLEC, the Cabindan separatists, only really reached a peace deal in 2006 or so, and that was conditional on a whole lot of that oil money staying within the province’s boundaries. This is no small deal – Cabinda’s been called the Kuwait of Africa, and glance at any map of the proven oilfields off Angola’s coast and you’ll see that without Cabinda, the country doesn’t have much oil at all. Angola joined OPEC in 2007 and has recently been exporting slightly more crude than Libya. The promise was, the Angolan government said, that the Cabindan locals would see their standard of living increase from all this wealth, and their life expectancy would be drastically improved thanks to a noticeable lack of bullets flying everywhere.

This may seem to be the case when one arrives at the newly refurbished Cabinda airport – a small but gleaming complex with a beautifully paved runway and glossy luggage belt, full time sweepers and window washers, plasma televisions hung from the rafters with the only channel available interrupting idle chatter. The claptrap of a domestic aircraft I arrived on seemed out of place, and at first glance the new airport could make Cabinda seem almost first world – until one sees the crowds of police officers, razor-wire, and oddly useless passport checks every few meters. And then, nearly an hour for our luggage to arrive from the aircraft and into the arrivals area. A shiny building is only a small part of what makes a country stable.

Cabinda the province has its main economic centre in Cabinda the city, and driving around the sleepy town one will see more effects of the recent peace deal – newly built parks popping up everywhere, with more gleaming fences, statues, and clean streets – at least in the town centre. Indeed, my driver would tell me, all of this has occurred in the blink of an eye, over the course of only a year. Construction is rampant, as the government attempts not only to meet its end of a peace deal but also to prettify the city for an anticipated influx of even more foreigners.

And yet, on the street level, we’re few and far between. The vast majority of the oil employees coming to Cabinda work at a vast complex just north of the capital city, in a town called Malongo – a venerable fortress of its own. Walled off by razor-wire, with unmarked minefields behind it, human rights groups have been in a tizzy for decades over this overprotected enclave within the exclave. Those seeking to escape the conflict on the outside would scale the fence, only to have their legs blown off on the other side. Things are quieter these days, the minefields are marked, but the oil company in question still refuses to let their staff drive the two dozen kilometres to the complex – they all take helicopters. While waiting for my luggage, one would arrive and leave almost every five minutes.

FLEC, or the Front for the Liberation of the Enclave of Cabinda, had been battling both Angola and Chevron-Texaco’s interests here for a number of decades. Along a sideline to the protracted and well-publicized civil war of mainland Angola between the MPLA and UNITA, FLEC engaged in a nasty guerrilla war for longer than anyone could remember. Their leaders stipulate that the original agreement signed with Portugal was for independence, in 1885. When independence for Angola arrived in 1975, they said, Cabinda should have become a separate nation. But instead they became another province, and were swiftly invaded by the MPLA. FLEC has been fighting against this ever since, and even though the most recent peace treaty was denounced by some within the group, the province is nonetheless reasonably peaceful these days….. and the government, with its relentless construction initiatives, is trying to prove that it’s worth their while to stay that way.

Cabinda’s city itself is gaining affluence, and the highway north to Pointe Noire is a beautiful and well marked stretch of asphalt. We headed to Cacongo, Cabinda’s second city, which has not seen nearly as much development. Sandy beaches, ancient colonial buildings, the water just over there, it could be a prime vacation spot for some. However, head northeast from Cacongo into the inland of Cabinda and one reaches the homeland of FLEC and its real base of support – as well as more Angolan soldiers.

Buco Zau is a small town carved out from the jungle on a few hilltops, and the residents certainly were not alone in the wilderness with all those uniforms about. I, the hapless white guy, was getting too many stares from the resident army and police – however I was really here to check out the forest reserve in the environs that goes by the name of Maiombe.

One unfortunate fact of so many decades of conflict is the endless placement of minefields across the borders in central Africa. Maiombe is said to have animals, from primates to elephants, yet no one in their right mind would go see them without an idea of where these minefields lay. Or, for that matter, whether any animals still remain. Locals would tell me that the animals do indeed remain, but like so many animals exposed to years of conflict, will find the areas of country where the fewest people are. I went away empty handed, though I poked around further north near the Congo-Brazzaville border for a few more hours. It is in fact open these days – but only to foot traffic. This area is also an excellent place to hide out if you’re a guerrilla group aiming to conduct research initiatives for asymmetrical warfare – in June 2008 there was an attack near the commune of Massabi, near the Congo border. Army leaders quickly issued press releases expounding their efficient success of eliminating the threat.

The invasion and reconstruction, though, is just the tip of the iceberg. Coming up soon are more hotels, and plenty of visits from small-scale VIPS, like Angolan ministers and various people in pressed suits from large organizations like the World Health Organization and the World Bank. In many ways it’s a very Angolan approach to solving the problem of Cabinda: if you throw enough money at the problem, it will go away. Indeed, promoting the idea of being a rich Angolan, rather than a poor Cabindan, is top of everyone’s to-do list in the province these days.

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