A deadly ambush on soccer players in Angola has embarrassed President Jose Eduardo dos Santos on the world stage but it will help him tighten his 30-year grip on power in one of Africa’s biggest oil producers.
The Jan. 8 gun attack on a bus carrying the Togo soccer delegation in Cabinda, which Angola called a terrorist act, could see dos Santos’ already substantial presidential powers increased further, analysts said.
They say the attack has given dos Santos’ government more power to pursue and destroy the Front for the Liberation of the Enclave of Cabinda (FLEC), which it accuses of staging the bus ambush that killed two members of the Togo delegation to the African Nations Cup.
The FLEC have waged a three-decade long war against the government for independence of Cabinda, a small geographically separated exclave that pumps half of Angola’s oil.
“The attack last Friday has exposed that there is a continued low intensity separatist problem ongoing,” said Alex Vines, head of the Africa programme at Chatham House in London.
“After the matches are over, I expect we will see a crackdown on sympathisers, separatists, and counter insurgency operations in the north of the country,” Vines said.
In the search for FLEC members, Angola is expected to renew ties with neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo, which turned sour after it expelled thousands of Angolan immigrants in a tit-for-tat wave of expulsions, and with France.
Both countries have said they will pursue FLEC leaders that have been living in exile on their territory.
“The government is willing to use this tragedy to get rid of FLEC once and for all and to win international support to do so,” said Rafael Marques, a political analyst in Angola who is an expert on Cabinda.
The French Foreign Ministry said yesterday that remarks by the FLEC’s secretary general, Rodrigues Mingas, who is part of its leadership in exile, in which he pledged to pursue an insurgency, were “unacceptable and will have consequences”.
Congolese government spokesperson Lambert Mende said the Democratic Republic of Congo whose territory separates Angola from the Cabinda enclave regarded FLEC as a “terrorist organisation” and would strip its members of their refugee status.
Tight grip on power
One Angolan political analyst said dos Santos could use the war on FLEC as an excuse to approve a new constitution that will enable him to be elected through an indirect vote instead of a popular vote, as is currently the case.
The 67-year-old ruler said last month that a presidential election would only take place in 2012 and has rushed to approve a new constitution that will increase his powers. He has failed to hold an election ever since the end of Angola’s 27-year civil war in 2002, despite repeated promises to do so.
“This is another distraction that will help the government approve the new constitution that will maintain or even increase the president’s powers,” said the analyst, who declined to be named.
The ruling MPLA party has submitted a draft charter that keeps the president as the head of government and commander in chief. The draft constitution will enable the president to be elected as head of the list of the most popular party in an election.
While dos Santos’ ruling MPLA party won over 82% of the vote in the 2008 parliamentary election, it is not clear whether dos Santos himself enjoys such a high level of popularity in a country where two thirds of the population live on less than $2 a day.
Most Angolans have long endured their woes in silence after their country emerged from the civil war to rival Nigeria as Africa’s biggest oil producer. The FLEC attack may also signal that patience is running out.
The roots of the 30-year-old conflict between the government and FLEC are deep and complex but one of the separatists’ main grievances is that Cabindans see few benefits from the oil produced from their homeland.
Antonio Bento Bembe, a former senior FLEC leader who is now Angola’s minister in charge of Cabinda, told Reuters in an interview that some of the separatists prey on individuals who are unhappy with their living conditions.
“A lot of things have been changing without a need to pick up a knife or a gun,” said Bento Bembe. “They (the attacks) come from people who are frustrated because they could not realise their dreams.”
Pic: President Jose Eduaro dos Santos of Angola