Grinding poverty, human rights abuses and police detentions are fuelling tension in Angola’s oil-rich province of Cabinda, but for now, international oil companies have little to fear.
Roughly the size of Puerto Rico and separated from the rest of Angola by a strip of land belonging to the Democratic Republic of Congo, Cabinda accounts for most of Angola’s 2 million barrels of oil per day.
For the half a million residents of the impoverished territory, the oil has brought few benefits. The region caught international attention in early January when FLEC rebels ambushed the bus of Togo’s visiting soccer team, killing two.
“Cabindans are tired of not seeing the oil money,” said Martinho Nombo, a former vice-governor of Cabinda who is now a lawyer and university professor. “Ever since FLEC carried out the attack in January tensions have been rising.”
FLEC, or Front for the Liberation of the Enclave of Cabinda, has been locked in three decades of mostly low-level insurgency against the government.
Heavily armed police have been seen patrolling the streets of Cabinda months after the rebel attack.
“We don’t want to speak about FLEC. That is being treated within the realm of international terrorism,” Mawete Joao Baptista, the governor of Cabinda, told Reuters.
“Our attention at the moment is focused on the economy and improving the lives of Cabindans.”
His urgency has a reason: both FLEC rebels and ordinary Cabindans claim to see little of the money that comes from their land.
The ambush on the Togo bus triggered a police crackdown that led to the arrest of several prominent figures in Cabindan society, including a university professor, a human rights activist and a priest.
All three have been held for months without a trial and are being accused of committing crimes against the state.
“I hope they manage to defend themselves properly,” said Filomeno Vieira Dias, the Bishop of Cabinda, who added he had heard of human rights abuses carried out by police.
“I feel sorry that these people have been arrested for far too long without a trial.”
Human Rights Watch has repeatedly accused authorities in Cabinda of violating human rights. A spokesperson for the Angolan police denied the police were guilty of any abuse.
The detentions prompted some Cabindans to call for a massive street protest last month. But the march was called off at the last minute, after police increased their presence on the streets.
“I can’t talk about this now,” said Luis, a street vendor, when asked about why the protest had been cancelled.
While a small number of FLEC separatists in hiding are unlikely to pose an immediate threat to order in Cabinda, frustration is rising among ordinary citizens.
“The only thing most Cabindans get from the offshore oil exploration is this sticky black sand on the beach,” said Luis, a 20-year-old unemployed Cabindan, as he stood on the beach looking out at a handful of oil rigs on the horizon.
Angola rivals Nigeria as Africa’s biggest oil producer and oil giants Chevron Corp, Total SA, Exxon Mobil Corp, among others, are all involved in oil exploration activities in Cabinda.
But oil companies have little to fear, said Nombo, the former vice governor of Cabinda.
“One of Cabinda’s beauties, for oil companies anyway, is that oil production is offshore. They won’t have the kinds of problems firms face in Nigeria where militants carry out attacks on onshore oil installations.”