Global Policy Forum

Cornered Rebels May Lash Out

12 February 2001


A rise in separatist activity in the oil-rich Angolan enclave of Cabinda could mean the demise of the rebel groups is near. A well-funded, well-equipped Angolan military and closer cooperation between Luanda and Cabinda's former allies in Brazzaville and Kinshasa have further isolated the separatists. Now, while Angolan President Jose Eduardo dos Santos' government discusses plans for greater autonomy for Cabinda and launches operations into the province, the rebels are growing more desperate and may respond with increased violence.


A heightened security threat may be on the horizon for the people of Cabinda, an oil-rich Angolan province separate from the rest of the southern African country.

The Angolan government in Luanda has been fighting separatists in Cabinda intermittently for the last 40 years. But its increasingly closer ties with the governments in the Republic of the Congo-Brazzaville and the Democratic Republic of the Congo-Kinshasa have undermined the Cabinda rebels' sources of external support. This isolation may sound the death knell for the rebel movement, forcing the guerrillas to even more desperate acts of violence. But it will not likely lead to their successful liberation from control by Luanda.

According to a rebel group, the Front for the Liberation of the Enclave of Cabinda-Cabinda Armed Forces (FLEC-FAC), the Angolan military recently launched an offensive into the province aimed at rescuing three Portuguese oil workers the guerrilla group kidnapped months ago, The Associated Press reported Feb. 5.

Officials have not made available any details of the military offensive and the Angolan embassy in Washington would provide no information concerning the report. But the offensive is likely part of a larger government strategy aimed at capitalizing on the rebels' limited external support in an attempt to flush them out of Cabinda's jungles.

Awarded to Angola by the Portuguese prior to Angolan independence in 1975, Cabinda is Luanda's most economically and militarily strategic region. Divided from the rest of Angola by a sliver of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Cabinda offers a strategic base for Angolan forces to prevent Angola's other rebel group, UNITA, from using the region as a rear base of operations.

The province is also rich in oil reserves and is the major source of revenue for Luanda, producing about 70 percent of Angola's oil and accounting for almost all of its foreign exchange earnings.

But Cabinda's strategic and economic importance makes it a source of contention. Founded in the early 1960s, the FLEC movement is represented by at least two main factions that both want Cabinda's independence from Angola.

Following recent reports of the Angolan military offensive, FLEC-Renovata faction leader Cmdr. Antonio Lopes proposed direct negotiations with Luanda, asking for a referendum on self-determination with the Organization of African Unity, United Nations and European Union all participating in talks.

According the U.S. Department of Energy, the separatists groups also want a share of the oil revenue for the province's 250,000 people. Currently, the province receives a paltry 10 percent of taxes paid by oil companies – such as U.S. oil giant Chevron – with operations off Cabinda's shore.

But the FLEC's hope of winning concessions from the government in Luanda is growing less likely. Angolan President Jose Eduardo dos Santos' administration effectively has isolated the guerrillas.

With Angolan troops stationed in both Kinshasa and Brazzaville, the FLEC no longer can rely on either for external support. Even support from its former ally, UNITA, has dried up now that UNITA has come under increasing pressure from a well-funded, well-equipped, modernized Angolan military.

The lack of external arms and funding will make it increasingly difficult for the rebels to launch attacks, especially against Cabinda's well-protected oil infrastructure.

The main FLEC factions, FLEC-Renovata (Refounders) and FLEC-FAC (Cabinda Armed Forces) also are deeply divided, encouraging competition and conflict that Luanda often exploits.

For example, FLEC-FAC – the faction responsible for the kidnapping of the three Portuguese workers – is lead by Henrique Nzita Tiago. But FLEC-Renovata leader Antonio Lopes claimed he could free the hostages. Lopes' group acts as the FLEC government-in-exile and often competes with the FLEC-FAC, which operates inside Cabinda.

The rebel groups retain wide popular support from the Cabindan locals but are strapped for arms and funding.

The movement did receive a boost last year when Angolan Catholic Bishop Dom Franklin da Costa announced his support for a referendum on independence for Cabinda, the Portuguese Web site Publico reported in September 2000.

Although the government in Luanda has discussed greater autonomy for Cabinda, there is little chance of Angola relinquishing its hold over the vital enclave.

The government's reported military offensive also coincides with the start of the region's rainy season. Indeed, heavy rains in Cabinda have left one person dead and several homes destroyed, Angola's state news agency, Angop, reported Jan. 29.

The weather conditions are likely to undermine any operations against the guerrillas, which are well entrenched in the enclave's jungle that covers most of the central and northern areas.

Even with the protective downpours, the FLEC is finding it more difficult to launch operations against the Angolan government. With its rear bases of support cut off, the remaining groups likely will turn to even more desperate measures to stove u their efforts.

While the government-in-exile angles for negotiations, launching diplomatic offensives throughout Europe, rebels on the ground will be forced to continue to wage their low-intensity war with little help from the outside. This will push the rebels closer to the urban areas and to more desperate means of survival, including violent acts of banditry and increased kidnapping.

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