This was always fairly predictable.

Contrary to what a lot of the media have been saying – for example here and here and here – there was not a peace deal between the Angolan government and Frente de Libertação do Enclave de Cabinda (FLEC) rebels in 2006. There was, in fact, a sham of a deal which very few Cabindans understand as anything to do with real peace. António Bento Bembe, the Angolan ‘minister’ being quoted all over, claimed at the time of the sham deal to represent both the FLEC and the umbrella civic group, the Fórum Cabindês para o Diálogo (FCD), and was chosen to sign the deal with the Angolan government on 1 August 2006. This was officially welcomed as bringing an end to three decades of conflict in the small but oil- and gold- and timber-rich enclave. It came just months before onshore drilling was due to begin in Angola’s ‘eighteenth province’ (offshore drilling having begun over half a century ago, in 1958, by the US Cabinda Gulf Corporation).

The deal – dubbed the Memorandum of Understanding on Peace and National Reconciliation in Cabinda Province – was greeted with open arms and drooling mouths by outsiders such as the United States government, which said it “strongly supports” the deal. Its embassy in the Angolan capital, Luanda, described the memorandum as “more than just a document on peace and reconciliation; it is the promise of economic development and increased political influence”. No surprises there. However, the US statement omitted to say a word about the signatory, Bembe, who, on 24 June 2005, was arrested in Holland by Interpol. The US Federal Bureau of Investigation had been after the former leader of the splinter group, FLEC Renovada (FLEC-R), for his alleged involvement in the kidnapping of US citizen, Brent Swan, in October 1990. Swan was an aircraft mechanic for Petroleum Helicopters Inc (PHI), a contractor for Cabinda Gulf Oil Company Limited, then a subsidiary of Chevron (now ChevronTexaco). He was held hostage for two months in Cabinda before finally being handed over, unharmed, to Chevron and PHI officials in Zaire in December the same year. A ransom was also paid. Not long after, a short book – Another New Moon – was published (read an excerpt here) about Swan’s heroic brush with ‘terrorism’.

The Americans had international arrest warrants out for four men allegedly responsible for Swan’s brief disappearance. One was Bembe, the other three were José Tiburcio Luemba, Maurício Mazunga ‘Zulu’ and Arthur Tchibassa. Until now, only Tchibassa has been prosecuted. He was arrested on 11 July 2002 in Kinshasa. In September the following year, he was convicted in a Washington court. Five months after that, in February 2004, he was sentenced to 60 months for conspiring to take a hostage and a further 293 months for actual hostage-taking. He was also ordered to pay $303,957 in restitution and a further $200 in ‘special assessment’. Despite several appeals, a judge ordered on 7 July 2006 that Tchibassa’s original conviction stands firm.

Bembe was a lot luckier. At the time of his arrest in Holland, he was about to attend the first day of a conference organised by the Unprotected Nations and Peoples Organization (UNPO) to try to promote FLEC’s separatist campaign. The Americans wanted to take him back to the US to be tried but a Dutch court turned down the US request for extradition. Instead, Bembe was detained by Dutch police. While he was locked up, various visitors came to see him from the leadership of the ruling Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola (MPLA) including, FLEC alleges, the then director of military intelligence, General Fernando Garcia Miala (later imprisoned by the Angolan authorities for a very long period for posing a threat to the leadership of dearly beloved Angolan President José Eduardo dos Santos – and there were rumours that Miala’s relations with FLEC were part of the problem, but that’s another story). In October 2005, Bembe was allowed out on bail. The following month, he disappeared. A few months later, he turned up in Congo-Brazzaville as a friend of the MPLA, the man with whom Luanda wanted to negotiate peace in Cabinda.

The group which says it is the real FLEC – led from the Parisian apartment of oct0genarian and hot-chocolate drinking N’Zita Henriques Tiago – was furious. And they could not understand why the ceremony for the sham deal was held almost as far away as you can get from Cabinda without actually leaving Angolan soil – 650 miles south in Namibe. Even more remarkable, perhaps, they had been hoping the Americans would arrest Bembe so that he could be transformed into the ‘Mandela of Cabinda’, thereby promoting their cause. Tiago accuses Bembe and his “little group” of being on the payroll of the MPLA, and argues that Bembe was dismissed as both FLEC secretary general and president of the FCD in early 2006, several months before the dumb deal. He also argues that if Bembe is to remain free, Tchibassa should also be granted the same special treatment and let out of his cell.

Real members of the FCD – which comprises FLEC members, the Catholic church and Cabindan civil society – are also angry with Bembe. The Catholic priest, Padre Raúl Tati, among others, rejected the memorandum. So did one of the FCD’s founding members, the civic group which campaigns for the respect of human rights in Cabinda, Mpalabanda. Notably, the group was ruled ‘extinct’ by a court in Cabinda just a week before the memorandum was signed, fuelling concern in some quarters that no one will be monitoring human rights violations in Cabinda. No surprise then that Mpalabanda wrote off the peace deal as a joke.

Tiago’s FLEC, and some other members of the FCD, are still clinging to the quest for independence or, at the very least, autonomy – as was offered by the Angolan President in October 2002 – but the memorandum offers neither. Instead, the deal states that Angola must be recognised as ‘a complete and indivisible state’, no irony intended here despite the glaring geography of the enclave, sandwiched between the two Congos, 60 kilometres north of the nearest ‘neighbouring’ Angolan province. Cabinda has been granted ‘special administrative status’ but it is unclear what that actually means. FLEC say they were offered special status before, in January 2003, during a Paris meeting with that General Miala. Tiago declined. A few months later, FLEC was offered special status plus a US$20 million carrot. Tiago declined again.

So what, if any, were the advantages to the 2006 memorandum? Apart from a blanket amnesty clause, it was only significantly beneficial for a handful of individuals. FLEC was guaranteed a minister-without-portfolio (in Portuguese, ministro sem pasta), three deputy ministers, a deputy governor, a handful of deputy provincial directors and administrators. Not too much to celebrate there then. A few positions were also offered within Angola’s very impressive national oil company, Sonangol, but none of them had much power either: two non-executive directors, a deputy director for Cabinda, and three administrative advisers. Also thrown in were a few jobs in the army, the diplomatic service and the state media. At the time, many jokes were made in Angola about Bembe receiving the job of ministro sem pasta: the word pasta also translates as briefcase. Poor old Bembe – the minister so fobbed off by the MPLA that he didn’t even have a briefcase.

And what of FLEC now? Part of the movement’s problem is Tiago, who has been outside of Cabinda for well over a decade, and yet who still very much represents the movement. While he lives, so does FLEC. And many suggest that when Tiago dies, so will FLEC. But I’m not so sure. When I met Tiago in 2007, I was struck by the men around him, who seemed much more militant than he – and certainly absolutely unwilling to accept any deal with the ruling MPLA. They also say that most Cabindans support them. This is possibly quite true. Or, at least, it is true that very few Cabindans (used to) support the MPLA – even those who work for the ruling party. In the latest general elections, in 2008, the MPLA took two-thirds of the vote (the second lowest number of votes for the ruling party, after Lunda Sul), however Cabindan parties weren’t in the running. And the election results are not – despite what you might understand of democracy – an accurate way to understand what Angolans, and certainly Cabindans, feel about the rulers of their country. You vote for the ruling party because that is the way to get ahead, or to stop yourself from sinking. I spent time with several MPLA ‘militants’ in Cabinda and after a couple of beers, two of them wept as they told me of their despair at the poverty across the province, of the lack of political alternatives, of the quashing of FLEC, and the arrival of Israeli gold miners among others with their own privatised security firms which shoot to kill. (It is worth bearing in mind that in 1992, during Angola’s first multiparty elections, less than 12% of the enclave’s population voted. Most didn’t see the point: Cabindan parties had been banned from competing.)

So what for FLEC to do? They have little in the way of weaponry or soldiers left after the exceedingly well-armed Forças Armadas Angolanas’ (FAA) systematic counter-insurgency campaign from 2002 to 2003. To this day, the enclave of Cabinda is heaving in government soldiers: at times, it seems more militarised than the rest of Angola did, even at the height of the civil war. Meanwhile, FLEC might have a couple of thousand soldiers at best – and few of them have much of a financial motive to fight because Tiago no longer has any allies. FLEC depends on a Cabindan identity and ongoing discrimination and exploitation from the MPLA as a uniting factor for its forces and supporters. And good opportunities. Which is where we come back to the attack on the Togolese players.

I was dumbfounded when I heard the news that the footballers travelled from Pointe-Noire to Cabinda by road. If you want to hook up with FLEC, one of the ways to do it is to go to Pointe-Noire. If the attack was carried out by rebels – which may not, of course, be the case – the Togolese team plans provided them with the ultimate media opportunity. All they needed was a few well-armed men to cause even The Sun to (attempt to) cover the story.

It was always clear that the 2006 sham deal would severely lack the support of the Cabindan population, who are fed up with living in poverty in the richest province of the country. Many said that onshore oil exploration in Cabinda would make the contrast in wealth more visible than ever and Tiago’s campaign less so – but this little coup before CAN has, only briefly I’m sure, put FLEC’s campaign on to breakfast tables across the world in a way that even the old leader might never have dared hope for.