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Sunday, 27 October, 2002, 15:48 GMT
Poverty and war in Cabinda
Cabindan women
Many in Cabinda want independence from Angola
Justin Pearce

From the beach in Cabinda you can see the oil rigs on the horizon.

The sand underfoot is black from oil. Along the beachfront road, churches and other public buildings are under repair, all with a signboard telling you that the work is part of the social responsibility programme of one or another oil company.


One man declared that his nation had been called Portuguese in colonial times, then been called Angolan, but was at heart Cabindan

At night, the gas flares from the oil rigs make the overcast tropical sky glow orange, and make a silhouette out of the crucifix that stands outside the Catholic mission.

It was at that mission I attended a meeting of the Catholic Youth of Cabinda, who were discussing the future of this remote Angolan province.

One man declared that his nation had been called Portuguese in colonial times, then Angolan, but was at heart Cabindan. "We are a country, not a province!," he insisted. Applause erupted through the church.

Separatists

Some argue that the physical separation of Cabinda from the rest of Angola is a reason for independence - there is a thin strip of Congolese territory in between.

Others make an historical claim - they point to documents from colonial times suggesting that Angola and Cabinda were regarded as two separate colonies by the Portuguese, and should therefore form separate states.

Whatever the arguments, Angolan loyalists and many visitors to the country laugh at the idea of Cabindan independence. For a start, there is Cabinda's size.

You could drive from one end to the other in a couple of hours if the roads were good enough, and its population is not much more than 100,000 people.

Then there is the fact that the armed separatist movement, FLEC, is divided into three factions.

FLEC has managed to get noticed nonetheless. The rebels lost their main patron with the ousting of Mobutu Sese Seko in what was then Zaire - deprived of their supply of arms and ammunition, they have used kidnapping as a tactic.

Cabindan children
Cabinda has a population of about 100,000
Cabinda's well-kept town centre spreads across the hillside above the bay. On the edge of town there is a car park surrounded by a series of rickety wooden eating houses, where we sat down to lunch.

One of my Angolan hosts pointed to a similar restaurant on the other side of the square. "It was over there that they kidnapped the Portuguese."

Kidnapping

He was talking about the abduction of a group of oil employees two years ago - one of them ended up spending more than two years in captivity with FLEC. I started becoming aware that I was the only foreigner in town.

There had been other expatriates - mostly oil workers - at the airport, yet they all seemed to be keeping off the streets.

Oil drums
Cabinda provides a large portion of Angola's wealth through oil
The kidnappings have not been forgotten. And just a few months ago, a missile narrowly missed a vehicle that was carrying employees of one of the big oil multinationals - the company decided to start transporting its staff by helicopter rather than by road from the airport to the company compound outside town.

We saw that compound the next day, as we drove out towards the rainforest.

They are building a new fence - a kind of Berlin Wall without the concrete, but no less intimidating - a three-metre steel fence, with rolls of razor wire piled up on either side.


Psychological hunger is when your house has a view of an oil rig, and you still battle to feed your family each day

Nearby, youths were selling packed lunches to passing motorists - packets of over-processed American snack foods - nothing like I had ever seen in Angola before.

My first reaction was that these had been stolen from the company warehouse, but it is actually a legal way that the local workers have found to supplement their income. They sell the lunch packs that the company imports for them.

Evidence of war

Further along the road, we came upon our first reminder that there is still a war in this part of the country - people living in hastily constructed shelters by the roadside, saying they had been forced out of their homes by soldiers seeking to clamp down on the activities of FLEC.

Woman from Cabinda
Cabindans say they do not see their fair share of the region's wealth
Deep in the forest, we visited a mission settlement which had previously been under rebel control.

An old man I spoke to complained not about FLEC, but about the government forces who he said were harassing local people suspected of supporting the rebels.

The old man said he was tired of all this. The government should meet Cabinda's politicians to talk peace, he said.

By Cabinda's politicians, it was quite clear he was referring to FLEC - many people who distance themselves from the rebels' tactics nevertheless identify with their cause.

They cite the historical and geographical arguments for independence - but at heart, their complaints are about poverty and deprivation. In many ways, Cabinda looks in better shape than most of Angola.

There are brand new schools, something that would be a luxury in Angola's war-shattered central provinces.

Some of the villages even had communal taps, unlike the poorer neighbourhoods of Luanda where people have to buy water at inflated prices from a delivery truck.

Yet food prices remain inflated, and the oil industry creates few jobs for local people.

Back at the Catholic mission in town, a priest spoke of what he called psychological hunger.

The oil wealth that comes out of Cabinda represents more than 100,000 dollars each year for each resident of the province.

And psychological hunger is when your house has a view of an oil rig, and you still battle to feed your family each day.

Jonas Savimbi, killed after 26 years of civil war

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18 Oct 02 | Africa
20 Sep 02 | Africa
16 Aug 02 | Africa
02 Aug 02 | Africa
09 Jul 02 | Africa
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