Cabinda Province and the African Cup of Nations

On January 8, 2010 rebels belonging to the FLEC (Liberation Front of the Enclave of Cabinda) fired machine guns into the Togolese national soccer team’s buses as they passed through a checkpoint to enter the tiny Angolan province. When the half-hour barrage of bullets ended, the bus driver – an Angolan man – was dead. Hours later, an assistant coach and the team’s press secretary would also die. Goalkeeper Kodjovi Obilale was flown to South Africa and placed in intensive care.

On January 11, 2010 Cote d’Ivoire and Burkina Faso played to a goalless draw in the second game of the African Nations Cup. The match took place in Cabinda Province, a sliver of land separated from the rest of Angola by an minute piece of the Democratic Republic of Congo. While Burkina Faso’s defense stood tall against Cote d’Ivoire’s formidable offense, Ghana watched from the stands. They were scheduled to play Togo in Cabinda on Monday but the Togolese team was on a flight home.

Here is what CAF president Issa Heyafou said to the Togolese team following the deadly attack on their bus:

“It is left to you to decide to stay in a competition synonymous with fraternity, brotherhood, friendship and solidarity.”

On Monday, Togo was disqualified from the tournament.

The Confederation of African Football organizes the African Cup of Nations every two years, and derives 80% of its revenues from the event.

Here is what Richard Dowden, President of the Royal African Society, said:

“Cabinda has got this particular problem with a nationalist movement that has kidnapped foreigners and attacks foreigners whenever it can.”

Cabinda’s “particular problem” stems from its illusory connection to Angola. The exclave was colonized by the Portugese, who combined the administrations of Angola and Cabinda in 1956 in an effort to streamline its colonial efforts in Africa. A nationalist movement appeared in the early 1960s and gained strength until 1975 when Angola – financially supported by oil giant Chevron – invaded Cabinda. Currently, Cabinda’s oil revenues provide over 50% of Angola’s GDP; only 10% of the taxes Chevron pays to Angola are reinvested in the money-making province (and only since 2006).

The point? None of this has anything to do with Togo. They were participating in an athletic event organized by a third party – the Confederation of African Football. The CAF chose Angola to host the 2010 ACN despite warnings that the so-called peace treaty of 2006 was full of empty promises. The Angolan government was accused of serious human rights violations in their efforts to suppress rebel activities leading up to the tournament. A crackdown on local media prevented much information about Cabinda from entering the public sphere, then Togo was criticized for driving through rebel-infested roads.

Togo’s prime minister, Gilbert Houngbo, said the team could have stayed in the tournament if they had received additional promises of security from Angola.

“Our analysis is that they want it [the shooting] to be seen as a non-event and the show must go on as planned; there mustn’t be an official change and Togo is causing problems to the festival.”

Here is what CAF officer Virgilio Santos said:

Togolese football officials have been criticised for arranging to drive through areas where rebels were known to be active.

Africa Nations Cup official Virgilio Santos said all teams had been told explicitly not to travel to the tournament by road.

Togo’s players, facing enormous pressure to remain in the tournament, claimed they would return and play if their first game could be rescheduled. This was denied.

Several players spoken of their willingness to play on at the tournament but Togo’s government said it had ordered them home. Captain Emmanuel Adebayor said at Cabinda airport that Togo might come back and attempt to play their Group B fixtures.

The CAF official, however, said that it would be impossible to change the tournament schedule.

The African Cup of Nations will go on. With the CAF refusing to consider rescheduling Togo’s first match, the Togolese team will watch the rest of the tournament from the safety of their homes. The CAF and Angola will continue to blame Togo’s poor travel itinerary for the machine gun attack while their bank accounts grow while armed convoys will accompany each team to Cabinda’s stadium. The games will be exciting; sport is, after all, the modern and enlightened method of catalyzing intense nationalism. But in the end all this event will give us is one champion of African football and three innocent people dead.

Here is what BBC’s African soccer correspondant Piers Edwards wrote:

Most newswire reports that I have read over the last few months in the build-up to the 2010 Nations Cup constantly stated it didn’t really matter how well Angola’s national team do in the tournament, for the country has already won simply by hosting the finals.

Those words seem very hollow now.

Here is what Togolese player Richmond Forson said:

“It was the bus carrying our baggage which was in front of us which they fired on the most,” he told French TV channel Canal Plus.

“They thought we were in the bus in front, fortunately for us. That’s what saved us.”

These tournaments are an economic boon to their organizers and the hosts; both should be chosen much more carefully in the future.

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