Wednesday, 13 January 2010

The dregs of war

Lara Pawson says in a somewhat understated way, "it's amazing what football can do."

After the shocking machine-gun attack on the Togolese team bus headed for the African Cup of Nations tournament in Angola which killed 3 people people are talking about the political movement called the Front for the Liberation of the Enclave of Cabinda (Flec).

For those of you who don't know Cabinda is a tiny Portuguese-speaking territory separated from Angola by a quirk of colonial history.

During the 27-year Angolan civil war following independence (remember the Eurovision song contest in 1974?), which killed an estimated 1.5m people and ended in 2002, Cabinda was regularly used as launching pad and haven from the central authorities due to its separation.

Once the civil war ended oil exploration spread up the coast and quickly discovered reserves significant enough to be predicted to produce 3.4 million barrels/day - almost double the approx 1.9m bpd produced currently.

Of this total Cabinda may account for as much as 700,000 barrels/day.

An added factor in the historical battle for economic control is the specific location of the oil-fields.

Whereas in Angola proper the off-shore oil is located in deep water, the Cabindan reserves are closer to shore. This makes them relatively cheaper to exploit and subject to greater interference from gunships operating from shore.

Now the first time Cabinda entered my consciousness was as the fictionalised location for a fictitious coup attempt in The Dogs of War, as written in 1974 by that never-recalcitrant, ever-imaginative Cold War theorist Freddy Forsyth (movie review by the NY Times).

I later imagined Cabinda as a stopping point in a fictionalised prologue to Conrad's Heart of Darkness.

Whereas the Council on Foreign Affairs once described it as "an improbable locus for a superpower collision," from my point of view Cabinda's simple geographical location in a proxy power play places it directly in the line of fire for all the historical forces those two novels would suggest for it.

With oil to lubricate the wheels of motion, all this combustible situation has been waiting for is an ignition spark.

And it looks like football has given us just that.

However Rodrigues Mingas, the self-proclaimed leader of Flec, has declared that the attack was not preplanned because the forces were drilled to target Angolan soldiers rather than the somewhat unexpected transit of international footballers travelling hundreds of miles by bus - which seems to imply the gunmen did not know the bus was carrying high-profile sportsmen until too late.

This would seem to correspond with separatist claims, rather than terrorist aims, although reports have typically picked up on the more dramatic hyperbole of the protagonists - as here an unnamed Angloan minister is described as calling it 'a terrorist act'. I guess that what gets more face-time with CIA advisors to lobby for additional funding support these days.

This suggests some sort of miscalculation by Angolan authorities to use regular Army as bodyguards, possibly using the Cup of Nations tournament to exert and extend political control - if it was using 'soft' power as a shield for 'hard' power then the three lives lost are a demonstration for the value the Angolan authorities place on human life.

The arrests of two suspects indicate a usual knee-jerk reaction to round up some scapegoats who fit the bill to prevent public feeling front spreading out of control.

But as Chatham House's Alex Vines explains the dissident groups have been splintering into ever smaller factions over whom control is less able to be exerted, which means occasional events like this became more likely. But for me if Angolan government tactics were deliberately surreptitious then they have already conceded the moral and practical arguments and are fighting against the tide.

While left-wingers focus on state repression and right-wingers worry about the security threat of ever increasing numbers of splinter groups funded and armed by outside forces who hope to profit, my concern is how all this only ever comes about through the struggle to overcome the irresolution and greed of all sides.

For starters, why would Manchester City's Emmanuel Adebayor (who earns a basic salary of arond £5m/year) subject himself and his teammates to a journey by bus through some of the most volatile areas of the world, crossing suspect borders in the process, all because his national federation wouldn't pay for the flights? I'm not surprised Arsene Wenger throws a wobbly when players report back from national duty so often.

It would also be highly unusual if none of the oil money stuck to the fingers of any of the Angolan government, just as it's patently clear the war-lords in the Cabindan enclave also hope to profit from the rush of petro-dollars (if they aren't satisfied with running drugs, slaves and guns through to and from the interior of the Congo basin, as they have for hundreds of years).

But back to the sports economy of Angola.

Petro Atletico of Luanda is the traditional powerhouse team of the Girabola. Founded in 1980, it's pretty easy to guess where it's roots are and its funding is derived from. Just as Adebayor's Man City has become the big boy's toy of a gulf oil sheik, Petro is the Angolan equivalent.

Apparently $700m has been lavished on upgrading infrastructure for the tournament using Chinese expertise and labour - including $420m on stadia ($150m for the brand new state-of-the-art principal 50,000 capacity 11th November stadium in Luanda, which will be occupied by Petro when the tournament is over), as the country hopes to use the tournament as a springboard to build a sustainable tourist industry.

At one level all this represents an attempt by Angola to legitimise itself in the international community which threatens to be exposed by the attacks in Cabinda as petty self-aggrandisement of powerful individuals.

But at another it reflects the outbreak of a new stage in the great game of global power relations. As Sedem Ofori describes the shocked response of western media and concerns about the World Cup in South Africa exposes the continuing Euro-centrism of global powers.

And at a third it reflects continuing acceptance for less than rigorous standards on the part of the powers-that-be in African officialdom.

As ever it will be a precarious balancing act trying to hold it together, which could easily explode in everyone's faces. But in the end if the show does go on to make it to the climax it will be marked as a qualified success and one more small step for humanity on the road to grace.
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