Football massacre misrepresents true character of Angola
The Africa Cup of Nations, in Angola, got off to a bloody start earlier this month, when two members of Togo’s national football team were killed in an attach on their bus by rebels in the Angolan enclave province of Cabinda.
With the competition billed as a chance for Angola to demonstrate its stability and potential, just over a year since the first post-war elections, the attack – claimed by separate factions of the Cabindan independent movement, FLEC – seemed a violent refutation of the nation’s supposed progress.
And with “Afro-pessimists” in the Western media already skeptical about South Africa’s potential to host a successful and safe World Cup this summer, the Angolan killings fed an agenda of cynicism about the viability of such international events in Africa.
From the apparent poverty of a national team travelling by bus rather than plane, to the incompetent security arrangements, to the confusion of two rival factions having subsequently claimed responsibility for the attack, this event at first seemed entirely consistent with the stereotypical image of Africa as a uniformly lawless and feckless place.
The reality, though, is more nuanced, and less intimidating. The circumstances of this attack raise grave questions for both the Angolan and Togolese authorities, but have little or no bearing on how tourists, for example, might experience Angola, and none at all on the safety of travel in other parts of Africa, or on the security of tourists at South Africa’s World Cup.
Angola’s civil war lasted from 1975, when the Portuguese colonisers left, to 2002, when the leader of the Unita rebel movement, Jonas Savimbi, was killed in an ambush by government soldiers, and a peace treaty was signed.
But in one province, war persisted. That was the oil-rich province of Cabinda, an enclave separated from the rest of the country and situated between Africa’s two Congos. There, a loosely organised secessionist movement, FLEC, carried out sporadic attacks on the Angolan army and on oil interests, provoking retaliation and human rights abuses, in turn, by the army.
But by 2006, it seemed that that conflict, too, was exhausted, with the signing of another peace deal. When the first elections since the war passed off peacefully in 2008, it seemed that Angola was finally entering an era of peace and stability, buttressed by its oil reserves.
That was the country I returned to last August (having previously worked there in 2000 and 2001, with the charity Concern Worldwide), armed with a video camera and aiming to document its emergence from decades of war and intermittent famine. Carrying a few thousand euros’ worth of equipment, I had intended to travel by jeep, with a colleague driving from South Africa to join me. But he was turned back at the southern border (due to an alleged problem with his visa), and so I had to set off on my own, by public transport.
I boarded a coach to head north, and nervously turned on the camera, uncertain how people would react. After decades of having foreign reporters pointing cameras at them in a bid to record their suffering, would people be hostile to being filmed? Or would the camera be simply an invitation to thieves? “Hey, what are you doing?” someone challenged me, with apparent antipathy. “I used to work here,” I answered. “I’ve come back to see how the country is changing.”
“Great!” the voice said. “Come and talk to us.” And for the next eight hours, as we lumbered along dreadfully decrepit roads (often in the process of being repaired), he and others told me their stories.
After that, I travelled by minibus taxi, by jeep, and (briefly, and precariously) by motorbike taxi. I found rides in the bustling local markets and walked the streets with my camera, stopping strangers to ask them about their country. Faces lit up when they talked about the luxury of being able to travel safely on the roads, or go to college, or get healthcare. Some were very critical of the lack of governmental planning, or of corruption. But the overwhelming feeling was of relief that the war had ended and the elections passed safely.
In the town of Kuito, where I had worked in 2001, I visited a woman, Berta Ngueve, who had participated in one of Concern’s projects then.
She had lost a leg in a landmine accident, and was raising a family in a small adobe house on the outskirts of the town, with no reliable income. This time, I found her in a much larger (though still poor) house, and she brought me into her living room, where one wall was lined with a massive, though slightly weather beaten, television and hi-fi unit.
It was the middle of the afternoon and there was no need for lights, but there was a generator whirring loudly in a corner of the compound.
What was it for, I asked. “It’s charging the mobile.” Since the end of the war, and despite her missing limb, she had been able to travel and trade more widely, and her family’s living standards had risen dramatically.
The January attack was of course tragic for the two men killed, Togolese assistant coach Abalo Amelete and press officer Stanislas Ocloo, but it was also tragic for Angola: tragic that the work and aspirations of so many people like Berta should be besmirched by an ugly act of violence and the administrative incompetence surrounding it.
The level of incompetence was extraordinary. In Cabinda, where foreign oil workers have been targeted for kidnapping in the past, the compound of the oil giant Chevron is surrounded by a massive wall and a minefield, and their oil workers travel between the airport and the compound by helicopter.
What was the Togolese team doing travelling by road? And, given that they did decide to travel by road, why did the Angolan army – one of the strongest in Africa – not provide adequate security? Securing roads and convoys is an area in which this army has 35 years of bitter experience. And what arrogance led the Angolan government to schedule matches in Cabinda, in what would appear to have been a fatally inept attempt to demonstrate its strength and stability?
That arrogance, and incompetence, may be typical of the Angolan regime, one that has been accused in the past of being amongst the most corrupt in the world, and of having secreted billions of oil dollars out of the country. But the savagery and insecurity that the attack suggests is no longer typical of the country as a whole, and the ugly specifics of it have no bearing on the safety of travel elsewhere in Angola, or more generally in Africa.
This summer, Africa hosts its first World Cup, and South Africa’s World Cup head, Danny Jordaan, has denounced attempts to link the violence in Cabinda to security in South Africa, suggesting that commentators who did so had “double standards” and would not argue that a terrorist attack in Europe had any bearing on London’s 2012 Olympics.
For the “Afro-pessimists”, this attack may reinforce existing prejudices. But the prosaic reality is that this grim event was the product of circumstances unique to a small part of one country, as well as of some uniquely incompetent local decisions. The Angolan people deserve better than to be tarred with pessimistic generalisations, and South Africa deserves the opportunity to show how well a World Cup can be run.
[This first appeared on Le Monde Diplomatique online,
http://mondediplo.com/ . A longer version previously appeared in the