The humanitarian situation in the Angolan enclave of Cabinda is deteriorating so rapidly that some pro-independence supporters are willing to put on hold their aspirations for secession, at least for now.
Amid allegations of human rights abuses by government troops against civilians, and with many people living in shocking poverty despite vast oil wealth on their doorstep, secessionist leaders want to see a marked improvement in people's lives before tackling the issue of self-determination.
Father Jorge Congo, an influential catholic priest and spiritual leader of the 300,000-strong community, believes the time is right to push for urgent dialogue with the Angolan government.
He is urging Cabindans to unite and accept the support of outside parties such as the recently launched "Campaign for a Democratic Angola", a pro-democracy umbrella group, which was in the province at the weekend to express its support for Cabindans.
"Some of us feel that we should not get to involved with Angolan politicians because they always betray us, but others say we must work together to find synergies," he told the launch of the Mpalabanda association, a Cabindan civil society group. Mpalabanda is named after a small but extremely resilient bush and is a symbol of strength.
The launch was combined with the unveiling of the democratic campaign, whose members expressed support for the Cabindan cause.
"We can't fight this alone - if we are isolated, we will be crushed. We can no longer be on the fringes of Angolan politics, otherwise we will be marginalised and have no space to stake our claims. We're not here to call for independence, but we're being treated like dogs and we want to be treated as humans," Father Congo said.
Cabinda is the only one of Angola's 18 provinces still at war; the rest of the country has been at peace since April 2002.
The lush enclave, sandwiched between the Democratic Republic of Congo and Congo-Brazzaville, with a short but oil-rich stretch of coastline, has called for independence for decades. Its people argue that they have a different identity and culture and should never have been lumped together with Angola when Portugal granted it independence in 1975.
Angolan President Jose Eduardo dos Santos has promised greater autonomy to the province on several occasions, but has stopped short of accepting an independent Cabinda. The province accounts for around 60 percent of Angola's estimated one million barrels per day of oil production.
The conflict is still smouldering, despite the government upping its offensive in the province in October 2002 when it sent in tens of thousands of troops.
Although FLEC (the Cabinda Enclave Liberation Front) is much weaker and can only muster intermittent attacks, there have been media reports that some 47 government soldiers were killed in recent weeks. The government has brushed off these claims as "communiqués of desperation".
Yet Cabindan leaders fear that government troops seeking to retaliate will attack the civilian population. Coupled with poverty and hunger, that is just too much to bear, Father Congo said.
"The situation of the civilian population remains extremely vulnerable. Government forces continue to retaliate against people, and now violence has been extended to the city of Cabinda. A 16-year-old girl was gunned down by the police just last week," he alleged.
Father Maiamba, in Cabinda town for a brief visit from the northern Nkutu area, where fighting is thought to be heaviest, says the presence of heavy military is causing frustration among the local population and pitting Cabindans against Cabindans.
"There's a military outpost between every village. In many cases the soldiers outnumber the locals, so the locals flee to some of the bigger villages," he told IRIN.
"What happens here is that if one complains about his neighbour, it is enough for him to be tortured. And security has infiltrated every village, bringing more fear because they don't know who they can trust," he said.
No longer able to farm or hunt in the forest, allegedly in fear of attack by government soldiers, people are hungry, Father Maiamba said.
"The only way to improve the situation in the near term is to withdraw the soldiers – not just in Nkutu, but in all of Cabinda," he said.
CURSE OF OIL
The situation in Cabinda has been complicated by its vast oil reserves, both onshore and offshore. Locals say oil is the reason why the government wants to keep the province as part of the motherland, but they argue it has done little to benefit the lives of ordinary Cabindans.
In a straw poll organised by the Campaign for a Democratic Angola, people were asked whether oil had benefited ordinary Cabindans. Out of 2,200 responses, only three people ticked the "yes" box.
"We die here every single day because of the oil. We've already told the [ruling] MPLA [party], 'If what you want is oil, you can just build a pipeline from here to Luanda and pump all the oil you want. Just leave us alone'," said Cabindan journalist Raul Danda.
"They say we want independence because of oil – that's not true. They are not leaving us alone because of oil – that's the real truth," he added.
Father Congo agrees. "We've never benefited from it, so oil does not make any difference in the struggle. What's happened is that Cabindans have become victims of the oil - that's for sure," he said.
Aside from encouraging the heavy military presence, Cabindans also believe that ChevronTexaco, or its affiliate, the Cabinda Gulf Oil Company (CABGOC), which operates the Malongo terminal, does not do enough to help local people.
Its compound, dubbed "Little America", is protected by tough perimeter fencing and land mines but, less than 100 metres from its entrance, families live in shanty housing and are forced to collect firewood for cooking as there are no supplies of kerosene nearby.
"We're just by the gates of Malongo and look at what they are doing to us," said Ana Filomena, a local resident.
"What improvement can you see here?," she asked, pointing to the remains of a wood fire. "This is a disgrace. We don’t even have kerosene for cooking. We have to go into Cabinda town, where we pay 300 kwanzas (around $4) for a five-litre jar."
Father Congo says he has seen little evidence that Chevron's presence has had a positive impact.
"I started screaming in 1993 and it was then they (Chevron) started realising that people's consciousness was changing, so then they started doing some things here. But you can walk around and you won't see real signs that tell you that Chevron is here and making life better for Cabindans," he said.
There is even greater resentment by others.
"If you take your car to a gas station, you don't have fuel; you don't have gas for cooking, yet if you look at the sea, you can see gas being burned," said Danda.
"We need to benefit from the oil – it's ours. But, more importantly, we need to be recognised as human beings. I think the international community should put pressure on the MPLA regime - because that's what it is - to tell them to stop killing us, to start talking to us," Danda stressed.
While stabilising people's lives by talking to the government remains the number one priority, self-determination is still an issue dear to Cabindans' hearts, local leaders told IRIN.
Father Congo said his strategy of dialogue was only a provisional solution to alleviate suffering and bring an end to the war. The goal was still self-determination.
"Everyone from north and south of Cabinda feels the same. Our hope is to be free," said Antonio Makosso, a Cabindan a field operator for Chevron Texaco on the Malongo oilfield.
"Our history is clear - we are Cabindan, we're not Angolan," he said. "Independence should happen soon - but we are in a jail because of this oil."
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions
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