Tuesday January 19th, 2010

CABINDA, Angola -- When Angola tied Algeria 0-0 on Monday in Luanda to finish first in Group A of the African Cup of Nations, it was cause for celebrations throughout most of Angola. Wherever you go in Luanda, the capital, you'll see locals wearing the national-team colors of red, black and yellow. Angola shirts, scarves and flags are everywhere there; TV and radio broadcasts talk soccer around the clock. Billboards proclaim that Angola, which ended a 27-year civil war in 2002, can unite through soccer.

But there was a completely different vibe here in Cabinda, the tiny northern exclave separated from the rest of Angola by a strip of Congo-Kinshasa. Here, where you see far fewer signs of support for the Angolan team, there was mostly relief that Angola finished top of the group. If the Palancas Negras had taken second in Group A, they would have played their second-round game in Cabinda -- and needed far more armed protection than any other team in the tournament.

Many Cabindans don't want to be part of Angola, don't want to support an Angolan government that they feel exploits Cabinda's vast oil reserves -- it produces half of Angola's crude -- without returning enough of the profits to a largely destitute Cabindan populace. On Sunday, I left the asphalt road in Cabinda City and ventured into one of its poor neighborhoods. The dirt streets were uneven, their small craters filled with murky liquid. The houses were made of crumbling concrete. The gray, burned-out shell of an old Toyota rested on blocks near the porch of the man I went to see.

"We don't want [the Angola team] to come here because they will bring more trouble," the Cabindan man, a war vet in his 50s, told me in an interview. (He did not want to give his name out of fear for his safety.) "If they come to play here, the security will be double. If you go to the stadium, you'll see choppers everywhere. I'm praying they finish in first place and stay in Luanda."

Nor was he happy that the Angolan government had spent so many millions of dollars on a futuristic new 35,000-seat soccer stadium in Cabinda when the money could have been spent on other things. "For me, the stadium is nothing for us," he said. "They are playing today, but tomorrow the stadium will be dead like a dead man. All the people really want is a bigger port, not a stadium, and education, hospitals, universities, a bigger airport. Things like that."

I've seen plenty of examples over the years when sports and politics mix, when the world's most popular pastime and the pursuit of power combine to turn fútbol into anything but the simplest game. But I haven't ever been in the middle of such a palpably tense situation like this one in Cabinda, a complex landscape mixing soccer and politics, fear and violence, nationalism and rebellion.

There's a lot more than just soccer going on here.

***

Even before the bloody events of Jan. 8, I had planned to come to Cabinda for a Sports Illustrated feature as part of our coverage leading up to this summer's World Cup in South Africa. This is the Year of Africa, of course, and the African Cup of Nations is renowned for its entertaining soccer featuring some of the sport's biggest stars. But then, two days before the start of the tournament, tragedy struck. The team from Togo, which had just crossed into Cabinda by bus from Congo-Brazzaville (the site of its training camp), was the target of a machine-gun attack.

My Cabindan fixer, Cristóvão Luemba, a correspondent for the Angolan Catholic Church's Radio Ecclésia, waited two days to mention that he had actually been on the scene during the attack. To listen to Cristóvão's recording of the shots is chilling (see below), not least because you can imagine the chaos of the situation. "I was on the floor of the car," he says. Shots hit the auto he was sharing with three other journalists. "My wife was very worried later," recalls Cristóvão, who was shaken but unharmed. "She said, 'You have life, you have kids, this isn't good.' But I told her this is my profession. I have to do my job."

Three people died in the attack: the Angolan bus driver and two members of the Togolese team staff. In the following days FLEC, a rebel group seeking Cabindan independence, took responsibility for the bloodshed. The fallout has continued for the past two weeks: Togo pulled out of the tournament. Angola faced tough questions over why it had given a Cup venue to Cabinda, which has been unsettled for years. And Cabindans themselves are now dealing with a government crackdown, including the arrests over the weekend of Cabindan civic leaders who are not believed to have been connected to the Togo attack but have been critical of Angolan policies here.

One of those arrested, it turns out, is a Catholic priest.

***

On Saturday, the morning after Côte d'Ivoire's 3-1 victory over Ghana, I was in the lobby of the Hotel Maiombe in central Cabinda City when the sound of a brass band pierced the air. I walked outside and encountered a full-fledged parade. Around a thousand people were marching across town demonstrating against terrorism and in support of the Togolese victims of the Jan. 8 ambush.

The Angolan government had hoped to use this tournament to show Africa and the world that it has moved forward from its civil war, that it can build four gleaming new stadiums and use its oil revenues to modernize what existed of the nation's infrastructure. But the violence against the Togolese team has embarrassed the men who run Angola -- and, to be sure, the politicians of the ruling MPLA party who run Cabinda as well.

On the same day that the Togolese honored their dead in Lomé, I followed the parade as it wended its way through town to the Multiuso sports facility. The brass band played its trumpets. Marchers wore the red and black of the Angolan flag and -- since this was a government-organized affair -- T-shirts bearing the likeness of Angolan president José Eduardo dos Santos. Women carried signs reading (in Portuguese): SPORT UNIFIES NATIONS, THE PEOPLE OF CABINDA SUPPORT THE PEOPLE OF TOGO and DOWN WITH TERRORISM.

It all culminated in a rally at the sports complex, where Cabinda province governor Jean-Baptiste Mawete addressed the crowd. "No one is threatened here," he announced. "This march allows us to say to the world that Angola is among the countries of the world and lives in peace."

"There is no war here. It's a sport," insisted Simão Ioba, the local sponsor for the transportation of the soccer teams during the tournament. "Cabinda is a safe place. Everyone can come and stay normally instead of thinking that people can die again. This is a place where people can stay and work, can develop all the plans they have instead of just killing people."

Yet the parade and rally weren't the only things that the Angolan government organized on Saturday. In a different part of town the police were undertaking another task -- only this one wasn't nearly so public.

***

Meet María. She's a handsome Cabindan woman who works as a doctor in town. (She didn't want to give her last name for fear of retribution from the authorities.) We're sitting in María's apartment in a dilapidated concrete high-rise overlooking Cabinda's tiny port. On Saturday evening, María says, she was hosting some friends at her place for tea: her younger sister, a neighbor and Father Raúl Tati, a priest known in town for his willingness to be critical of the Angolan government's policies in Cabinda.

María has been friends with Father Tati for many years; they were members of the same church, and when he was in seminary she was temporarily part of the church's convent. "Father Tati is very known," María says. "He criticizes the government publicly, so they don't like that. But that's what he believes. Everyone has a right to what he believes. You have to have freedom of speech." But what Father Tati says is clearly controversial in some quarters: He was dismissed from his Cabindan church in December by the bishop in an internal rift in the church. (Tati supporters argue that the bishop is not from Cabinda and sides with the Angolan government.)

Not long before 7 p.m. on Saturday night, María heard a knock on her door. "My sister went to him, and he said he wanted to talk to me because he was my patient," María says. "He told me he wanted some medication. I told him I don't sell medicine. Who told you I have medicine? He said Rosita told him, and then he pretended to call someone."

"Because the priest was seated right here, he saw him. Then he left and came again a second time with another gentlemen I didn't know. They were big. So they came and my sister called me. I said, 'What do you want?' And he said, 'Actually, I wanted to talk to that man seated there.' I told him, 'Why did you lie? If you wanted to talk to him, why not say you wanted to talk to him?' "

Father Tati approached the door, where the men gave him a piece of paper called an Order of Capture. María showed me the paper, which read that Father Tati was being arrested for matters of security for the state. There were no specific charges, María says. Soon after, she adds, more than a dozen police who had come to the building took Father Tati to jail.

The priest wasn't the only one detained in the wake of the Togo attack. In recent days the authorities also have arrested Belchior Lanço, an outspoken university professor, and Francisco Luemba, a well-known lawyer in Cabinda.

María, who says she's only a doctor and not a member of FLEC or any political party, is convinced that the Angolan government is using the Togo soccer team attack as a reason to arrest its political opponents, even if they had nothing to do with the violence. "Anyone who says wrong about the government is being arrested," she says.

The Angolan government has been accused of violating human rights before when it comes to the detention of Cabindans. Last June the U.S.-based group Human Rights Watch released a report detailing a pattern of human rights abuses in Cabinda by the Angolan armed forces and state intelligence officials.

The Angolan government has denied that it is committing human rights abuses. Cabinda's public prosecutor, Antonio Nito, confirmed this week's arrests to the Portuguese publication O Jogo but refused to provide details of the reasons for the arrests.

María says she does not know what comes next for Father Tati. But he is clearly on the minds of the Angolan government. As I left Cabinda on Tuesday and went through immigration at the airport, I saw a slip of paper on the officer's desk. It was a hand-written message that read:

BELCHIOR LANÇO

TATI

FRANCISCO LUEMBA

NÃO PODE SAIR (CANNOT LEAVE)

The African Cup of Nations ends on Jan. 31. The decades-old tension in Cabinda, however, has no end in sight.

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