SÃO PAULO – The detention of seven activists on March 25 during a meeting promoted by a Christian non-governmental organization in Cabinda, the northernmost province in Angola with a history of pro-independence struggles, spurred outrage among human rights advocates in the region. Five of them were released on April 28, but two remain in custody.
The activists were taking part in an educational program on human rights organized by the Christian non-profit Conacce Chaplains when the Angolan police broke into the venue and arrested 45 attendants.
Most of those were interrogated and released over the following couple of days, but seven men were kept in prison and charged with criminal association and rebellion. More than one month later, five of them were freed.
“We have a constitutional law that authorizes peaceful meetings and demonstrations. But here every meeting and demonstration is immediately repressed,” Father Felix Cubola of the Diocese of Cabinda told Crux.
Cubola headed the High Council of Cabinda in 2019. It is a political organization that struggles for the self-determination of the region’s population. Due to his participation in such activities, he ended up being suspended from his ministerial duties for some time.
An oil-rich Angolan exclave with borders with the Republic of Congo and the Democratic Republic of Congo, Cabinda saw an upsurge in the pro-independence movement during the 1950s and 1960s, when the Portuguese rulers were still in control of Angola.
In 1975, when the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) became the ruling party after independence, the separatist group Front for the Liberation of the Enclave of Cabinda (FLEC) declared the Republic of Cabinda for a brief time, but the central government quickly extinguished it.
In the following decades, FLEC continuously waged guerilla operations against the Angolan Army. The Catholic Church and local civic organizations tried to mediate and promote peace, in an effort that led to a pacification process starting in 2006.
Nevertheless, the Cabinda war was never completely concluded. Some of FLEC’s internal tendencies still operate in the countryside, carrying out sudden attacks from time to time.
Luanda, on the other hand, has always maintained a high number of troops deployed in Cabinda. Human rights advocates accuse the government of operating a structure of spies who monitor social activists and are always ready to act against them.
“I have been in this struggle for more than a decade. I do not fear to be detained. Prison is inevitable for an activist like me. What I fear is being kidnapped or poisoned,” Jeovanny Ventura, who heads a social organization called Cabinda’s Center of Activists, told Crux.
Repression has been growing since President João Lourenço took office in 2017 and reached its apex after 2019, when 74 pro-independence activists were detained by the regime, Ventura said.
“We have never experienced such a serious situation like the one we have now. The government is demonstrating a dictatorial nature. All fundamental guarantees are gone. Those who talk about freedom are seen as enemies,” said.
Ventura met with some of the detainees who were recently released and said that, despite the persecution, they are not frightened.
“Our struggle will go on. Their imprisonment did not impact them. It is an additional reason for us to keep fighting,” he said.
But the truth is that the Angolan government managed to weaken the opposition in Cabinda, including the once strong Catholic movement for self-determination, explained Raul Tati, a former priest and a major political leader in the province.
“The first civic association in Cabinda, created at the beginning of the 2000s, had a great participation of the Church. The clergy had a strong voice for Cabinda back then, and that displeased the government,” he told Crux.
Tati and two colleagues ended up being suspended for their political actions, and the association, called Mpalabanda, was shut down by the government. He ended up leaving the priesthood in 2009 and was imprisoned shortly after that for one year.
Since then, much of the division generated at those years was healed, but the clergy’s engagement in Cabinda’s pursuit of self-determination would never be the same again, Tati said.
“Despite that, many lay Catholics today have a solid sense of identity and are proud of their history and their culture thanks to the work done by the priests back then,” he reasoned.
Felix Cubola said that Catholics still have a strong voice, but a great level of “courage is needed, because the Church is also persecuted.”
“Radio Ecclesia [the Church’s station] is persecuted, and there are limits to the actions of the bishops,” he affirmed.
The Church enjoys credibility in Angola and could certainly play a role as an intermediary between the government and Cabinda’s movements, Cubola said, “but the problem is that the authorities are not willing to dialogue.”
“I challenge the government to promote a referendum in Cabinda so it can understand what the people’s will is. I am sure it will not accept my challenge,” he said.
The intense military presence in Cabinda, in Cubola’s opinion, is a sign that “the MPLA chose violence, and not peace.”
“How can anyone negotiate peace while holding a gun? That is an explosive situation and I fear for the future,” he said.
Tati agrees. He mentioned that recently the government established a new battalion specifically to find and capture guerrillas in the woods.
“If the territory is now pacified, as the government claims, why did it create a new military force?” he said.
In the cities, new arrests will probably be made in the future, Tati said.
“Taking activists to jail became something common. They are kept for a while in prison and then are sent home in most cases. The idea is to intimidate everybody,” he said.
But activists like Jeovanny Ventura are still hopeful about the future.
“People fear the MPLA and do not say what they think, but they would vote for independence in a referendum. Sooner or later, it will happen. That is our main goal,” he said.