(Un)Neighbourly relations in Central Africa: What the recent border rows between Angola and the Congo could mean for regional security

Angola is larger than France, Germany, and the United Kingdom combined, with a total population less than greater London. Yet, it has begun defending its northern border with the Democratic Republic of the Congo (hereafter referred to as Congo) with the fervour of the United States (US) border patrol. At stake is said to be in excess of US$ 700 million in lost revenue due to illegal mining by Congolese migrants seeking livelihoods in Angola’s rich diamond fields. Angola’s desire to keep these revenues for itself, or more specifically, for its privileged elite, is expected. However, the fervour surrounding this issue in Angola indicates that something bigger is afoot, while recent militarisation is escalating the stakes.

Given the ugly history between these neighbours, observers fear that such sabre-rattling could easily escalate; perhaps even leading to another regional conflict such as that which was seen in the late 1990s. Whether or not such an outcome is likely may hinge as much on how secure the Angolan regime perceives itself to be, as on any other external factors. But the threat to regional peace and stability appears real. Stakeholders in this volatile region, including oil interests, mining companies, and other investors, would be wise to take notice.

Get off my lawn

Since 2004, Angolan security forces, irregular militiamen, and perhaps even party-affiliated thugs have expelled around 400,000 (mostly) Congolese illegal nationals.(2) Most of these expulsions have come in recent years. According to United Nations (UN) estimates, from December 2008 through October 2009, Angola expelled 160,000 irregular migrants to the Congo, over half of whom were women and children.(3) Later estimates put the 2009 total at 211,000.(4) Violence, including frequent rape, has too often accompanied these expulsions. Reports of rape along the border first emerged in October 2010, with reports of 30 women having been raped multiple times, while their families were being deported.(5) Subsequent investigations revealed thousands more cases, including 1,357 reported rape cases in one village in a six-to-eight-month period in 2010.(6) All this violence earned this porous frontier the ignominious inclusion in a recent list of the “World’s Most Dangerous Borders”, alongside such notorious powder kegs as India/Pakistan and North and South Korea.(7)

For its part, the Angolan Government is unapologetic. “We know that tune,” responded Emilio Jose de Carvalho, Angola’s ambassador in Kinshasa. “Expelled women say that they have been raped, and the men claim that someone has extorted them.”(8) As for the violence, De Carvalho posited that this took place “among themselves”, referring to the migrants, and that the Congolese authorities were “always informed” of the expulsions.(9) China, Angola’s closest political ally and primary economic investor, customer, and benefactor, strikes a conciliatory tone regarding these ongoing upheavals. Citing an expulsion in January 2011, the Chinese state news agency, Xinhua, claimed that the returnees included “28 ex-soldiers of the Zaire Armed Forces (FAZ), who served under the ex-president of the nation, Mobutu Sese Seko. Upon their arrival, the ex-soldiers were immediately arrested by the police…” Xinhua also quoted a local source, which claims “most of the expelled are settled” back in the Congo.(10) It reported no rape or sexual violence of any kind.

As for the Congolese authorities, they clearly are not looking for a fight with their stronger, richer southern neighbour. In response to press inquiries about the violent expulsions, the Congolese Communication Minister Lambert Mende said that his Government had not received any complaints and does not want “to launch a dossier,” dismissing the possibility of further investigations.(11) “We are surprised that it’s OCHA [UN Organisation for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs] is handling the problem of Congolese nationals expelled from Angola. There’s the Interior Ministry and the immigration department which are handling the matter,” Mende said.(12)

Rattling the sabres

Such apparent disregard for the well-being of its own citizens may strike many as callous, but Congo is in no position of power, and it knows it. Angola’s 2010 defence budget was US$ 3.7 billion, up a staggering 46% from 2009,(13) and growing, whereas Congo’s is estimated at about US$ 500 million.(14) The Angolan military was largely responsible for placing Congolese President Josef Kabila’s father and predecessor, Laurent Kabila, in power after it sent troops into the Congo to counter Rwandan and Ugandan efforts to overthrow their former hand-picked puppet. And they may have even been behind, or at least complicit in, Laurent Kabila’s assassination in 2000.(15) Nonetheless, in 2009, Congo briefly flexed its muscles in this dispute when it reciprocated Angola’s expulsions with the expulsion of 51,000 Angolan refugees in a tit-for-tat response.(16)

The US Embassy in Kinshasa reported at the time, in a cable leaked by Wikileaks, that “the underlying cause of the dispute between them [is] the DRC’s claim that Angola is stealing its undersea oil.”(17) Congo has a narrow coastline that abuts Angola’s oil-rich enclave of Cabinda, offshore of which are some of the petro-state’s richest reserve deposits. The maritime border has never been fully demarcated, and only Angola is currently exploiting this area. Yet sources indicate that “Kinshasa has [since] abandoned its arguments over the oil border before the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf. Kinshasa’s Justice Minister, Emmanuel-Janvier Luzolo Bambi, has given up the idea of hiring a Belgian law firm to fight his [G]overnment’s corner.”(18) Whether oil was another red herring or the Kabila Government thought better of picking a fight over Angola’s prize revenue stream while it remains so weak, remains unclear.

With Kinshasa backing off from antagonising Luanda on issues of oil or security, even going so far as to publicly dismiss the issue, one would expect that to be enough to allay the Angolan regime. Yet the sabres continue to rattle, at least inside Angola. In May 2010, the front page of the Semanário Factual, an Angolan newspaper with links to the Angolan military, showed a map of the country and loudly warned “Congo demonises Angola: external threats against Angola persist. Poorly defined borders of many African countries are one of the principal threats in the region.”(19) The Government mouthpiece and only daily newspaper, the Jornal de Angola, covers the issue incessantly. Quoting a provincial Border Police Commander: “illegal immigration may place in danger the security and integrity of our national borders.”(20) Other reports paint the threat in terms of national sovereignty: “The authorities redoubled their vigilance, principally to prevent foreigners from participating in the electoral registration process.”(21) The Minister of the Interior, Sebastião Martins, has even painted the threat as a march on the capital itself: “We are preoccupied with the flow of illegal foreigners from the province of Zaire [on the border with Congo] in the direction of Luanda, seeing that this is a pernicious social, economic, and even political phenomenon.”(22) The fight is sometimes portrayed as overwhelming. “The national commander of the Border Police…said there are insufficient means in order to oversee all the extent of the land border.”(23) Illegal immigration is further tied to cross-border crimes “such as the trafficking in drugs, fuel, and human beings.”(24) This campaign against illegal immigrants and the seemingly dire threat they pose to Angolans’ lives and livelihoods has been going on for years, creating a national fervour over the issue.(25) Martins sums up the Angolan position: “We will be ruthless with those who choose Angola to carry out activities which are harmful to our economy and society and which create embarrassment to the internal state security.”(26)

The spoils of post-war

That the regime of Angolan President Jose Eduardo dos Santos would be “ruthless” to its enemies, real or perceived, is no surprise. The volume of propaganda, however, is. Presently, there is new evidence that this bluster is being backed up with more than just the usual expulsions. In early August 2011, the governor of Angola’s diamond-rich north-eastern province of Lunda Norte announced that the Israeli security firm LR Group, had been contracted to “contain the inflow of illegal immigrants from Congo, who come to search for gems in Lunda Norte.”(27)

The contracting of LR Group to handle illegal miners strikes some observers as a massively disproportionate response. Originally brought in to Angola in the 1990s, LR Group was part of the covert Israeli arms trade pivotal to the Luandan Government’s survival against the then rebel group, the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA), which was led by Jonas Savimbi and backed by South Africa and the United States. LR Group provided expert military advisors and sold the Luandan Government arms, radar, unmanned planes, helicopters, and other critical equipment crucial to crushing UNITA, killing Savimbi, and unravelling their covert diamond smuggling network, which also ran largely through Israel.(28)

For those who supported the Luandan regime in those hard years, the payoff has been impressive. Most of the top generals and party-insiders of that day have been handsomely rewarded with fat concessions, contracts, and mineral rights. Indeed, Angola’s kleptocratic state has been largely built around this political largesse. For example, General João de Matos, the general behind the military strategy that ultimately succeeded in crushing UNITA’s core force in the late 1990s and saved Laurent Kabila in the Congo, has several firms, including a diamond firm, Genius Minera, which has a significant diamond concession in Angola’s Cuando-Cubango province.(29)

In LR Group’s case, they were awarded the “Aldeia Nova” project to build a sort of Kibbutz in former UNITA-held territory. According to a study by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the Angolan Government has spent over US$ 100 million on a project that directly benefits only 600 families.(30) Undoubtedly, LR Group has also serviced any number of military supply contracts over the past decade of Angola’s boom. Indeed, LR Group is believed to be the largest Israeli company operating in Angola today, ahead of the plethora of diamond dealers, cutters, and other major suppliers.(31) Not bad for a trio of former Israeli air force pilots.

The timing of LR Group’s entrance into Lunda Norte is interesting. Just weeks after LR Group’s move into Lunda Norte was announced, Trans Hex Group, Africa’s largest publicly traded diamond producer and part owner of the giant Luarica (35%) and Fucuama (32%) diamond mines in Lunda Norte, announced its plans to exit.(32) The mines have been mothballed since 2009, when demand slumped due to the global financial crisis, and Trans Hex’s exit is undoubtedly more about its disinterest in financing a restart to operations than any squeeze from Luanda. But that LR Group has been called in to handle security in this region at least signals that the Angolan Government is deadly serious about stopping the flow of illegal gems from escaping its grasp.

Money or power?

In a democracy, or even some semi-responsive authoritarian regimes like China, it is normal for the state to gas up the propaganda machine in order to justify new expenditures. Angola, with its disproportionate resource endowment and newfound riches far beyond its people’s normal standard of living, has little need for such niceties. Billions are siphoned off by its kleptocratic elite, and there remains little, if any, serious threat to the ruling regime. So all the talk of illegal migrants threatening Angolan jobs, sovereignty, and stability is unlikely to be a mere ploy to justify additional expenditures for the Angolan military or expensive foreign military advisors (or even mercenaries). It may then be a ploy to create an external threat that might then justify future domestic crackdowns on dissent and opposition, especially as dos Santos himself ages and navigates a potentially sticky succession or tries to hold on to power for himself, either of which might cause unrest.

But it is the third option, which unnerves observers most. The dos Santos regime may be looking to intervene (again) in Congo, perhaps even in advance of the November 2011 election. In mid-July, the Angolan state media reported a mass deployment of troops along the Congolese border, supposedly in response to exercises by Congolese soldiers under the direction of their Rwandan military advisors.(33) According to reporting in Africa Confidential, “many claim that Luanda is financing Kabila’s opponents in the presidential election.”(34)  

An Angolan intervention in the Congo would surely risk another regional conflagration, especially if it came at the expense of Kabila, Rwanda, and Uganda’s recently rediscovered ally. Since a 2009 rapprochement with its eastern neighbours, Kabila is said to prefer to look east, rather than south, for its support. This may not sit well with an ageing, prideful dos Santos, looking to cast his legacy not just at home, but abroad. Starting another regional war in Congo might seem insane to many, but what better way to get the powerful military and submissive populous to focus their attention abroad while dos Santos installs a successor, even himself. Then again, in the corrupt, resource-rich state of Angola, where politics is an opaque parlour game for the country’s über-elite, no scenario can be entirely discounted.

NOTES:

(1) Contact Adam Choppin through Consultancy Africa Intelligence’s Conflict and Terrorism Unit ( conflict.terrorism@consultancyafrica.com This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it )
(2) ‘At stake: oil, migrants and gemstones.’ 5 November 2010. Africa Confidential, Vol. 51(22).
(3) ‘Angola/DRC Expulsions’, United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Regional Situation Report No. 2, 22 October 2009, http://ochaonline.un.org.
(4) ‘Systematic rape continues on Congo-Angola border: U.N.’, Reuters, 11 February 2011, http://www.reuters.com. (5) ‘UN envoy urges probe into alleged rapes during expulsions from Angola to DR Congo’, UN News Centre, 29 October 2010, http://www.un.org.
(6) ‘Systematic rape continues on Congo-Angola border: U.N.’, Reuters, 11 February 2011, http://www.reuters.com.
(7) Walker, P., ‘World’s Most Dangerous Borders’, Foreign Policy, 24 June 2011, http://www.foreignpolicy.com.
(8)‘Angola expels more than 6,000 people to DR Congo: UN.’, Agence France Presse via Radio Netherlands Worldwide, 5 November 2010, http://www.rnw.nl.
(9) Ibid.
(10) ‘DR Congo nationals expelled from Angola amid rights concern’, Xinhua News Agency, 7 January 2011, http://news.xinhuanet.com.
(11) Davies, C., ‘Reciprocal Violence: Mass Expulsions between Angola and the DRC’, The Human Rights Brief – Center for Human Rights and Humanitarian Law, 17 February 2011, http://hrbrief.org.
(12) ‘DR Congo nationals expelled from Angola amid rights concern’, Xinhua News Agency, 7 January 2011, http://news.xinhuanet.com.
(13) ‘Angolan Defense Budget Surges Upward’, Forecast International, 19 August 2010, http://emarketalerts.forecast1.com.
(14) ‘Worldwide Military Expenditures – 2011’, Global Security, 2011, http://www.globalsecurity.org.
(15) Stearns, J., ‘What you didn’t know about Congolese history: The Killing of LDK’, Congo Siasa: A Blog on Congo, It’s Politics and Tribulations, 3 August 2010, http://congosiasa.blogspot.com.
(16) Davies, C., ‘Reciprocal Violence: Mass Expulsions between Angola and the DRC.’ The Human Rights Brief – Center for Human Rights and Humanitarian Law, 17 February 2011, http://hrbrief.org.
(17) ‘GDRC Issues Statement on Relations with Angola; Real Deal is Offshore Oil’, U.S. Embassy Kinshasa – State Department Cable, 4 December 2009, http://wikileaks.org.
(18) ‘At stake: oil, migrants and gemstones.’ 5 November 2010. Africa Confidential, Vol. 51(22).
(19) Photo of newspaper cover obtained via Rádio Ecclesia, http://www.radioecclesia.org.
(20) ‘Polícia está preocupada com imigração irregular’, Jornal de Angola, 29 August 2011, http://jornaldeangola.sapo.ao.
(21) ‘Aumentam violações da Fronteira no Zaire’, Jornal de Angola, 23 August 2011, http://jornaldeangola.sapo.ao.
(22) Ibid.
(23) ‘Falta de meios dificulta acção contra os ilegais’, Jornal de Angola, 17 July 2011, http://jornaldeangola.sapo.ao.
(24) Ibid.
(25) ‘Angola urged to investigate Congo expulsion rapes’, BBC, 29 October 2010, http://www.bbc.co.uk.
(26) Ibid.
(27) ‘Angola Boosts Congo Border Security to Protect Diamond Fields’, Bloomberg, 2 August 2011, http://www.businessweek.com.
(28) Melman, Y., ‘A diamond in the rough’, Haaretz Daily Newspaper (Israel), 15 July 2011, http://www.haaretz.com.
(29) ‘Daughters and generals.’ 4 July 2008. Africa Confidential, Vol. 49(14).
(30) Kimhi, A. ‘Revitalising and Modernising Smallholder Agriculture for Food Security, Rural Development and Demobilisation in a Post-War Country: The Case of the Aldeia Nova Project in Angola’, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, March 2009, http://departments.agri.huji.ac.il.
(31) Melman, Y., ‘A diamond in the rough’, Haaretz Daily Newspaper (Israel), 15 July 2011, http://www.haaretz.com.
(32) ‘Trans Hex to Exit Luarica, Fucauma Diamond Projects in Angola’, Bloomberg, 29 August 2011, http://www.businessweek.com.
(33) ‘Bad fences, bad neighbors.’ 22 July 2011. Africa Confidential, Vol. 52(15).
(34) Ibid.

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