Dubbed the Group of Death when it was drawn in November, the bracket lived up to its name when gunmen opened fire on the Togolese team bus on Friday. Salifou, thankfully, escaped the attack unharmed. He was one of the lucky ones. At least seven of his compatriots were wounded in the 30-minute shootout, three of whom died in the hours that followed.
“It was horrific,” Salifou, the Aston Villa midfielder, told the club’s official website. “Everyone was crying. I couldn’t stay in control of myself and I cried when I saw the injuries to my friend. I don’t know how anyone could do this.”
The Angolan government, however, knows exactly how and why the buildup to Africa’s biggest football competition turned into a bloodbath. And it has a lot of questions to answer as to why Cabinda was chosen as a host city.
A breakaway enclave in Angola’s north, Cabinda is separated from the rest of the country by a thin strip of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Its 1975 decolonization from Portugal was carried out separately from the rest of Angola, and its battle with federalist forces continued after the end of the civil war in 2002. As recently as 2004, Human Rights Watch reported war crimes being committed against civilians by the Front for the Liberation of the Enclave of Cabinda, or FLEC.
It was FLEC militia that sprayed the Togolese motorcade with machine gun fire. And although the FLEC is solely responsible for the casualties, the Angolan government bears some of the blame as well. Under no circumstances should Cabinda have been named as a host for the Cup of Nations. Sure, the Angolan economy is ballooning by double digits and average life expectancy continues to skyrocket. But these developments have not been felt in Cabinda, where lawlessness and instability remain the status quo.
Unfortunately, the government of president Jose Eduardo dos Santos just couldn’t resist the chance to show an image of a united Angola to the international community. He would have been better off to avoid the city, much like Spain avoided Basque capital Vitoria in the 1982 World Cup and Yugoslavia kept out of Sarajevo during Euro ’76.
Secessionist factions are a reality for many countries. Angola is not alone in this, although their failure to acknowledge Cabinda’s potential threat was irresponsible, to say the least.
Three men are dead because of their carelessness. And while Salifou considers himself “really lucky” to have emerged physically unscathed, the emotional wounds—and the knowledge that it was all so unnecessary—will surely linger.