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São Tomé e Príncipe

Country ratings

  • Income distribution
  • Life expectancy
  • Position of women
  • Freedom
  • Literacy
  • Sexual minorities
  • NI Assessment (Politics)

Details »

Perched on the Equator, the achingly beautiful West African island republic of São Tomé e Príncipe is a treasure-house of tired travel clichés. ‘Undiscovered tropical paradise… sunkissed beaches… sparkling blue waters teeming with multicoloured fish… lush rainforest teeming with birds and wild flowers… the fading grandeur of decaying plantation houses… charming, happy people.’

All true, especially the charming, happy people. They have a characteristic phrase: lévé-lévé. A good equivalent is the New Zealand expression: no worries. The worst description for bad times is complicado.

Flag of São Tomé e Príncipe

Beneath the beautiful surface, there are many ‘complications’ to life for the people of the second-smallest nation in Africa. Its deeply indebted economy is dependent on foreign aid, principally from the former colonial power, Portugal. It is dotted with abandoned buildings and machinery, and uncompleted projects which have fallen victim to heat, humidity and lévé-lévé. It has poor air connections and no deep water port. The roads outside the capital vary from rough to appalling. Electricity and telephone links are sometimes unreliable and, in places, missing altogether. The smaller island of Príncipe (with a static population of just 6,000, despite its high birth rate) suffers even more from poor communications.

The Portuguese ruled the islands for nearly 500 years until peaceful but sudden independence in 1975. They used it as a transit point for slaves, and created a plantation-based economy, exporting fine cocoa and coffee. It produced a rich life for the owners (described in Miguel Sousa Tavares’s novel Equator) and slave conditions for the workers, especially those imported from Angola and the Cape Verde islands by dishonest contractors. Several uprisings were suppressed, one, in 1953, with such cruelty that it inspired a long independence struggle.

Almost all the Portuguese departed with independence, leaving the new nation dependent on cocoa exports and almost bereft of management and technical skills. An era of one-party rule under the quasi-Marxist independence government produced real advances in health and literacy, but falling cocoa prices, mismanagement of nationalized plantations and declining Eastern-bloc aid produced economic crisis in the late 1980s. The country sought its way out through multi-party democracy and a free-market economy. Peaceful multiparty elections took place in 1991 and a major reform in 1993 gave land to small-scale farmers: it encouraged crop diversification and increased food production.

São Tomé e Príncipe has retained its democracy, briefly interrupted by half-hearted military coups. Fewer than 100,000 voters are served by five parties in a 55-member Parliament and Príncipe has its own devolved assembly, one of the smallest representative bodies in the world. The directly elected President (since 2001) is the moustachioed, bow-tied wealthy entrepreneur Fradique de Menezes, who won a second five-year term in 2006. There is a free and critical press and an independent judiciary. Locals and foreign businesspeople grumble about slow decision-making and the need to pay kickbacks to powerful ruling groups. Certainly there is a visible gap between the lifestyle of the rich élite and the rest of the population, especially the rural poor on plantations and subsistence farms.

Oil has been discovered in the country’s territorial waters, and drilling rights are shared in a 40-60 deal with Nigeria. The Government was much criticized, at home and by experts abroad, for weak negotiations with foreign interests and faced accusations of bribery over concessions given to dubious Nigerian companies. It responded with a new regulatory regime, a National Oil Account and promises of transparency. But if oil wealth should suddenly descend on São Tomé e Príncipe it is highly doubtful if the country has strong enough governance – or a sufficient skill base – to make good use of it.

Fact file

Leader President Fradique de Menezes
Economy GNI per capita US $1,020 (Gabon $7,240, Portugal $20,560)
Monetary unit Dobra, recently pegged to the Euro, which also circulates freely.
Main exports Cocoa (80%), coffee, copra, palm oil, spices.
People 212,679. Annual population growth rate 1.8%. 47% of the population are under 15. People per square kilometre 221 (UK 253).
Health Infant mortality 64 per 1,000 live births (Gabon 57, Portugal 3). Maternal mortality ratio 150 per 100,000 births. Malaria, diarrhoea, hepatitis, sexually transmitted diseases are all problematic.
Environment A smaller space than Greater London but housing the second most important primary rainforest in Africa. Rich endemic plant, bird and marine life, including major turtle breeding grounds. Environment threatened by construction and palm oil industries but valued by the tourist industry.
Culture The main elements are Forros (descended from Portuguese settlers and freed slaves), Angolares (Angolan origin), Serviçais (plantation contract workers), Tongas. Minimal ethnic tension.
Religion Roman Catholic (70%), evangelical Protestantism, Islam, traditional beliefs.
Language Portuguese (official) 95%, Creole languages (principally Forro) 80%. There are also many French speakers through proximity to and TV broadcasts from Francophone Africa.

Country ratings in detail

Income distribution The wealthy landowning and business élite lives better than the remaining population, but not conspicuously so. Teachers’ and other public salaries are sometimes paid late. But successful land reform, fertile soil, rich fishing grounds, and abundant wood for basic housing and fuel all help to combat destitution.
Literacy Officially 88%, but many observers are sceptical, given the number of children absent from school as labourers or street vendors. Secondary school fees deter poorer children. There is an annual exodus of talented young people seeking tertiary education abroad – many do not return.
Life expectancy 65 years. Compares with sub-Saharan African average of under 50 and 78 in former colonial power, Portugal.
Freedom The country has a multiparty democracy, a free and often critical press, and an independent judiciary. There are no political prisoners, though normal prison conditions are often primitive and trials can be slow. Only 0.8 per cent of GDP is spent on the armed forces and this is one of the world’s least militarized states.
Position of women Discrimination is formally banned and growing numbers of women are in white-collar jobs, politics and the judiciary. But many women are worn down by childbearing, and are victims of usually unreported domestic violence.
Sexual minorities Homosexuality is illegal and carries a large penalty.
Previously reviewed 1999
New Internationalist assessment This vibrant multiparty democracy has a downside: paralysis in the National Assembly, coalition governments with frequent reshuffles, slow decision-making and many special interests to placate/bribe before major projects can get under way. Dependence on foreign aid limits the power of any government to pursue radical policies. Fradique de Menezes was elected (twice) on claims of business expertise, and combines Presidency with continued business career as owner of largest export house in the country. His biggest task is to manage the country’s emergence as an oil producer after a faltering start.

New Internationalist issue 432 magazine cover This article is from the May 2010 issue of New Internationalist.
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