São Tomé and Príncipe | Freedom House

Freedom in the World

São Tomé and Príncipe

São Tomé and Príncipe

Freedom in the World 2005

2005 Scores



Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Political uncertainty and in-fighting among the parties in Sao Tome's coalition government persisted in 2004, as revenues from the leasing of offshore oil fields to foreign companies began to roll in.

Sao Tome and Principe consists of two islands approximately 125 and 275 miles off the coast of Gabon in the Gulf of Guinea. Seized by Portugal in 1522 and 1523, they became a Portuguese Overseas Province in 1951. Portugal granted local autonomy in 1973 and independence in 1975. Upon independence, the Movement for the Liberation of Sao Tome and Principe (MLSTP), which was formed in 1960, took power and functioned as the only legal party until a 1990 referendum established multiparty democracy. In 1991, Miguel dos Anjos Trovoada, an independent candidate backed by the opposition Democratic Convergence Party, became the first democratically elected president.

In presidential elections in 2001, Fradique de Menezes, of the Independent Democratic Alliance (ADI), replaced Trovoada, who had ruled the country for 10 years. In the first round of voting, de Menezes won with 56 percent compared with 38 percent for Manuel Pinto da Costa of the MLSTP. In parliamentary elections in March 2002, the MLSTP captured 24 seats, the Democratic Movement of Forces for Change won 23 seats, and the remaining 8 seats went to the Ue Kadadji coalition. De Menezes called on parliament to introduce laws against vote buying, which he said had been rampant in the March parliamentary poll. Nevertheless, international observers declared the polls to be free and fair.

President de Menezes was briefly ousted by a military coup in July 2003, returning to power after one week with the backing of Portugal and numerous African countries. The coup was staged by officers disgruntled over persistent poverty in the country and allegations of state corruption.

Sao Tome slid into a new crisis in March 2004 when Prime Minister Maria das Neves blocked two foreign investment deals, charging that she had not been consulted. The showdown with de Menezes led to a reshuffle of the unity government that left the president's party in the opposition. Neves was finally dismissed in September, amid mounting charges of corruption, and replaced by Damiao Vaz de Almeida, deputy president of the MLSTP-Social Democratic Party. Neves is the fourth prime minister sacked by President Menezes since 2001. She and 400 others are now the focus of a tribunal investigating the alleged disappearance of tens of thousands of dollars from an anti-poverty fund.

The recent discovery of large offshore oil fields has been a major source of political tensions. After two years of wrangling, the government agreed to give 60 percent of the proceeds to Nigeria, with which it shares territorial waters in the Gulf of Guinea. The two countries have established a Joint Development Zone and pledged transparency on oil revenues. In April 2004, U.S. oil giants ChevronTexaco and ExxonMobil were awarded the first exploration contract, worth $123 million. Eight other fields remain on the auction block.

Sao Tome and Principe is in the process of strengthening its relationship with the United States, which has led military training exercises and plans to build a deep-water port on the archipelago for the U.S. Navy to patrol waters surrounding the country and protect its oil resources there. Sao Tome and Principe has mostly relied on external assistance to develop its economy. Unemployment is about 45 percent, and it is one of the poorest countries in Africa. The upcoming oil bonanza has drawn comparisons with Equatorial Guinea, where an influx of petroleum dollars failed to bring benefits to the vast majority of the population. However, Sao Tome has a stronger democratic tradition, and its government passed legislation in 2004 creating a closely monitored national petroleum fund to manage the country's oil revenues.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

The people of Sao Tome and Principe have the right to change their government democratically. Presidential and legislative elections in 1991 gave the country's citizens their first chance to elect their leader in an open, free, and fair contest. The single-chamber National Assembly has 55 seats. Members are elected by popular vote to serve four-year terms. There are three main political parties: the Movement for the Liberation of Sao Tome and Principe (MLSTP), the Force for Change Democratic Movement, and the Ue-Kedadji coalition.

The country's newfound oil wealth has brought accusations of corruption. In June, the government sacked two senior members of the Joint Development Authority with Nigeria for unspecified reasons, later issuing a statement that bribery of officials would not be tolerated. Sao Tome and Principe was not surveyed in Transparency International's 2004 Corruption Perceptions Index.

Constitutionally-protected freedom of expression is respected in practice. One state-run and three privately-owned newspapers and newsletters are published. While the state controls a local press agency and the only radio and television stations, no law forbids independent broadcasting. Opposition parties receive free airtime, and newsletters and pamphlets criticizing the government circulate freely.

Freedom of religion is respected within this predominantly Roman Catholic country. The government does not restrict academic freedom.

Freedom of assembly is respected. Citizens have the constitutional right to gather and demonstrate with an advance notice of two days to the government. The rights to organize, strike, and bargain collectively are guaranteed and respected. Few unions exist, but independent cooperatives have taken advantage of the government land-distribution program to attract workers. Because of its role as the main employer in the wage sector, the government remains the key interlocutor for labor on all matters, including wages. Working conditions on many of the state-owned cocoa plantations are harsh.

An independent judiciary, including a Supreme Court with members designated by, and responsible to, the National Assembly, was established by the 1990 referendum on multiparty rule. The Supreme Court has ruled against both the government and the president, but is occasionally subject to manipulation. The court system is overburdened, understaffed, inadequately funded, and plagued by long delays in hearing cases. Prison conditions are harsh.

The constitution provides for equal rights for men and women, but women encounter significant societal discrimination. Most have fewer opportunities than men for education or formal (business) sector employment. However, several women have been appointed to cabinet positions, including that of prime minister. Domestic violence against women is reportedly common. Although legal recourse is available, many victims are reluctant to bring legal action against their spouses or are ignorant of their rights.