São Tomé and Príncipe | Freedom House

Freedom in the World

São Tomé and Príncipe

São Tomé and Príncipe

Freedom in the World 2008

2008 Scores



Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Members of an elite police unit known as the Ninjas attacked police headquarters in October and November 2007, taking hostages and demanding bonuses that they said the government had promised. The army quashed the unrest, killing one Ninja and arresting 10, and the mutinous unit was disbanded. Also during the year, international lenders canceled most of the country’s debt.

The small Gulf of Guinea islands of Sao Tome and Principe gained independence from Portugal in 1975. President Manuel Pinto da Costa’s Movement for the Liberation of Sao Tome and Principe (MLSTP) was the country’s only legal political party until a 1990 referendum established multiparty democracy. Miguel dos Anjos Trovoada, a former prime minister, returned from exile and won the first democratic presidential election in 1991. He was reelected for a second and final term in 1996.

Fradique de Menezes, backed by Trovoada’s Independent Democratic Action (ADI) party, won the 2001 presidential election with 56 percent of the vote, compared with 38 percent for Pinto da Costa. A coalition government was formed after no party won a majority in the March 2002 parliamentary elections. International observers declared both polls free and fair.

In July 2003, a group of disgruntled military officers briefly ousted Menezes. He was returned to power one week later with broad regional and international support. Controversial foreign investment deals in 2004 led to a cabinet shuffle that left the president’s party, the Force for Change Democratic Movement (MDFM), in the opposition. Menezes later replaced the prime minister with Damiao Vaz de Almeida of the MLSTP–Social Democratic Party (PSD). Vaz de Almeida resigned in 2005, following public discontent and allegations of corruption in the award of oil exploration licenses in the Joint Development Zone (JDZ) with Nigeria. The MLSTP-PSD and its coalition partners, which held the largest block of seats in parliament, threatened to resign from the government and force early elections. To avoid that outcome, Menezes reached agreement with the MLSTP-PSD on the formation of a new government in which Maria Silveira, the well-respected head of the central bank, would serve concurrently as prime minister and finance minister.

The MDFM, in coalition with the Democratic Convergence Party (PCD), took 23 of 55 seats in the March 2006 legislative elections. The MLSTP-PSD won 20 seats, while ADI came in third with 11 seats. The newly formed New Way Movement (NR) secured one seat. Though peaceful, protesters prevented approximately 9,600 people from voting in 18 electoral districts, but a rerun was held in April without incident. Negotiations on the formation of a new coalition government led to the appointment of MDFM leader Tome Soares da Vera Cruz as prime minister in April. Menezes won a second term in the July 2006 presidential election with 60 percent of the vote, defeating Patrice Trovoada, son of the former president.

In October and November 2007, an elite police unit known as the Ninjas repeatedly attacked police headquarters and took hostages, demanding that the government pay them bonuses linked to their training in Angola. The army intervened to end the mutiny, killing one Ninja and detaining 10, and the unit was disbanded.

Large oil and natural gas deposits are thought to lie off the country’s coast, though production is not expected to begin before 2010. A 2001 territorial agreement with Nigeria resulted in the creation of the JDZ, with Sao Tome and Principe set to receive 40 percent of all JDZ oil and gas revenue. Corruption allegations have surrounded the process by which exploration blocks in the JDZ are awarded, particularly those granted to Nigerian-controlled companies. After a December 2005 report by the attorney general found serious irregularities, the contracts in question were renegotiated. Britain’s Royal Institute of International Affairs has suggested that Menezes benefited from the renegotiations.

The oil fields are likely to be a continuing source of political conflict, though Sao Tome and Principe has committed itself to transparency in the oil sector. The development of a revenue management law and broad public consultations to determine national development priorities are seen as important steps toward that goal. Despite the promise of future wealth, however, the country continues to face serious poverty and an unemployment rate of roughly 45 percent. Sao Tome ranked 123 out of 177 countries on the UN Development Programme’s 2007 Human Development Index.

Sao Tome has benefited from debt relief under the Highly Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) initiative since 2000, having acquired large debts linked to its overreliance on cocoa exports. In February 2007, the International Monetary Fund and World Bank agreed to forgive $327 million in debt, or about 91 percent of the country’s external debt. In May, the Paris Club cancelled all of Sao Tome and Principe’s debt to it—$23.9 million in nominal terms—and the group’s members committed to additional bilateral relief that would lead to a full cancellation of the remainder owed to them.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Sao Tome and Principe is an electoral democracy. Presidential and legislative elections held in 2006 were deemed credible, though there were reruns in a number of districts where balloting was disrupted by protesters. The president is elected for a five-year term and can serve up to two consecutive terms. Members of the unicameral, 55-seat National Assembly are elected by popular vote to four-year terms. Four party blocs currently hold seats in the legislature, and a number of other parties exist and compete for elected office. Smaller parties often join forces with larger parties to form coalitions. All parties operate freely.

The country’s potential oil wealth has fueled growing corruption among members of the ruling elite. In 2005, the legislatures of Nigeria and Sao Tome and Principe agreed to form a joint parliamentary oversight committee to monitor the JDZ, and Sao Tome’s attorney general requested cooperation from Nigeria in his investigation of exploration licenses that year. The foreign minister resigned in 2006 amid allegations that he had misappropriated approximately $500,000 in aid from Morocco. The country ranked 118 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2007 Corruption Perceptions Index.

Freedom of expression is protected by the constitution and respected in practice. 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. Residents have access to foreign broadcasters including Voice of America. Internet access is not restricted by the government, but lack of infrastructure limits penetration.

Freedom of religion is respected within this predominantly Roman Catholic country. The government does not restrict academic freedom. Education is compulsory through the sixth grade, and tuition is free to the age of 15 or sixth grade, though rural students often stop attending school after fourth grade. Primary school enrollment stands at approximately 74 percent.

Freedoms of assembly and association are respected. Citizens have the constitutional right to demonstrate with two days’ advance notice to the government. Workers’ rights to organize, strike, and bargain collectively are guaranteed and respected.

The judiciary is independent, though occasionally subject to manipulation. The Supreme Court has ruled in the past against both the government and the president. The court system is understaffed, inadequately funded, and plagued by long delays. Prison conditions are harsh.

There is societal discrimination against homosexuals. Although testing is free and antiretroviral drugs are available, persons with HIV/AIDS have been shunned by their communities and families. The constitution provides equal rights for men and women, but women encounter significant discrimination in all sectors, including education and employment. Several women have been appointed to cabinet positions, including the premiership. Domestic violence against women is reportedly common and rarely prosecuted. Women are often disadvantaged because of their reluctance to take disputes outside their families or a lack of knowledge about their rights. Abortion is prohibited.