São Tomé and Príncipe | Freedom House

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São Tomé and Príncipe

São Tomé and Príncipe

Freedom in the World 2009

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Following the collapse of Sao Tome and Principe’s government in February 2008, a new coalition government was established with Patrice Trovoada, leader of the Independent Democratic Action party, as prime minister. Trovoada’s government collapsed in May 2008, however, following a no-confidence vote, which led to the creation of a new coalition government in June 2008, with Joaquim Rafael Branco as prime minister. Meanwhile, members of the country’s political elite continued to face allegations of corruption surrounding the exploration of potentially lucrative oil and gas deposits.

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. 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, although he was returned to power one week later with broad regional and international support. Prime Minister Damiao Vaz de Almeida of the MLSTP–Social Democratic Party (PSD) 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 Force for Change Democratic Movement (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. 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 ended the mutiny and disbanded the unit. The coalition government faced increasing criticism following these incidents, in conjunction with rising public discontent over price increases. Cabinet changes were made in November 2007, but the ADI withdrew its support following the controversial appointment of Ovidio Pequeno as foreign minister, making the ruling coalition a minority in the National Assembly.

The government collapsed in February 2008 after the 2008 budget proposal was defeated in the National Assembly. A new coalition government was established, comprised of the MDFM, the PCD and the ADI. Patrice Trovoada, leader of the ADI, was appointed as prime minister, which secured ADI support. However, the controversial defense and foreign ministers kept their posts. Despite controlling 35 out of 55 seats, the government collapsed in May 2008 following a no-confidence vote. A new coalition government was formed in June 2008 with Joaquim Rafael Branco, leader of the MLSTP-PSD at the head. The ADI refused to join, but the government still gained a majority in the National Assembly with 43 seats, and the controversial defense and finance ministers were removed. Following a long delay, the National Assembly approved the 2008 budget in May. In September 2008, computers containing electoral data were stolen, casting doubt on future elections including the municipal elections scheduled for August 2009, which may now be delayed.

Large oil and natural gas deposits are thought to lie off the 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 receiving 40 percent of 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. There has also been controversy over signature bonuses for the awarding of rights to JDZ blocks. In 2008, bonus funds intended to be transferred to Sao Tome’s oil account were allegedly transferred to a Nigerian bank, although the governor of the central bank denied the charge. Due to concerns about the rate at which the government spends bonuses, the National Assembly’s audit committee is scheduled to begin an investigation.  

Despite the promise of future wealth, 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 Program’s 2007/2008 Human Development Index. Sao Tome has benefited from debt relief under the Highly Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) initiative since 2000. In 2007, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank agreed to forgive 91 percent of the country’s external debt, approximately $327 million, and the Paris Club canceled all of the country’s debt. Sao Tome’s poverty reduction and growth facility ended in August 2008, but the government is likely to seek a new agreement. The National Assembly approved a new investment code in July 2008, and in October announced the restructuring of the poor-performing state-owned National Water and Electricity Company (EMAE), potentially leading to its privatization. In October 2008, Sao Tome became the 180th member country of the International Finance Corporation (IFC), which supports private sector growth.

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. 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.

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. In October 2008, President Menezes replaced the Natural Resources and Energy Minister with another member of the MDFM after the minister was accused of demanding illegal payments from the EMAE. However, the new minister quit after two weeks, citing health issues, and was replaced in November by Cristina Dias, another MDFM party member. In December 2008, a corruption case involving two former prime ministers and the mismanagement of foreign aid, which accounts for almost 90 percent of Sao Tome’s budget, was adjourned after the suitability of the presiding judge was questioned by the defense. The country was ranked 121 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2008 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. The government does not restrict Internet access, but a 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 up to the age of 15 or sixth grade, though rural students often stop attending school after fourth grade.

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. There are currently only two women in the National Assembly. 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.