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.
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.