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São Tomé and Príncipe (Vol 18, 2021)

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Gerhard Seibert
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(2,535 words)

In the run-off of the presidential elections in October, Carlos Vila Nova, the candidate of the opposition Ação Democrática Independente (adi), defeated Guilherme Pósser da Costa, nominee of the ruling Movimento de Libertação de São Tomé e Príncipe/Partido Social Democrata (mlstp/psd). The final ballot was delayed by a month due to a crisis in the constitutional court where the five judges issued contradictory verdicts in response to a recount request by the third most voted-for candidate in the first election round in July, who alleged irregularities during the ballot counting. Despite the failed implementation of similar agreements in the recent past, the government signed two ambitious agreements for the construction of a large free trade zone and a deep-sea container port, the futures of which were equally uncertain.

See also São Tomé and Príncipe 2004 | 2005 | 2006 | 2007 | 2008 | 2009 | 2010 | 2011 | 2012 | 2013 | 2014 | 2015 | 2016 | 2017 | 2018 | 2019 | 2020 | 2022.

Contents Volume 18, 2021.

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In the run-off of the presidential elections in October, Carlos Vila Nova, the candidate of the opposition Ação Democrática Independente (adi), defeated Guilherme Pósser da Costa, nominee of the ruling Movimento de Libertação de São Tomé e Príncipe/Partido Social Democrata (mlstp/psd). The final ballot was delayed by a month due to a crisis in the constitutional court where the five judges issued contradictory verdicts in response to a recount request by the third most voted-for candidate in the first election round in July, who alleged irregularities during the ballot counting. Despite the failed implementation of similar agreements in the recent past, the government signed two ambitious agreements for the construction of a large free trade zone and a deep-sea container port, the futures of which were equally uncertain.

Domestic Politics

On 5 February, the national assembly adopted for the second time the revision of the 1990 electoral law, this time with alterations introduced due to the veto submitted by President Evaristo Carvalho on 30 December 2020. The law-makers withdrew the contested provisions, which demanded permanent residence for presidential candidates and prevented the participation of independent candidates in presidential elections. The revised law allowed Santomean citizens living abroad to vote in legislative elections for the first time. Together with the revised electoral law, parliament also adopted revisions to the political parties’ law, National Electoral Commission (cen) law, voter registration law, and local elections law.

On 18 July, a record number of 19 candidates ran in the first round of the presidential elections – a fact which was widely interpreted as a banalisation of the highest state office, since most of them were independents without any chance of winning. Due to his advanced age, the incumbent Carvalho did not run for a second term. Carlos Vila Nova, a businessman and official candidate of the opposition adi, won with 35,342 votes (43.3%), followed by Guilherme Pósser da Costa, a former prime minister and official mlstp/psd candidate, with 16,905 votes (20.7%), and Delfim Neves (Partido da Convergência Democrática – pcd), the national assembly president who ran as an independent to stress his claim to run as an all-party ‘people’s candidate’, with 14,941 votes (18.3%). None of the other candidates obtained more than 3.8% of the votes, while voter turnout was 68.4%. Immediately after the announcement of the first results, Neves claimed to have been the victim of irregularities and submitted an objection to the five-member constitutional court requesting a recount of the votes.

His request provoked a stalemate in the constitutional court, since on 23 July two judges, both considered personally close to Neves, including the court’s chairperson Pascoal Daio, released a verdict in favour of a recount, while the other three judges decided against it, arguing that it lacked a legal basis. Both sides immediately contested the legality of the other’s judgment. Only four days after a crisis session with the five judges on 29 July involving Carvalho, Prime Minister Bom Jesus, and other high-office-holders, the constitutional court issued a new verdict with 3:2 votes against the recount. The affair considerably damaged the country’s claim to be an ‘African model democracy’.

Due to the delays caused by the crisis, the election run-off was postponed from 8 August to 5 September, while President Carvalho’s term was extended from 3 September until his successor’s assumption of office. As expected, Vila Nova won the final ballot with 55,534 of the valid votes (57.6%), while Pósser da Costa received 33,585 votes (42.4%). This time the turnout was 80,622 voters (65.4%). Immediately after the announcement of the results, Pósser da Costa admitted his defeat and congratulated Vila Nova. On 2 October, Vila Nova was sworn in as his country’s fifth democratically elected president. The highest-ranking guests at his inauguration were the presidents Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa of Portugal and Umaro Sissoco Embaló of Guinea-Bissau, as well as the vice-presidents Bornito de Sousa of Angola and Yemi Osinbajo of Nigeria.

Between the two ballots, on 13 August, at Bom Jesus’ request, President Carvalho dismissed defence minister Óscar Sousa – with 22 years in office altogether, by far the country’s longest-serving government minister – for health reasons. Bom Jesus assumed the defence portfolio until the appointment of a new minister. On 1 October, Carvalho formally dismissed Osvaldo Vaz, the minister of planning, finance, and the blue economy, who left the post at his own request. On 13 October, Engrácio do Sacramento Soares da Graça, until then director of taxes in the finance ministry, was appointed as his successor. Already on 11 September, Bom Jesus had announced a reshuffle of his government to create new vigour in the last year of office. However, until the end of the year his announcement was not followed by action.

Foreign Relations

On 2 June, UN secretary-general António Guterres announced that São Tomé was among five countries that were in arrears on paying their dues to the un budget. Earlier, the unga had passed a resolution saying that São Tomé was one of three countries that could still vote in the current session, which ended in September, since they had sufficiently demonstrated that they were incapable of paying. The minimum required from the country to reduce its arrears and avoid a possible loss of voting rights after September was $829,888. In response, on 6 June, São Tomé’s foreign ministry spokesperson declared that the country would do the utmost to settle at least part of the debt with the UN at short notice. On 4 October, the UN decided that São Tomé’s failure to pay its arrears in total was due to conditions beyond its control and permitted the country to vote in the assembly until the end of the 76th session in September 2022.

Diplomatic activities focused primarily on the country’s traditional partners, both in Africa and globally. On 15 June, upon his return from a visit to Luanda, finance minister Osvaldo Vaz declared that his talks with his Angolan counterpart Vera Esperança dos Santos Daves de Sousa had focused on finding a solution for São Tomé’s bilateral debts of more than $200 m with Angola, of which $20 m stemmed from direct budget support. Vaz said that the two governments had agreed to engage technical teams to make a thorough assessment of the debts that had accumulated over many years. Despite debt cancellation of $327 m (91% of the total) in 2007 as part of the imf’s hipc initiative, by 2019 São Tomé’s external debts had again increased to more than $400 m. Meanwhile, Angola emerged as the country’s principal bilateral creditor, responsible for about half of this amount if the unsettled payments for fuel supplies from Angolan hydrocarbons parastatal Sonangol were included. Vaz said that he expected Angola to either cancel the debts or at least reschedule them, since São Tomé was not in the position to settle the total amount.

On 20 September, president-elect Vila Nova paid a courtesy visit to Nigeria’s vice-president Yemi Osinbajo at the presidential villa in Abuja. Osinbajo called on Africans to continue making an extra effort to ensure that elections on the continent went through the democratic process and remained transparent and fair. He promised Vila Nova Nigeria’s support to ensure him a comfortable tenure. In turn, Vila Nova expressed appreciation to Nigerian president Muhammadu Buhari for supporting São Tomé and thanked Osinbajo for his attention, stating that he considered Nigeria a friendly country with a long-lasting bilateral relationship with São Tomé.

On 17 February, Portugal’s new resident ambassador Rui Fernando Sucena do Carmo presented his credentials to Carvalho. Rui Carmo considered the health sector the priority of Portugal’s cooperation with the archipelago. On 3 December in Lisbon, foreign minister Edite Ten Jua and Portugal’s secretary of state for European affairs, Ana Paula Zacarias, signed a new five-year Strategic Cooperation Programme (pec) for the period 2021–25. The elaboration and signature of the new 18-page pec was delayed due to the pandemic. The pec, worth €60 m, was elaborated according to the Bom Jesus government’s priorities and development objectives, recognising the experience of Portuguese cooperation in several sectors. The rather vaguely formulated pec was to be subject to annual reviews, guided by the international development agenda, and based on partnerships with other national and international actors, particularly the private sector, ngos, and the international donor community. During a short visit to São Tomé by a Portuguese delegation headed by Prime Minister António Costa on 20 December, the pec was praised as the consolidation of the strong cooperation relations between the two countries.

On 29 April, India inaugurated an embassy in São Tomé headed by Ambassador Shri Raghu Gururaj, making India the eleventh country to have a resident ambassador in São Tomé. On the margins of the Eighth Ministerial Conference of the Forum on China–Africa Cooperation (focac) held in Dakar from 29–30 November, Ten Jua met China’s foreign minister Wang Yi, who said that São Tomé was welcome to join the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative to help to boost its development. At the meeting, Ten Jua praised China’s development cooperation in agriculture, healthcare, and infrastructure. On 9 December in São Tomé, China’s resident ambassador Xu Yingzhen and Ten Jua signed an MoU between the two governments on cooperation as part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Since 2013, when Chinese president Xi Jinping launched the project, 142 countries have signed this MoU with China, including 42 African countries.

On 15 June, Guinea-Bissau’s President Umaro Sissoco Embaló arrived for his first official visit to São Tomé, less than one month after Carvalho’s visit to Bissau in May. During the three-day visit, Embaló was received by Carvalho, Bom Jesus, and Levy Nazaré, vice-president of the national assembly. The talks with Carvalho and Bom Jesus focused on the forthcoming biannual summit of the heads of state and government of the nine-member cplp in Luanda on 16–17 July. Embaló announced that Guinea-Bissau’s Prime Minister Nuno Gomes Nabiam would soon formally invite Bom Jesus to visit his country.

On 22 September, Cabo Verde’s Prime Minister Ulisses Correia e Silva and the minister of communities Jorge Santos arrived in São Tomé for an official five-day visit. On his arrival, Correia e Silva declared that his visit was aimed at strengthening bilateral diplomatic cooperation. During the visit, he was received separately by Bom Jesus, Delfim Neves, and Carvalho. After his meeting with Bom Jesus, Correia e Silva declared that he advocated a common development strategy between the two countries in the areas of renewable energies, digital transition, and the blue economy. During the last days of the visit, Correia e Silva and Santos held meetings on both islands with the local Cabo Verdean communities, which represent 8.5% of the country’s total population and the majority on Príncipe Island.

Socioeconomic Developments

On 31 March, with the largely unknown Canadian investor Shanti Shebab, the government signed a 90-year concession agreement on the construction of a $1.3 bn multi-sectoral free trade zone in Malanza in the southern district of Caué. Under the agreement, Shehab had to submit a detailed construction plan for the 204-ha large concession area within 60 days. He claimed that the project would create 9,000 jobs and transform São Tomé into a service centre comparable with the Seychelles and Mauritius. The government expected the laying of the project’s foundation stone within three months. This, however, did not occur.

On 28 April, Bom Jesus inaugurated the Banco Central de São Tomé e Príncipe’s new digital instant payment processing platform sibs (Sociedade Interbancária de Serviços), which allowed additional pos (point of sale) transactions including the payment of taxes and the services of a few local companies such as telecoms and the water and energy utility. In addition, the platform made possible for the first time the withdrawal of cash from local atms with international visa debit and credit cards. The entrance of Mastercard was expected for the second half of the year. The modernisation of the banking and financial system was expected to boost tourism and attract foreign private investment.

On 12 May, the minister of infrastructure and natural resources, Osvaldo d’Abreu, and Krobo Edusei Jr, executive chairperson of the Ghanaian logistics services provider Safebond Africa Ltd (sal), signed a MoU on the construction of a deep-water container port in Fernão Dias and the modernisation of the ports of Ana Chaves and Santo António in Príncipe. The total investment was estimated at $250 m. The agreement included giving the management concession for the three ports to sal as part of a public–private partnership. Abreu claimed that sal had experience in the construction and concession of ports and stated that the Moroccan company somagec, which had already built the ports of Equatorial Guinea, had been charged with the construction works. Already in 2008 and in 2015, São Tomé had signed agreements with a French and a Chinese company respectively on the construction of a deep-sea container port in Fernão Dias. However, neither project ever got off the ground due to a lack of funds.

On 23 December, the national assembly approved the 2022 budget of €158 m, with the 28 votes of the ruling coalition government. About 51% of the budget, which included the readjustment of public sector salaries, was financed by external bilateral and multilateral donors. About 56.4% of expenditure was allocated for current expenditure, while capital expenditure and debt service payments accounted for 38% and 5.3% of total expenditure respectively. As far as public investments were concerned 20% of the total each was allocated to infrastructure and health, while 16% was scheduled for education. The government expected 2.8% economic growth and an estimated inflation rate of 7.5% for 2022.

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Africa Yearbook Online

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