Sao Tome and Principe (06/28/11)

June 28, 2011

For the most current version of this Note, see Background Notes A-Z.


Location: Western Africa; islands straddling the equator in the Gulf of Guinea west of Gabon.
Area: 1,001 sq. km. (386 sq. mi.); about the size of metropolitan Indianapolis, or one-third the size of Rhode Island.
Cities: Capital--Sao Tome (Aqua Grande district). Other cities--Trindade, Santana, Angolares, Neves, Guadalupe in Sao Tome, and Santo Antonio in Principe.
Terrain: Two small, volcanic islands plus associated smaller islands.
Climate: Tropical, with wet and dry seasons, influenced by the mountainous topography.

Nationality: Noun and adjective--Sao Tomean(s).
Population (2010 est.): 167,000.
Annual population growth rate (2010 est.): 2.4%.
Ethnic groups: Mestico, Angolares, Forros, Servicais/Tongas, European.
Religions: Christian (Roman Catholic, Evangelical Protestant, Seventh-day Adventist) 90%.
Language: Portuguese (official).
Education: Literacy (2009)--87.9%. Years compulsory--to secondary level.
Health: Life expectancy (2009)--66 yrs. Infant mortality rate (2009 est.)--37.12/1,000.
Work force (by household, 2000 UN Development Program est.): Agriculture--15.3%; industry, commerce, services--36.5%; government--11.5%.

Type: Republic.
Independence: July 12, 1975 (from Portugal).
Constitution: November 5, 1975; revised September 1990, following a national referendum, revised again January 2003.
Branches: Executive--president and prime minister. Legislative--National Assembly. Judicial--Supreme Court.
Administrative subdivisions: Six districts, five on Sao Tome and one on Principe.
Political parties: Movement for the Liberation of Sao Tome and Principe (MLSTP), Party of Democratic Convergence (PCD), Independent Democratic Action (ADI), Democratic Movement Force of Change (MDFM), Christian Democratic Front Party (FDC), Santomean Workers Party (PTS); Popular Party of Progress (PPP), National Union for Democracy and Progress (UNDP), and Democratic Coalition of the Opposition (CODO).
Suffrage: Universal adult (18 years old).

GDP (2009): $191 million.
Annual real GDP growth rate (2009): 4%.
Per capita GDP (2009): $1,174.
Inflation (2009): 17%.
Natural resources: Agricultural products, fish, petroleum (not yet exploited).
Services (71% of GDP, 2009): Primarily tourism.
Agriculture (14% of GDP, 2009): Products--cocoa, coconuts, copra, palm kernels, cinnamon, pepper, coffee, bananas, beans, vanilla, poultry. Cultivated land--484 sq. kilometers.
Industry (15% of GDP, 2009): Types--light construction, shirts, soap, beer, fisheries, shrimp processing, palm oil.
Trade: Exports (2009)--$14 million (f.o.b.): 95% cocoa, copra, palm kernels, coffee. Major markets--Portugal, Netherlands, Spain, Germany, China. Imports (2009)--$93 million (c.i.f.): food, fuel, machinery and electrical equipment. Major suppliers--Portugal (43%), France (16%), U.K. (14%).
Total external debt (2009): None.
Fiscal year: Calendar year.

The islands of Sao Tome and Principe are situated in the equatorial Atlantic about 200 miles and 150 miles (320 and 240 kilometers), respectively, off the northwest coast of Gabon. Both are part of an extinct volcanic mountain range that extends to the north where it also includes the island of Bioko off Equatorial Guinea and Mount Cameroon on the Cameroon coast. The island of Sao Tome is 31 miles (50 km) long and 20 miles (32 km) wide and is the more mountainous of the two islands. Its highest peak reaches 6,640 feet (2,024 m). Principe is about 19 miles (30 kilometers) long and 4 miles (6 km) wide. Swift streams run down the mountains through lush forest and cropland to the sea on both islands.

At sea level, the climate is tropical--hot and humid with average yearly temperatures around 80 degrees Fahrenheit (27 degrees Celsius) and little daily variation. At the interior's higher altitudes, the average yearly temperature falls to 68 degrees Fahrenheit (20 degrees Celsius), and nights are generally cooler. Annual rainfall varies from 200 inches (500 centimeters) on the southwestern slopes to 40 inches (100 centimeters) in the northern lowlands. The rainy season runs from October to May.

Roughly 160,000 people live on Sao Tome and about 6,000 on Principe. All are descended from various ethnic groups that have migrated to the islands since 1485. Six groups are identifiable:

  • Mestico, or mixed-blood, descendants of African slaves brought to the islands during the early years of settlement from Benin, Gabon, and Congo and Europeans (these people also are known as filhos da terra or "sons of the land");
  • Angolares, reputedly descendants of Angolan slaves who survived a 1540 shipwreck and now earn their livelihood fishing;
  • Forros, descendants of freed slaves when slavery was abolished;
  • Servicais, contract laborers from Angola, Mozambique, and Cape Verde, living temporarily on the islands;
  • Tongas, children of servicais with forros born on the islands; and
  • Europeans, primarily Portuguese.

A common Luso-African culture dominates the islands, uniting the groups. Almost everyone belongs to Roman Catholic, Evangelical Protestant, or Seventh-day Adventist Churches, which in turn retain close ties with churches in Portugal.

Portuguese navigators first discovered the uninhabited islands between 1469 and 1472. The first successful settlement on Sao Tome was established in 1493 by Alvaro Caminha, who had received the land as a grant from the Portuguese crown. Seven years later in 1500, Principe was settled under a similar arrangement. These grants ended when the Portuguese crown fully took over Sao Tome in 1522 and Principe in 1573. By mid-century, less than 100 years after discovering it, the Portuguese had turned the islands into Africa's foremost exporter of sugar with the help of slave labor from the African coast. However, sugar cultivation declined over the next 100 years, and by the mid-1600s, Sao Tome was little more than a port of call to refuel ships.

This situation lasted for roughly 150 years until in the early 1800s when two new cash crops, coffee and cocoa, were introduced. The rich volcanic soils proved well suited to the new cash crop industry. By 1908, Sao Tome had become the world's largest producer of cocoa. Extensive plantations (rocas), owned by Portuguese companies or absentee landlords, cultivated most of the good farmland.

The rocas system, which gave the plantation managers a high degree of authority, led to abuses against the African farm workers. Although Portugal officially abolished slavery in 1876, the practice of forced paid labor continued. In the early 1900s, an internationally publicized controversy arose over charges that Angolan contract workers were being subjected to forced labor and unsatisfactory working conditions. Sporadic labor unrest and dissatisfaction continued until they culminated in an outbreak of riots in 1953 in which several hundred African laborers were killed in a clash with the Portuguese. This "Batepa Massacre" remains a major event in the colonial history of the islands, and the government officially observes its anniversary on February 3. Although the Portuguese crushed the riots, an independence movement emerged in the aftermath.

By the late 1950s, a small group of Sao Tomeans formed the Movement for the Liberation of Sao Tome and Principe (MLSTP). Unable to remain on the islands, they eventually established a base in nearby Gabon. Although the independence movement grew stronger in the 1960s, events accelerated rapidly after the overthrow of the Salazar and Caetano dictatorship in Portugal in April 1974. The new Portuguese regime was committed to the dissolution of its overseas colonies and in November 1974, their representatives met with the MLSTP in Algiers. There, the two sides worked out an agreement for the transfer of sovereignty. The movement toward independence precipitated an exodus of most of the 4,000 Portuguese residents in the 1970s. After a period of transitional government, Sao Tome and Principe achieved independence on July 12, 1975, and chose as its first President the MLSTP Secretary General, Manuel Pinto da Costa. He established a one-party state and served as President until 1990.

In 1990, Sao Tome became one of the first African states to embrace democratic reform. Changes to the constitution, including the legalization of opposition political parties, led to nonviolent, free, and transparent elections in 1991. Miguel Trovoada, the country’s first Prime Minister who had been in exile since 1986, returned as an independent candidate and was elected President. The Party of Democratic Convergence (PCD) beat the MLSTP to take a majority of seats in the National Assembly, with the MLSTP becoming an important and vocal minority party. Municipal elections followed in late 1992 in which the MLSTP came back to win a majority of seats on five of seven regional councils. The MLSTP followed this victory by winning a plurality of seats in the Assembly in early legislative elections held in October 1994. It regained an outright majority of seats in the November 1998 elections. Meanwhile, Trovoada formed his own party, the Independent Democratic Action Party (ADI), and was re-elected President in the second multiparty presidential election in 1996.

The next presidential elections were held in July 2001. The candidate backed by the ADI, Fradique de Menezes, was elected in the first round. Parliamentary elections held in March 2002 led to a coalition government after no party gained a majority of seats. An attempted coup d'etat in July 2003 by a few members of the military and the Christian Democratic Front (mostly representative of former Sao Tomean volunteers from the apartheid-era Republic of South African Army) was reversed by international mediation without bloodshed. In September 2004, President de Menezes dismissed the Prime Minister and appointed a new cabinet, a move which was accepted by the majority party. In June 2005, following public discontent with oil exploration licenses granted in the Joint Development Zone (JDZ) with Nigeria, the MLSTP, the majority party, and its coalition partners threatened to resign from government and force early parliamentary elections. After several days of negotiations, the President and the MLSTP agreed to form a new government and thus avoid early elections.

The March 2006 legislative elections were held without problems. President Menezes' party, the Movement for the Democratic Force of Change (MDFM), in coalition with PCD, won 23 seats and took an unexpected lead ahead of the MLSTP. The MLSTP came in second with 20 seats, the ADI came in third with 11 seats, and the movement “Novo Rumo” gained one seat.

Sao Tome and Principe held its fourth democratic, multiparty presidential elections on July 30, 2006. Local and international observers described the elections as being free and fair. Incumbent Fradique de Menezes won the election with approximately 60% of the vote. Voter turnout was relatively high with 63% of the 91,000 registered voters casting ballots.

In November 2007, Prime Minister Tome Vera Cruz threatened to resign, and several ministers in his government were replaced following significant public criticism of souring economic conditions and the government's handling of recurring mutinies by dissident police officers. The changes took place peacefully and without incident. During another government shakeup in February 2008, President de Menezes appointed Patrice Trovoada as Prime Minister.

On May 20, 2008 the government collapsed after losing a parliamentary vote of confidence. The opposition Movement for the Liberation of Sao Tome and Principe-Social Democratic Party (MLSTP-PSD), with the support of PCD, asserted that Prime Minister Trovoada had failed to deliver on reforms that he promised when he entered office. Joaquim Rafael Branco became Prime Minister in June 2008.

On December 19, 2009 President Fradique de Menezes was elected to lead the MDFM party. His election was challenged both within the party and by constitutional experts as unconstitutional. Constitutionalists argued that according to the country’s semi-presidential constitution, the president could not exercise any other public or private function, including the post of party leader. The two coalition partners of the MDFM, MLSTP-PSD and PCD, criticized the election and announced an appeal to the constitutional court.

In response to the MLSTP appeal, Menezes withdrew the three MDFM ministers from the coalition (Menezes directly controlled those particular ministers). However, two of the ministers, Justino Veiga and Cristina Dias, declared that they would continue in the government. This was impeded by Menezes, who vetoed Prime Minister Branco’s (MLSTP) intention to keep the two ministers in a reshuffled cabinet. Unexpectedly, 2 days later, Menezes resigned the MDFM leadership, but denied that his decision had been influenced by any outside pressures.

Legislative elections were held on August 1, 2010, and were deemed free and fair by international observers. Patrice Trovoada's ADI party won 26 of the 55 National Assembly seats, just two seats shy of a majority. The MLSTP-PSD party won 21 seats, the PCD 7, and President Menezes' MDFM party only one seat. A new government was formed on August 14, with Trovoada again appointed Prime Minister.

Following the promulgation of a new constitution in 1990, Sao Tome and Principe held multiparty elections for the first time since independence. Shortly after the constitution took effect, the National Assembly formally legalized opposition parties. Independent candidates also were permitted to participate. The 55-member National Assembly is the supreme organ of the state and the highest legislative body. Its members are elected for a 4-year term and meet semiannually.

The president of the republic is elected to a 5-year term through direct universal suffrage and a secret ballot and may hold office up to two consecutive terms. Candidates are chosen at their party's national conference or individuals may run independently. A presidential candidate must obtain an outright majority of the popular vote in either a first or second round of voting in order to be elected president. The party that wins a majority in the legislature names the prime minister, who must be approved by the president. The prime minister, in turn, names the members of the cabinet.

The Supreme Court administers justice at the highest level. The judiciary is independent under the current constitution.

Administratively, the country is divided into six municipal districts, five on Sao Tome and one comprising Principe. Governing councils in each district maintain a limited number of autonomous decision-making powers and are reelected every 3 years.

Principal Government Officials
President--Fradique Bandeira Melo de Menezes
Prime Minister--Patrice Emery Trovoada
Minister of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation--Manuel Salvador dos Ramos
Minister of Defense and Public Security--Carlos Olimpio Stock
Ambassador to the United States--Ovidio Manuel Barbosa Pequeno
Representative at the United Nations--Ovidio Manuel Barbosa Pequeno

The Sao Tomean Embassy to the United States is located at 1211 Connecticut Avenue, NW, Suite 300, Washington, DC 20036 (tel. 202-775-2075); Email:

For visa information, please contact Mr. Domingos Augusto Ferreira, Cell: 917-751-2742; Fax: 212-239-2272; Email:; or the Embassy in Washington.

Sao Tome and Principe has made great strides toward developing its democratic institutions and further guaranteeing the civil and human rights of its citizens. Sao Tomeans have freely changed their government through peaceful and transparent elections on several occasions. While there have been disagreements and political conflicts within the branches of government and the National Assembly, the debates have been carried out and resolved in an open, democratic, and legal manner, in accordance with the provisions of Sao Tomean law. A number of political parties actively participate in government and openly express their views. Overall, the government's respect for human rights is strong. Freedom of the press is respected, and there are several independent newspapers in addition to the government bulletin. Further, the government does not engage in repressive measures against its citizens, and respect for individuals' rights to due process and protection from government abuses is widely honored. Freedom of expression is accepted, and the government has taken no repressive measures to silence critics.

Since the 1800s, plantation agriculture has dominated the economy of Sao Tome and Principe. At the time of independence, Portuguese-owned plantations occupied 90% of the cultivated area. After independence, control of these plantations passed to various state-owned agricultural enterprises, which have since been privatized. The dominant crop on Sao Tome is cocoa, representing about 95% of exports. Other export crops include copra (a coconut product), palm kernels, and coffee.

With export crops the focus of agricultural production, domestic food-crops are inadequate to meet local consumption, resulting in the need for food imports. Foreign donors are financing projects to expand food production, which now includes bananas, beans, cinnamon, and pepper. Cultivated land amounts to 484 sq. kilometers of the country’s roughly 1,000 sq. kilometers, even though agriculture accounted for only 14% of GDP in 2009.

Other than agriculture, the main economic activities center on fishing and a small industrial sector engaged in light construction, processing local agricultural products, and producing a few basic consumer goods such as clothing, soap, beer, and palm oil. The scenic islands have potential for tourism, and the government is attempting to improve its rudimentary tourist industry infrastructure. The government sector accounts for about 11% of employment.

Following independence, the country had a centrally directed economy with most means of production owned and controlled by the state. The original constitution guaranteed a 'mixed economy' with privately owned cooperatives combined with publicly owned property and means of production. However, in the 1980s and 1990s, the economy of Sao Tome encountered major difficulties. Efforts to redistribute plantation land resulted in decreased cocoa production while at the same time the international price of cocoa slumped. Economic growth stagnated, and cocoa exports dropped in both value and volume creating large balance-of-payments deficits.

In response to the economic downturn, the government undertook a series of far-reaching economic reforms. In 1987, the government implemented an International Monetary Fund (IMF) structural adjustment program and invited greater private participation in management of the state corporations (parastatals), as well as in the agricultural, commercial, banking, and tourism sectors. The focus of economic reform since the early 1990s has been widespread privatization, especially of the state-run agricultural and industrial sectors.

The Sao Tomean Government has traditionally relied on foreign assistance from various donors, including the UN Development Program (UNDP), the World Bank, the European Union (EU), Portugal, Taiwan, and the African Development Bank (AFDB). Sao Tome qualified for debt relief when it reached decision point under the IMF's Heavily Indebted Poor Countries Initiative (HIPC) in December 2000, but it went off track on its poverty reduction program in early 2001. After 4 years and satisfactory performance on an interim staff-monitored program, the IMF approved a 3-year $4.3 million Poverty Reduction and Growth Facility (PRGF) program for Sao Tome in September 2005. The ambitious program aimed to reduce inflation to a single-digit number, address the country's macroeconomic imbalances, and substantially reduce poverty. Another 3-year PRGF arrangement was approved in March 2009.

In 2001, Sao Tome and Nigeria reached agreement on joint exploration for petroleum in waters claimed by the two countries. After a lengthy series of negotiations, in April 2003 the joint development zone (JDZ) was opened for bids by international oil firms. The JDZ was divided into 9 blocks; the winning bids for block one, Chevron, ExxonMobil, and the Norwegian firm Equity Energy, were announced in April 2004, with Sao Tome to take in 40% of the $123 million bid, and Nigeria the other 60%. Blocks 2 through 6 were allocated in June 2005. Nigeria and Sao Tome signed production sharing contracts with the winning bidders in November 2005. Chevron became the first firm to start exploratory drilling in January 2006.

Portugal remains one of Sao Tome's major trading partners, particularly as a source of imports. Food, manufactured articles, machinery, and transportation equipment are imported primarily from the EU via Portugal.

The Organization for African Unity recognized the MLSTP in 1972, yet until independence in 1975, Sao Tome and Principe had few ties abroad except those that passed through Portugal. Following independence, the new government sought to expand its diplomatic relationships. A common language, tradition, and colonial experience have led to close collaboration between Sao Tome and other ex-Portuguese colonies in Africa, particularly Angola. Sao Tomean relations with other African countries in the region, such as Gabon and the Republic of the Congo, are good also. In December 2000, Sao Tome signed the African Union treaty, which the National Assembly later ratified.

The Sao Tomean Government has generally maintained a foreign policy based on nonalignment and cooperation with any country willing to assist in its economic development. In recent years, it also has increasingly emphasized ties to the United States and Western Europe.

Sao Tome maintains formal relations with Taiwan.

The United States was among the first countries to accredit an ambassador to Sao Tome and Principe. The U.S. Ambassador based in Gabon is accredited to Sao Tome on a non-resident basis. The Ambassador and Embassy staff make regular visits to the islands. The first Sao Tomean Ambassador to the United States, resident in New York City, was accredited in 1985. In 1986, Sao Tomean President Pinto da Costa visited the United States and met with then-Vice President George H.W. Bush.

U.S. relations with Sao Tome are excellent. In 1992, the Voice of America (VOA) and the Government of Sao Tome signed a long-term agreement for the establishment of a relay transmitter station in Sao Tome; VOA currently broadcasts to much of Africa from this facility. In 2007, the Millennium Challenge Corporation approved a 2-year threshold program to improve the capacity of the country's tax administration and customs enforcement agencies. In recent years, the U.S. military and Sao Tome and Principe have conducted joint maritime exercises focused on securing the Gulf of Guinea. The U.S. Government also maintains a number of smaller assistance programs in Sao Tome, administered through non-governmental organizations or the Embassy in Libreville.

Principal U.S. Officials
Ambassador--Eric Benjaminson (resident in Gabon)
Deputy Chief of Mission--Kathleen FitzGibbon
Management Officer--Jennifer McAlpine
Political/Economic Section Chief--Jenny Bah
Economic/Commercial Officer--Hilleary Smith
Defense Attache--Jack Aalborg
Consular Officer--Jessica Munson
Public Affairs Officer--Janet Deutsch
Regional Security Officer--Matthew Becht

The U.S. Embassy accredited to Sao Tome and Principe is located on the Boulevard de la Mer, B.P. 4000, Libreville, Gabon (tel: 241-762-003; fax: 241-745-507).