Sao Tome and Principe (03/97)

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


Democratic Republic of Sao Tome and Principe

Area: 963 sq. km. (372 sq. mi.); about the size of metropolitan Indianapolis, or one-third the size of Rhode Island.
Cities: Capital--Sao Tome. Other cities--Trindade, Santana, Porto Alegre, Santo Antonio.
Terrain: Two small, volcanic islands.
Climate: Tropical, with wet and dry seasons, influenced by the mountainous topography.

Nationality: Noun and adjective--Sao Tomean(s).
Population (1995): 125,000.
Annual growth rate: 1.8%.
Ethnic groups: Mixed African, Portuguese-African.
Religions: Christian 80%.
Language: Portuguese.
Education: Literacy(1990)--63%. Years compulsory--to secondary level.
Health: Life expectancy--65 yrs. Infant mortality rate (1995)--46/1,000.
Work force (1992): 34,064. Agriculture--55%; Industry, commerce, services--24%; government--12%.

Type: Republic.
Independence: July 12, 1975.
Constitution: November 5, 1975; revised September 1990, following a national referendum.
Branches: Executive--president and prime minister. Legislative--National Assembly. Judicial--Supreme Tribunal.
Administrative subdivisions: Seven counties, six 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 Alliance (ADI), and numerous other small parties.
Suffrage: Universal adult.

GDP (1995): $24 million.
Annual GDP growth rate (1994 est): 1.5%.
Per capita GDP (1995 est.): $200.
Natural resources: Agricultural products, fish.
Agriculture (24% of GDP): Products--cocoa, copra, palm kernels, bananas. Cultivated land--484 sq. kilometers.
Industry (8% of GDP): Types--light construction, shirts, soap, beer, fisheries, shrimp processing.
Trade: Exports (1993)--$1.3 million: 98% cocoa (41% to the Netherlands), copra, palm kernels, coffee. Major markets--Netherlands, Germany, China, Portugal. Imports (1993)--$14.4 million: foodstuffs, petroleum products. Major suppliers--Portugal (41%), Spain, Angola, France.

The islands of Sao Tome and Principe, situated in the equatorial Atlantic about 300 and 250 kilometers (200 and 150 miles), respectively, off the northern coast of Gabon, constitute one of Africa's smallest countries. Both are part of an extinct volcanic mountain range, which also includes the island of Bioko in Equatorial Guinea to the north and Mount Cameroon on the African west coast. Sao Tome is 48 kilometers (30 mi.) long and 32 kilometers (20 mi.) wide and the more mountainous of the two islands. Its peaks reach 2,024 meters (6,640 ft.). Principe is about 16 kilometers (10 mi.) long and 6 kilometers (4 mi.) wide. Both islands are crossed by swift streams radiating down the mountains through lush forest and cropland to the sea.

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

Of Sao Tome and Principe's total population, about 116,500 live on Sao Tome and 7,000 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, Congo, and Angola (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 born on the islands; and
  • Europeans, primarily Portuguese.
In the 1970s, there were two significant population movements--the exodus of most of the 4,000 Portuguese residents and the influx of several hundred Sao Tomean refugees from Angola.

The islanders have been absorbed largely into a common Luso-African culture. Almost all belong to the Roman Catholic, Evangelical Protestant, or Seventh-day Adventist Churches, which in turn retain close ties with churches in Portugal.

The islands were first discovered by Portuguese navigators between 1469 and 1472. The first successful settlement of Sao Tome was established in 1493 by Avaro Caminha, who received the land as a grant from the Portuguese crown. Principe was settled in 1500 under a similar arrangement. By the mid-1500s, with the help of slave labor, the Portuguese settlers had turned the islands into Africa's foremost exporter of sugar. Sao Tome and Principe were taken over and administered by the Portuguese crown in 1522 and 1573, respectively.

Sugar cultivation declined over the next 100 years, and by the mid-1600s, Sao Tome was little more than a port of call for bunkering ships. In the early 1800s, two new cash crops, coffee and cocoa, were introduced. The rich volcanic soils proved well suited to the new cash crop industry, and soon extensive plantations (rocas), owned by Portuguese companies or absentee landlords, occupied almost all of the good farmland. By 1908, Sao Tome had become the world's largest producer of cocoa, still the country's most important crop.

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 well into the 20th century, culminating in an outbreak of riots in 1953 in which several hundred African laborers were killed in a clash with their Portuguese rulers. This "Batepa Massacre" remains a major event in the colonial history of the islands, and its anniversary is officially observed by the government.

By the late 1950s, when other emerging nations across the African continent were demanding independence, a small group of Sao Tomeans had formed the Movement for the Liberation of Sao Tome and Principe (MLSTP), which eventually established its base in nearby Gabon. Picking up momentum in the 1960s, events moved quickly after the overthrow of the Caetano dictatorship in Portugal in April 1974. The new Portuguese regime was committed to the dissolution of its overseas colonies; in November 1974, their representatives met with the MLSTP in Algiers and worked out an agreement for the transfer of sovereignty. After a period of transitional government, Sao Tome and Principe achieved independence on July 12, 1975, choosing as its first president the MLSTP Secretary General Manuel Pinto da Costa.

In 1990, Sao Tome became one of the first African countries to embrace democratic reform and changes to the constitution--the legalization of opposition political parties--led to elections in 1991 that were nonviolent, free, and transparent. Miguel Trovoada, a former prime minister who had been in exile since 1986, returned as an independent candidate and was elected president and was re-elected in Sao Tome's second multiparty presidential election in 1996. The Party of Democratic Convergence (PCD) toppled 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. In early legislative elections in October 1994, the MLSTP won a plurality of seats in the Assembly and retained a plurality in the 1996 elections. The Government of Sao Tome fully functions under a multiparty system.

Under the new constitution passed by the National Assembly in April 1990, which was approved in an August public referendum and promulgated in September, 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 and permitted independent candidates to participate in the January 1991 legislative elections. The National Assembly is the supreme organ of the state and the highest legislative body. Its members are elected for a four-year term and meet semiannually.

The president of the republic is elected to a 5-year term by direct universal suffrage and a secret ballot. 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 tour of voting in order to be elected president. The prime minister is named by the president but must be ratified by the majority party and thus normally comes from a list of its choosing. The prime minister, in turn, names the 14 members of the cabinet. The National Assembly is made up of 55 members, all of whom must stand for reelection every five years.

Justice is administered at the highest level by the Supreme Tribunal. Formerly responsible to the National Assembly, the judiciary is now independent under the new constitution.

Administratively, the country is divided into seven municipal districts, six 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 five years.

Principal Government Officials
President--Miguel Trovoada
Prime Minister--Raul Wagner Conceicao Braganca Neto
Deputy Prime Minister--Armindo Vaz D'Almeida
Charge d'affaires--Domingo Ferreira
Ambassador to the United Nations--Domingo Ferreira

Justice, Labor and Public Administration--Amaro Pereira De Couto
Foreign Affairs and Sao Tomean Communities Overseas--Homero Jeronimo Salvaterra
Defense and Internal Order--Capt. Joao Quaresma Viegas Bexigas
Planning and Finances--Acacio Elba Bonfim
Education, Culture and Sports--Albertino Homem dos Santos Sequeira Braganca
Equipment and the Environment--Arlindo Afonso de Carvalho
Health--Dr. Eduardo do Carmo Ferreira de Matos
Agriculture and Fisheries--Hermenilgido de Assuncao Sousa e Santos
Commerce, Industry and Tourism--Cosme Afonso da Trindade Rita

The Sao Tome and Principe Mission to the United States, which also is the Sao Tomean Embassy to the United Nations, is located at 801 Second Avenue, Suite 1604, New York, New York 10017 (tel. 212-697-4211).

Since the constitutional reforms of 1990 and the elections of 1991, Sao Tome 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, and 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 open, democratic, and legal fora, in accordance with the provisions of Sao Tomean law. Three major political parties and several minor ones actively participate in government and openly express their views. Freedom of the press is respected, and there are two independent newspapers in addition to the government paper. The government's respect for human rights is exemplary; 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, the economy of Sao Tome and Principe has been based on plantation agriculture. 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. The dominant crop on Sao Tome is cocoa, representing about 98% of exports. Other export crops include copra, palm kernels, and coffee.

Domestic food-crop production is inadequate to meet local consumption, so the country imports some of its food. Efforts have been made by the government in recent years to expand food production, and several projects have been undertaken, largely financed by foreign donors.

Other than agriculture, the main economic activities are fishing and a small industrial sector engaged in processing local agricultural products and producing a few basic consumer goods. 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 20% of both employment and gross domestic product (GDP).

Since independence, the country has had a centrally directed economy with most means of production owned and controlled by the state. The new constitution guarantees a "mixed economy," with privately owned cooperatives combined with publicly owned property and means of production.

In recent years, the economy of Sao Tome has encountered major difficulties: economic growth has stagnated, and cocoa exports have dropped in both value and volume, leaving large balance-of-payments deficits. The situation stems from a combination of external and internal factors, including the significantly lower world price for cocoa and production inefficiencies on the plantations.

In response to its economic downturn, the government announced its intention to carry out far-reaching economic reforms. In 1987, the government implemented an International Monetary Fund structural adjustment program. It has invited greater private participation in management of the parastatals, as well as in the agricultural, commercial, banking, and tourism sectors, and is increasing efforts to attract foreign investment to Sao Tome and Principe. The focus of economic reform since 1991 has been widespread privatization, especially of the state-run agricultural and industrial sectors. Agricultural privatization has met with mixed success, but capital is not readily available and this has led to difficulties in finding private investors to take over many of the still-inefficient means of production in both sectors. In 1993, the government announced plans to designate a free trade zone to attract offshore investors in the hopes of further developing the country's shipping and manufacturing sectors.

The Sao Tomean Government has traditionally obtained foreign assistance from various donors. The UN Development Program, the World Bank, the European Union, and the African Development Bank finance projects on the islands.

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.

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 Congo and Gabon, are also good.

While the Sao Tomean Government has maintained a foreign policy based on nonalignment and cooperation with any country willing to assist in its economic development, it has recently begun to emphasize ties to the U.S. and Western Europe.

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 nonresident 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 da Costa visited the United States and met with then-Vice President Bush.

U.S. relations with Sao Tome are excellent. The United States Peace Corps maintains 20 Volunteers on the islands, working primarily in the health and rural appropriate technology sectors. Voice of America and the Government of Sao Tome signed a long term agreement in 1992 for the establishment of a relay transmitter station in Sao Tome; VOA currently broadcasts to most of central Africa from this facility, and is looking to expand the operation. 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--Elizabeth Raspolic
Deputy Chief of Mission--Michael Meigs
Economic/Commercial Officer--Vacant
Consular Officer--Amber Baskette

The U.S. Embassy in Gabon is located on the Boulevard de la Mer, B.P. 4000, Libreville, Gabon (Tel: 241-743-492; Fax: 241-745-507).