U.S. Department of State
Background Notes: Sao Tome and Principe, February 1995
Bureau of African Affairs
Prepared and released by the Bureau of African Affairs,
Office of Central African Affairs
Official Name: 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
Nationality: Noun and adjective--Sao Tomean(s).
Population (1991): 117,504.
Annual growth rate: 1.8%.
Ethnic groups: Mixed African, Portuguese-African.
Religion: Christian 80%.
Education: Years compulsory--to secondary level. Literacy--(1990): 63%.
Health: Infant mortality rate (1991)--68/1,000. Life expectancy--65 yrs.
Work force 1992: (34,064)--agriculture--55%; industry, commerce,
Independence: July 12, 1975.
Constitution: November 5, 1975; revised September 1990, following a
Branches: Executive--president and prime minister. Legislative--National
Assembly. Judicial--Supreme Tribunal.
Administrative subdivisions: Seven counties, six on Sao Tome and one on
Political parties: Movement for the Liberation of Sao Tome and Principe
(MLSTP); Party of Democratic Convergence (PCD); Independent Democratic
Alliance (ADI), an numerous other small parties. Suffrage: Universal
Central government budget (1992): $60.1 million.
Current deficit: $807,000.
National holiday: July 12.
Flag: Green, yellow, and green horizontal bands, two black stars in the
yellow band, red triangle on the staff side.
GDP (1993): $32 million.
Change in GDP for 1992-93: minus 24%.
Per capita income: $250.
Average inflation rate: 60%.
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,
Exchange Rate (Feb 1995): 1,250 dobras=US$1.
Membership in International Organizations
ACP, AfDB, CEEAC, ECA, FAO, G-77, IBRD, ICAO, IDA, IFAD, ILO, IMF, IMO,
INTELSAT (nonsignatory user), INTERPOL, IOM (observer), ITU, LORCS, NAM,
OAU, UN, UNCTAD, UNESCO, UNIDO, UPU, WHO, WMO, WTO.
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
-- 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 salves 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 1900's, 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. 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. 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 semi-annually.
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:
Prime Minister--Carlos Alberto Monteiro Dias Da Graca
Deputy Prime Minister--Armindo Vaz D'Almeida
Foreign Affairs And Cooperation--Guilherme Posser Da Costa
Defense and Internal Order--Albertino Paulino
Economic Affairs--Joaquim Rafael Branco
Plan and Finance--Carlos Quaresma Batista De Sousa
Justice, Public Administration, Employment and Social Security--Manuel
Vaz Afonso Fernandes
Transportation and Public Works--Alcino Martinho De Barros Pinto
Education, Youth and Sports--Guilherme Octaviano Viegas Dos Ramos
Health--Fernando Da Conceicao Silveira
Government Minister for Principe--Zeferino Vaz Dos Santos Dos Prazeres
State Secretary for Communication and Culture--Antonio Quintas Do
State Secretary in Charge of Agriculture--Paul D'Almeida Viana
State Secretary in Charge of Employment and Social Security--Albano
Germano De Deus
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 an 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, with 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 1800's, 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
Domestic food-crop production is inadequate to meet local consumption
and 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
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
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
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.
U.S.-SAO TOMEAN RELATIONS
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 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--Joseph C. Wilson, IV
Deputy Chief of Mission--Michael Meigs
Economic/Commercial Officer--Peter Harding
Consular Officer--Gregory Thome
Public Affairs Officer--Judith Mudd Kaula
The US Embassy in Gabon is located on the Boulevard de la Mer, B.P.
4000, Libreville, Gabon (Tel: 241-743-492; Fax: 241-745-507).
Customs: Visas should be obtained in advance from a Sao Tomean Embassy.
Health requirements: Proof of Yellow Fever and Cholera vaccinations are
Climate and clothing: Lightweight, washable clothing is recommended year
round. At higher altitudes in the interior, evenings can be cool enough
Health: Tapwater is not potable; drinking water should be boiled. Avoid
raw vegetables and undercooked meats. Malaria prophylaxis should be
taken, starting 3 weeks before arrival in the tropics. Hospital
facilities, even for common ailments, are extremely limited and not
consistent with American standards for hygiene.
Telecommunications: Telephone and telegraph link the islands with Europe
and, more recently, with the African mainland at Gabon, although in the
latter case connections are often difficult. A radio network also
connects the Sao Tomean Government with its representative in
Libreville. Sao Tome is four standard time zones ahead of eastern
Transportation: Air Sao Tome and Principe provides regular air service
to Libreville four times per week and to Principe twice weekly. The
Angolan national carrier, TAAG, runs a weekly round trip from Luanda,
and TAP Air Portugal runs a weekly flight from Lisbon that also serves
Abidjan. Boat transportation between the islands and to the African
mainland is limited and unpredictable.
National holidays: Businesses may be closed on the following official
Martyrs' Day February 4
Independence/National Day July 12
Armed Forces Day First week in September (varies)
Farmers' Day September 30
These titles are provided as a general indication of material published
on this country. The Department of State does not endorse unofficial
Abshire, David, and Michael A. Samuels, eds. Portuguese Africa: A
Handbook. New York: Praeger, 1969.
Africa Contemporary Documents: Annual Surveys and Documents. Vols. 1-6.
New York: Africana Publishing Co., 1968-74.
Africa South of the Sahara. London: Europa Publications, Ltd., 1982
Carreira, Antonio. The People of the Cape Verde Islands: Exploitation
and Emigration. Hamden: Archon, 1982.
Chilcote, Ronald H. Emerging Nationalism in Portuguese Africa:
Documents. Palo Alto: Stanford University, Hoover Institution Press,
Gibson, Richard. African Liberation Movements. New York: Oxford
University Press, 1962.
Hodges, Tony and Hewitt, Malyn. Sao Tome And Principe: From Plantation
Colony To Microstate. Boulder: Westview Press, 1988.
Moser, Gerald M. "African Literature in the Portuguese Language."
Journal of General Education. Vol. 13, No. 4, Jan. 1962.
Quarterly Economic Review of Angola, Guinea-Bissau, Cape Verde, Sao Tome
and Principe. London: Economist Intelligence Unit.
For information on economic trends, commercial development, production,
trade regulations, and tariff rates, contact the International Trade
Administration; U.S. Department of Commerce (Washington, DC, 20230); or
any Commerce Department district office.
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