Coup Crisis Ends in Oil-Rich African Nation

By Stephen Mbogo | July 7, 2008 | 8:13 PM EDT

Nairobi, Kenya ( - The president of Sao Tome and Principe flew home to the small nation off West Africa Wednesday after international mediators negotiated an end to a week-long crisis triggered by a bloodless military coup.

President Fradique de Menezes, who was in Nigeria when the takeover was launched last Wednesday, returned after signing an agreement in another West African nation, Gabon.

In Sao Tome, the coup leaders signed the same agreement, undertaking to restore democratic rule to the twin-island nation, which is located in the oil-rich Gulf of Guinea.

Army commander Major Fernando Pereira, who led the coup, accused the government of corruption and incompetence. Since Menezes took office in Sept. 2001 for a five-year term, he has fired four prime ministers.

The deal negotiated in Gabon grants amnesty to the coup leaders and will reportedly pave the way for new elections.

In what may turn out to be a precedent in settling regional crises, the Africa Union (AU) has played an important role in the mediation.

The AU and its predecessor, the Organization of Africa Unity (OAU), have traditionally taken a "wait and see" approach to such crises - one of the reasons the OAU came to be seen as a largely ineffective talkshop.

In a departure from that stance, the AU this time immediately initiated negotiations with the coup plotters to restore Menezes' government.

At the same time, it strongly condemned the takeover, as did the U.S. and former colonial power Portugal.

International mediators, including officials from African nations, Portuguese-speaking countries and the U.S., negotiated an end to the dispute.

The AU said earlier that a successful settlement of the situation would indicate its "resolve and determination to end military takeovers and civil wars in Africa."

Despite the coup leaders' claims of corruption, some analysts suspect the coup may in fact have been fueled by expectations of an oil boom there later next year, when oil exploration concessions are due to be signed.

It lies in an area of increasingly strategic importance.

Sao Tome and Principe, which shares a maritime border with OPEC member Nigeria, hopes to become an oil exporter by 2007, and the U.S. National Intelligence Council has projected that U.S. oil supplies from the Gulf of Guinea will surge to 25 percent by 2015.

The Institute for Advanced Strategic and Political Studies, an Israel-based think tank, has argued in favor of the creation of a U.S. Gulf of Guinea Command, with Sao Tome and Principe serving as the base.

Indeed, Menezes himself announced last August that he had reached an agreement with the U.S. to set up a naval base there, although the U.S. played down the reports.

On a visit there two months later, Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Walther Kansteiner confirmed that the U.S. was looking to provide Sao Tome and Principe with patrol boats to improve its maritime and customs capability, and America would also be "expanding cooperation in other areas."

In Nigeria this week, Menezes referred again to the subject, saying it was necessary to construct a naval base in his country.

If such a move is planned, it is likely to face some political opposition locally and regionally.

Regional political analyst Dr. Gerrison Ikiara said it would raise concerns that democracy may be "overlooked" in some countries in return for support toward the establishment of a U.S. military base in the region.

According to the CIA World Factbook , the U.S. does not have an embassy in Sao Tome and Principe, but the ambassador to nearby Gabon is accredited to the islands on a non-resident basis and makes periodic visits.

Sao Tome and Principe has a population of 170,000 and a per-capita income of $280.

( Pacific Rim Bureau Chief Patrick Goodenough contributed to this report.)

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