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  • Writer's pictureWaldemar Farmhouse

Examining the São Tomé and Príncipe Coup attempt

The current administration in São Tomé and Príncipe earned re-election in September 2022, but just two months later, it would be tested with an incident that continues to challenge the country’s governance and rule of law. On 25 November 2022, a group of seven individuals were arrested after reportedly attempting to seize control of the army. What seemed to be another attempted coup d’etat in the country’s history of such incidents, the true intentions of the group have been surrounded by controversy because six of the individuals, including the main suspect, were tortured and killed after being taken into custody by the Santomean army. The government took action to close this incident with the dismissal of the Chief of the Army and other soldiers who were involved in the mistreatment and eventual death of the arrested individuals, but the situation is not yet over.

 

What has taken place in São Tomé and Príncipe offers a useful examination into the role of the country’s governance, rule of law, and third parties in settling domestic crisis, mitigating the risk of escalation, and ensuring a foundation for long-term peace and stability. While the government continues to work through the aftermath of this most recent coup attempt, there are already notable issues and insights from this incident.

 

Background on São Tomé and Príncipe

The Democratic Republic of São Tomé and Príncipe is a young democracy with a history of internal power struggles. An island nation situated off the coast of central Africa, São Tomé and Príncipe was a Portuguese colony until gaining its independence in 1975. It struggled with free and open governance, eventually instituting democratic reforms in the late 1980s. The country held its first free elections in 1991, but frequent internal wrangling between the various political parties precipitated repeated changes in leadership and five failed, non-violent coup attempts in 1995, 1998, 2003, 2009, and 2022.

 

The current prime minister is Patrice Trovoada, who held the role from February 2008 to June 2008, from August 2010 to December 2012, and again from November 2014 to December 2018. He is a dynastic Santomean leader as his father, Miguel Trovoada, served as president from 1991 to 2001. His rule, although seemingly sure handed, has led to some controversy over the methods for ensuring his series of election victories over time.

 

Meanwhile, the Armed Forces of São Tomé and Príncipe are a relatively small group. Originally accommodating an end strength of about 600 soldiers, the government reduced its numbers following previous coup attempts. Its current end strength is around 300 today to serve a population of about 200,000.


Map of São Tomé and Príncipe


Investigating the November 2022 coup attempt

When the coup attempt happened in November 2022, it first appeared as though it might have been like the four previous attempts. However, many questions continue to linger owing to the inability to interrogate the principal suspects who were killed in custody. Who was the real mastermind behind the coup? What were their main motives, and why engage the army at that time?

 

After nearly a year of waiting, the questions should have been answered with the trial conducted by the Santomean tribunal. But the early stages of this proceeding focused less on the incident than with the reactions of the army, including the death of the six suspects. Any accusation of wrongdoing against the army prompted supporters to attend the trial and express that their lives were in danger. They claimed that this fear was due to the fact most army leaders live with their families close to the base where the coup attempt occurred.

 

Recognizing potential issues in the conduct of the police investigation in São Tomé and Príncipe, the Santomean government requested third party assistance from Portugal, both in terms of investigation and legal assistance. They also requested that Portugal send a medical examiner to confirm the cause of death of the suspects. The Portuguese government answered the call, dispatching a lead investigator by the name of Joao Pedro Varandas. Varandas and his team arrived in São Tomé and Príncipe on 27 November, soon finding at least one part of their investigation to be straightforward.

 

The Portuguese medical examiner quickly discovered that the suspects were killed by means of torture. In addition to the autopsies, videos of the bodies and the supposed investigation done by the army on the suspects were posted on the internet, clearly illustrating how the suspects were tortured. Based on the autopsy reports and the clear video evidence, the investigation pointed to foul play by Santomean uniformed service members who then faced criminal charges for their conduct following the coup.

 

However, this is not the only question that needed an answer as there were still the issues of why the coup happened and who did it? Vargas offered his testimony in October 2023 during the corresponding trial on the coup attempt. The Portuguese investigator identified that the individuals killed in custody—particularly the leader of the group, Arlécio Costa—were behind the attempt.


The Santomean Presidential Palace (photo via Wikimedia commons)


This was not Costa’s first attempt to oust the current government, as he also attempted a coup d’etat in 2003. At the time, Costa was a member of a unit called “The Buffaloes,” a paramilitary group originally formed and facilitated by the Frente Nacional de Libertação de Angola (“National Liberation Front of Angola,” or FNLA). They had lost in a conflict against the Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola (“People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola,” or MPLA) and found refuge in South Africa, where the group was adopted into the country’s Defence Force as the 32 Battalion. In South Africa, the Buffaloes recruited Santomean soldiers, who eventually returned to São Tomé and Príncipe to attempt their first coup in 2003 under the pretence of wanting to end poverty in the country.

 

That fortunately ended up being a bloodless coup attempt. The president of São Tomé and Príncipe was on an official visit to Nigeria and out of the country. After negotiations with the president and government of São Tomé and Príncipe, the group stood down and accepted an agreement to cease the conflict. One of the conditions was for the group to receive a large parcel of land in the north of São Tomé Island. They even created a project to turn that area into a resort that never actualized, but the agreement was that this land could not be taken from them (presumably for as long they are alive). According to Varandas’s testimony, Costa grew discontent with the state because the previous government in power had seized the land from him and the people responsible for the 2003 coup d’etat.

 

Varandas also mentioned the involvement of Delfim Neves (ex-President of the Legislative Assembly) as the main antagonist for Costa. Neves leveraged political influence to convince the previous government to seize the land from Costa, not for the benefit of the state, but for himself. According to Varandas, Neves secured the land, created a shell company, and used it to sell the land to a German investor. This could be investigated in the future because there is a name for the company who managed the land and name of the investor who bought the land. The Santomean government was not originally aware of these circumstances, going so far as to arrest Neves under suspicion that he too was involved in the coup but later releasing him.

 

This investigation offers a somewhat clear picture of what might have happened. Presumably, Costa was disgruntled over the loss of the land and frustrated with the government that enabled its seizure. With little to lose, the military-trained Costa decided he did not have anything to lose by attempting to take back what was his by force. It was a clear narrative identified with the assistance of third party investigators.


Unanswered questions and lingering challenges

While that seems to be a clear explanation of the coup attempt, it is still difficult to corroborate given the torture and killing of all but one of the suspects. How did the group think it could be successful again if they failed to oust the government in 2003? Were they simply seeking bargaining power to reclaim lost land? Were there ulterior motives behind those who handled their treatment while in custody?

 

Perhaps this might have been an open-and-shut case, but the actions of the army officials who tortured and killed the suspects highlighted more problems than just the coup attempt. This incident demonstrated the shortcomings of the Santomean government in responding to this sort of situation. While it had the foresight to invite third party investigators, it does not resolve the use of excessive force against prisoners, and it is beyond its remit to expose any corruption related to the land grab that may have triggered Costa’s second coup attempt. Further complicating matters is that the Santomean soldiers who killed the coup perpetrators in custody will now be tried by a military tribunal rather than a criminal court, raising questions of proper application of the law.

 

Although the incident took place over a year ago, the saga continues. The government of São Tomé and Príncipe will likely seek to close the book on this as soon as possible now. However, an inability to identify the root sources of conflict and tension that contributed to the coup and the treatment of the perpetrators in custody put the country on a shaky foundation going forward. There have already been five coup attempts since the country’s first democratic elections in 1991; failure to rectify the issues illustrated in this most recent attempt could contribute to others down the line.

 

 

Waldemar Farmhouse is an expert on issues related to Portuguese-speaking countries and Africa-Asia relations. He earned his master’s degree in International Relations from the International University of Japan. Waldemar was born in Angola, grew up in São Tomé and Príncipe, and currently resides in the United Kingdom where he continues his research on foreign policy and government.


Cable No 41_Examining the Sao Tome and Principe coup attempt
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