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Living His Own Legacy: São Tomé & Príncipe’s Democratising Dictator

In 1975, Pinto da Costa led São Tomé & Príncipe to independence, ruled as a dictator for 15 years, then lost elections and stepped down. In 2011, he returned as president.
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Meet Manuel: Pinto da Costa on a visit to the US in 1986 (left) and in Equatorial Guinea in 2013 (right). Photographs by US govt and Roberto Stuckert Filho/PR.

When 75-year-old Manuel Pinto da Costa was democratically elected president in 2011, many older Santoméans must have thought they were suffering from an acute case of dictatorial déjà vu. After all, this was the man who had led the tiny island nation of São Tomé and Príncipe (STP) with an iron fist for 15 years, haphazardly negotiating its way through independence and the subsequent collapse of its Soviet benefactors.

With the fall of the Soviet Union had come the fall of Pinto da Costa – forced in 1991, after a decade and a half of authoritarian rule, to concede defeat in STP's first ever multi-party elections. After two more electoral defeats (in 1996 and 2001), Santoméans must have believed their democratising dictator was off the scene for good. Yet 20 years after his unceremonious ousting, here he was again in 2011 – back at the Santoméan helm.

Of course, with 64% of STP’s population under 25, many Santoméans' only experience of Pinto da Costa is in his role as a silver-haired elder statesman. And despite mixed memories of Pinto da Costa's rule amongst those old enough to have lived under it the first time round, many consider the venerable independence leader just the sort of forceful character needed to offer stability to STP’s democratic system – since 1990, the office of prime minister has passed hands nearly 20 times.

Portugal’s imperial implosion

Some decolonisation processes are more graceful than others – and those of the Portuguese colonies were amongst the most protracted and destructive experienced on the African continent. However, tiny São Tomé and Príncipe was fortunate enough not to suffer the same bloody independence struggles as its Lusophone counterparts Angola and Mozambique. This is a good example of how, throughout its history, STP’s strategic insignificance has been as much a blessing as a curse.

Straddling the equator, the two islands of São Tomé and Príncipe sit largely neglected by its bigger African neighbours. The nation has a landmass of a mere 1,000 square km, and even today the population only just reaches past 180,000. Without decent infrastructure (such as deepwater ports), STP’s economy has traditionally been entirely focused around cocoa production. Recent oil discoveries and a drive to boost tourism (hopefully benefitting from attempts to eradicate malaria) may see the economy of this tropical paradise diversify in the future. Yet sheer international disinterest remains as much of a development hurdle for the government of Pinto da Costa the elected president as it had been for the regime of Pinto da Costa the dictator.

The colonial era really demonstrated STP’s isolation. Particularly after World War I, the situation on the equatorial islands became dire. With the islands’ isolated geography and cocoa production falling, the colonial plantation economy (known as the roças system) slumped. But this did not prevent the continuation of the system’s notorious brutality, perpetrated by officials in the pay of absentee landlords and corporations. The darkest day of STP’s colonial experience came on 3 February, 1953, when over 1,000 forros (descendants of freed slaves) were shot by colonial troops for refusing to work. The ‘Batepá massacre’ came to represent the start of the national liberation movement in STP – its 60th anniversary was commemorated earlier this year.

Unlike other Portuguese colonies, the Santoméans had no real hope of standing up to even a relatively meagre colonial power such as Portugal. However, a national resistance movement did emerge. By 1960, they had formed the Comitê pela Libertação de São Tomé e Príncipe, which adopted the current form Movimento de Libertação de São Tomé e Príncipe (MLSTP) in 1972. Vulnerable in STP, the group based themselves in nearby Gabon which gained independence from France in 1960. Among the rebels' number was a youthful Santoméan educated in East Germany who went by the name Manuel Pinto da Costa.

Consisting of a handful of left-leaning intellectuals, the MLSTP was never in a position to attempt a Fidel Castro-style guerrilla island war against the Portuguese. However, events were soon to overtake their colonial oppressors when, in 1974, a military coup overthrew the authoritarian regime in Portugal.

Cold War on the equator

Keen to dismantle their cumbersome empire, the new Portuguese government met with the MLSTP in Algiers and agreed to Santoméan sovereignty – ushering in a brief period of provisional government. On 12 July, 1975, STP’s first post-independence elections saw the MLSTP win all 16 seats and established Manuel Pinto da Costa as the fledgling Democratic Republic of São Tomé and Príncipe’s first head-of-state. A new constitution (promulgated in November) quickly outlawed opposition parties and entrenched the power of the President and Central Committee, leaving new prime minister Miguel Trovoada impotent.

Then, as now, Pinto da Costa’s first foreign policy imperative was to establish a clear distinction from STP’s colonial past. As with so much of newly independent Lusophone Africa in the 1970s, this meant alignment with 'communist' states. Economic ties to the People’s Republic of China and East Germany remained strong throughout the 1970s and 1980s, while Cuba and the USSR both provided military advisors for Pinto da Costa’s regime. Gabon, the MLSTP’s neighbour and erstwhile protector, became concerned by these developments and relations rapidly deteriorated.

Pinto da Costa’s domestic policy also followed a state socialist path – no doubt influenced by his East German education. Within four months of independence, the majority of the cocoa plantations had been nationalised. Legislation was also introduced to limit land ownership to 100 hectares, and people’s militias were set up in villages and workplaces.

Meanwhile, rifts within the MLSTP were quick to emerge between Pinto da Costa and those favouring more moderate socialism. The president’s propensity for authoritarian rule came to the fore. In 1978, he brought Angolan soldiers to the islands for protection after an alleged coup attempt. The following year, Trovoada was dismissed as prime minister and detained in connection with the failed coup. In 1981, he was permitted to go into exile. Further incidences of authoritarianism occurred throughout the 1980s including the suppression of food riots in Príncipe, and the respective exile and dismissal of a further two ministers.

But STP was soon swept up in the tide of global politics yet again. As Warsaw pact governments began to collapse (with fateful consequences for the Santoméan economy) Pinto da Costa shrewdly declared his nation’s membership of the Non-Aligned Movement. However, popular dissatisfaction continued to grow and, in 1989, the MLSTP (now rebranded as the MLSTP-PCD) made the bold decision to transform STP into a multi-party democracy. Among other measures, the new constitution of 1990 legalised political parties and abolished the death penalty.

Pinto da Costa probably knew he had signed his own political death warrant. The newly-formed opposition swept to victory in parliamentary elections before supporting Miguel Trovoada’s election to the presidency as an independent. With the writing on the wall and after 15 years at the helm, Pinto da Costa – unlike some of his counterparts on the mainland who have tried to retain power at all costs – stepped aside graciously. Indeed, today Pinto da Costa points to his smooth removal from power as “a good sign that the elections were open and transparent”.

Re-election reflections

Pinto da Costa has been quick to put the failings of STP’s first 15 years of independence into context. “We took our land from the colonial power, but liberating the land was not enough”, he has explained previously. “We had to liberate the people as well.” Indeed, the islands had a number of fundamental obstacles to overcome. As the Portuguese abandoned their crumbling cocoa-based colony, the Santoméans found themselves with a dearth of skilled workers: as many as 90% were illiterate, while just one doctor served all 100,000 islanders. Pinto da Costa has highlighted the rise in literacy – from around 10% to 77.2% by 1985, he claims – as a key success of his first regime, and an important foundation for STP’s future.

He has also placed the blame for STP’s slow early development squarely with the West. “The West’s problem was that in the bipolar world in which we were living at that time, the approach was very simplistic: you are either with me or against me. If you are with the Soviets, you are a communist, if you are with the Chinese, you are a communist. They never tried to understand our internal problems.” He thus paints STP as a victim of intractable Cold War diplomacy.

However, Pinto da Costa’s republic was never truly isolated. By 1977, STP had already joined the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the US accredited its first ambassador (plus limited military aid) to the country in 1985 – as Soviet power was just beginning to unravel. Today, though still nowhere near the top of anyone’s foreign policy agenda, Santoméan relations with the US are solid. Indeed, the US Department of State describes relations with STP as “excellent”, adding that “the two countries share a commitment to democracy and good governance”.

Thought we’d lost ya, Pinto da Costa...

Much has happened in STP since Pinto da Costa’s Cold War career – and yet not enough. A 2003 constitution assured the separation of political powers between president, prime minister and national assembly, and the island of Príncipe has gained autonomy. But the islands remain remarkably poor. Warnings over dependency on the cocoa economy persist, though are now intertwined with the concerns for the difficulties of managing oil discoveries off the Santoméan coast. And while Soviet radar systems have been removed, they have been replaced by American ones. Pinto da Costa claims his decision to democratise in 1989 was because he “wanted to achieve greater involvement of the population in political, economic and social life, creating better living conditions for them”. He laments that these conditions have not yet been achieved.

But others disregard the image the president has cultivated around himself of a pioneering democrat. Albertino Francisco and Nujoma Agostinho in Exorcising Devils from the Throne, their book about post-independence STP, claim it was “actually the people’s reaction against [his] despotism and the perpetuation of the plantation economy, as well as the centralisation of power which turned the country into a bankrupt state, together with...the fall of the Berlin Wall, that brought democracy to the country”.

But today, showing little sign of fatigue, the 75-year-old former dictator has assured his critics, “I still have the physical and intellectual strength to contribute to the development of the country, to improve people’s living conditions, and to reduce poverty”. Whether this will result in a return to the authoritarian politics of the Cold War is yet to be seen. But one thing is certain: the man who moulded his country through force of personality for 15 years looks set to build further on his already substantial legacy.

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