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Sao Tome Hoping for Oil Benefits


In the tiny West African nation, Sao Tome and Principe, the president and lawmakers are leading efforts to ensure that the possible oil bonanza will benefit the many, rather than the few. In spite of their efforts the majority of the islands' mostly impoverished population remains unconvinced. They believe that, like in nearby Nigeria, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon and Angola, where millions of barrels of oil are produced every day, the poor will stay poor.

A favorite occupation on the main island Sao Tome seems to be sitting at the edge of the Gulf of Guinea as waves crash and spray onto colonial-styled walls. There are just a few idle and rusty boats to look at, and the occasional jet ski. But more than 100 meters below the surface of Sao Tome's waters, experts say there could be billions of barrels of oil.

In a VOA interview, President Fradique de Menezes said there is both fascination about this potential, and misunderstanding.

"If you ask people, what about oil, they say something about Nigeria or something about Fradique," the president noted. "Fradique is my first name the people know. They think that this is something which belongs to the president or something like that. I say this is for the standard Sao Tomean."

Money from a $123 million signature bonus is expected, early next year, as part of rights to exploit Block One in a joint development zone held 60 percent by Nigeria, 40 percent by Sao Tome and Principe.

American oil giants ExxonMobil and ChevronTexaco are expected to be awarded the prime acreage of this small block, close to Nigerian waters.

The process for other blocks in the joint zone has gone slowly, according to joint development authority liaison officer Olegario Tiny.

"We awarded only one block because we had in this block very good, very sustainable companies in terms of financial and technical capability," he explained. "Maybe soon we will try to launch another licensing round to have more companies in soon."

Even though oil pumping of block one probably will not start before the end of the decade, lawmakers are already putting the finishing touches on a transparency law on managing oil revenue.

The government has invited experts from New York-based Columbia University to help with a grassroots campaign, the National Forum, asking communities for their input on shaping oil revenue spending.

It has also just created a National Commission of Oil to make sure top government officials all work towards maximizing oil revenues.

Foreign Minister Oviedo Pequeno is one member.

"We don't have too many experience with oil in Sao Tome. We have to rely mostly on expertise from outside of the country," he said. "So, if you have a national commission on oil, this particular body is to educate people -- especially the members -- what is the business of oil about and how to take a very good decision and we trying our best to do whatever we can to make things look clear, very transparent and move on."

Government officials stress they are going slowly, specifically to make sure profits will benefit its entire 150,000 or so population. None of the blocks in waters where Sao Tome has sole ownership are even being considered yet.

Even so, former Prime Minister Guilherme Posser fears the small elite political class may not be ready to resist corruption.

"They are feeling already the smell of the oil. I think that oil will transform completely the comportment of the political class because the interference of the outside interests it will be more and if you are not internally prepared to be strong against these external interests we can serve not the national interests but the foreign interest," he said.

A main area for doubters of the government plan is the biggest market in Sao Tome.

Irondina Borges, who sells used clothes to feed her four children, says oil will be a big problem for a small country. She says she believes it will create conflict between politicians, not prosperity for people.

At a nearby shop, Fatima Sambaolo washes clothes, making about $20 a month.

She says all politicians are corrupt and not interested in poor people, like her. She says it is almost impossible for her to feed her three children, but that no one of importance cares.

Grasping on this anger, former mercenary Arlesio Costa staged a one-week coup, last year, quickly enlisting the support of the entire armed forces - about 300 soldiers - while the president was away.

He relinquished power after the government promised it would alleviate poverty.

"They must change their attitude because we cannot live in a country. Next year, it will be 30 years after independence, and we have nothing," he said. "We have a small amount of people that is rich and 99 percent of the people in Sao Tome and Principe live in poverty. We are against that. That's why we made that action just to tell the world we are not happy the people of Sao Tome are suffering. They must do something about it."

President Menezes says he understands these concerns. He says he hopes to develop the economy with oil revenues, but that people must also work for what they get.

"Oil money, we cannot spend this oil money like to each citizen of this country to come to an office to take his check for nothing," the president said. "That's the reason we must continue talking with the people, telling them the money will be for education, for health, for infrastructure and so and so on, creating jobs. What we must do is to create jobs, to create conditions for people to have a better job and a better salary."

He says most people are impoverished because of decades of failed centralized government policies, ineffective agricultural programs and dependence on foreign aid.

He says with oil money, Sao Tome could become a commercial hub and a fiscal paradise, with the biggest port in the Gulf of Guinea. Among the possibilities he sees are a floating supermarket, golf courses, and thriving eco-tourism.

Across from the presidential palace, Catholic churchgoers pray fervently at night, perhaps hoping oil will be a blessing, rather than a curse, as it has been for most Africans, so far.

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