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Expert: Anticipated Oil Earnings Was Main Cause of  Sao Tome Coup, Peaceful Ending - 2003-07-24

The president of Sao Tome and Principe has resumed his position as head of state, one week after being ousted in a bloodless coup. The president signed an agreement with the coup leaders on Wednesday, which restores constitutional rule in return for amnesty for the rebels.

The international community loudly condemned the coup in Sao Tome, but in Sao Tome itself day-to-day activities were relatively undisturbed. Shops and businesses were open as usual only hours after the coup last Wednesday, and there were no reported injuries or casualties in the takeover.

Although the rebel soldiers detained government ministers, all were released early on in the negotiations and there were no reports of ill treatment. When the prime minister collapsed in the midst of the coup, the rebels took her to a hospital for medical treatment.

Shortly after the president returned on Wednesday, he met with the coup leader to seal their agreement.

According to Africa expert Alex Vines, of the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London, the peaceful resolution of the coup in Sao Tome is very much in the tradition of the country's manner of dealing with such tension.

"Sao Tome has traditionally dealt with disputes peacefully anyhow," he said. "There was a coup in the mid-1990s that was similarly resolved as this current one - peacefully."

In addition, Mr. Vines points out that a delegation of mediators is lauding the amicable end to the coup as a triumph for regional politics. An international delegation of African, Portuguese and U.S. representatives traveled to the region after the coup to facilitate talks between the ousted president and the coup leader.

Mr. Vines says the main motivation for the coup was Sao Tome's eagerly anticipated oil earnings.

"The expectancy of oil is a very important factor here," he pointed out. "Sao Tome is a tremendously poor country, but everybody is dreaming of future wealth if oil is found and that's the key here. There's been no oil found in Sao Tome yet, it's all speculative, based on seismic and talking up. But we are coming up to bidding round for nine off-shore blocks from Sao Tome and each bloc is likely to carry a $30 million bonus payment. That's a lot of money for a poor country like Sao Tome."

Mr. Vines points out that a memorandum was written into the accord that ended the coup, which will create an oil law. The goal is to create greater transparency in the use of any oil revenues bringing members of the international community into a guarantee committee that will oversee future oil deals.

The coup leader, Major Fernando Pereira, has maintained that his motivation was to highlight poverty in Sao Tome and the corruption in government.

Sao Tome and Principe is a tiny island state of 140,000 people, located in the Gulf of Guinea. It is a former Portuguese colony and, until the recent search for oil, the economy was dependent on foreign aid money and the falling revenues from its cocoa exports.