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Sao Tome Sparks American Military Interest

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The tiny West African islands of Sao Tome and Principe are interesting to the United States government not only for their oil potential, but also for strategic positioning in the Gulf of Guinea. This has led to growing cooperation between Sao Tome's government and the U.S military, as well as discussions over a possible presence of U.S. forces.

In an interview with VOA, President Fradique de Menezes says he approached the U.S. government three years ago with the idea of developing economic and security ties, and he says Washington was immediately receptive.

"We would like to have this very close relationship with Americans," he said. "Of course, we talk about military [protection], and why because myself at a certain moment, due to the expectations created around this oil business and due to our weakness, this is a very small islands state, like you say tiny island state, it's better to have good friends who really can care about us, and this is the response I had very positively from Washington."

Since then, Sao Tome has received many American visitors, including senators and the deputy commander of the U.S European Command, General Charles Wald, who said the islands could become another Diego Garcia. That's a coral island in the middle of the Indian Ocean that serves as a United States air-naval base.

Other U.S officials, especially at the Department of Defense, have downplayed General Wald's comment, saying the war in Iraq is the priority, and that there would be no budget for any such project right now.

But U.S. officials say Sao Tome could become a so-called lillypad, a forward operating base with several hundred troops, not only to safeguard American interests in the islands' possible oil fields, but across West Africa.

President de Menezes is himself receptive to the idea.

"This could be a place and can be a place that you can choose to be a suitable place to do something to be a central point, a place [from] where you can go to the continent or to assure yourself to protect your investments," he explained. "Because why? It's the position of the island in the Gulf of Guinea; this is a very suitable place to have any support, any technical support to any kind of operation in defense of the economic interests in the Gulf of Guinea."

Recent estimates indicate the Gulf of Guinea could soon account for up to a quarter of U.S. oil imports.

U.S officials also say because Sao Tome and Principe is heavily Catholic there would be no anti-American sentiment rooted in Islamic militancy here. Most residents on the islands interviewed for this report said they would welcome a strong partnership with a country other than Portugal, the former colonial power.

But former Prime Minister Guilherme Posser says there should be more openness about projects in military cooperation. He says it shouldn't be just Sao Tome's president and a few American officials who are aware of what exactly is being planned.

"The problem is we try to make this thing as a taboo, and I think that this thing must be an object of a national debate," he said. "This is not only the problem of only one organ of sovereignty. This must be a question that must be discussed, must be debated by all the nation."

Mr. Posser suggests that if Americans do decide to establish some sort of base, the idea should be submitted to a national referendum.

Former mercenary Arlesio Costa, who led a brief and bloodless military coup last year, says the United States and other countries should focus first on helping Sao Tome's armed forces. The coup ended with promises of better governance and amnesty for all the coup participants, but Mr. Costa warns it could happen again.

"We cannot be hostage of our own forces," he said. "Let's go down and try to finalize this to see what is the problem, why they are not happy. They are not happy. If you talk about army, they don't have medical assistance, sometimes they don't have water, the barracks are not in the proper condition for living in. And the government, we say every day, they must concentrate on the army and know what are their problems, to finalize this once and for all."

The entire military consists of about 300 soldiers. Most look barely 18. Only one armored vehicle works.

Last year, U.S. officials prepared a report on how to restructure Sao Tome's army, but it has yet to be implemented. The U.S. government is also giving one boat as the starting point for a Coast Guard.

In the meantime, the president has been building up a menacing-looking presidential guard. It is present both at the presidential palace and at his heavily protected estate up in the hills of the main island of Sao Tome.

It seems that for now, only the president has adequate security, while a new oil era, fraught with new realities and dangers, looms ahead for the rest of the population.
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