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Sao Tome Opens Inquiry Into Presidential Corruption


Sao Tome's president and administration have been hit recently by a succession of corruption allegations. Now, an inquiry is being opened into the alleged misuse of aid money, but supporters of the president say it is politically motivated.

The investigation opened by Sao Tome and Principe Prime Minister Maria Do Carmo Silveira is looking into how about $500,000 donated by Morocco was handled and spent.

At the center of the inquiry are allegations that Foreign Minister Oviedo Pequeno, considered a close ally of President Fradique de Menezes, diverted the money into foreign accounts without the knowledge of the prime minister and the government. Pequeno has denied wrongdoing, saying the money was a one-time direct-aid payment to the presidency. He says the accusations against him are politically motivated.

It is just the latest scandal facing the administration of President de Menezes, as legislative elections in March approach and presidential polls loom later this year.

An analyst with the London-based research firm Global Insight, Chris Melville, says Mr. Menezes' latest problems will likely hurt his chances of winning a second five-year term in September. "The recurrence of those kinds of allegations could have a significant impact on his presidential election campaign later this year," said Melville. "It doesn't seem likely that it will bring down his presidency at the present time, not least because none of the allegations have yet been proven."

Melville says the current inquiry appears to be focusing primarily on the foreign minister. But even if Mr. de Menezes were implicated directly, he says, within the country's context of pervasive high-level corruption, the official inquiry will likely lack the power to prosecute the president. "Whether or not these actually result in any judicial penalties against any particular individual is far from clear," added Melville. "But in terms of the judicial suppression of corruption within the political system, that seems a very unlikely scenario."

A member of the ruling party in parliament, which opposes Mr. de Menezes, Guillherme da Costa says such a highly publicized scandal is damaging to the nation's international image. He says it also hurts Sao Tome's and Principe's chances to qualify for debt relief with lending institutions. "My people make a lot of effort with the IMF and World Bank to ask for debt relief," said da Costa, "and one thing that is the rule for achieving debt relief is not to have fund hiding, because they hate this."

The aid-dependent country has begun benefiting from payments on oil exploration contracts, even though it has yet to produce a barrel of oil. Another scandal involving the distribution of off-shore licenses is currently under investigation.

Four governments have fallen in the past five years amid corruption allegations.